This article originally appeared in Issue 02 of Boston Art Review.
Featured image of Node Hissed by artist Freedom Baird, courtesy of Studios Without Walls.
Ripe with strip mall mainstays like T.J. Maxx and Michaels, the suburban landscape of Newton Upper Falls seems like an unintuitive place for art to live. For Studios Without Walls’ summer exhibition “Beyond Boundaries,” this element of surprise is part of the point. Hosted along the Newton Upper Falls Greenway trail, the exhibition features art that transcends the myriad of social, political, and cultural borders ingrained in American life by 14 of Studios’ artists. The works range in medium, concept, and aesthetic, from the vibrant painted panels in Gail Jerauld Bos’s Tree Dreams to the ominous sculpture and string on display in Freedom Baird’s Node Hissed. The show was met with immense support from the town’s residents, with over 500 visitors at its opening in June and a few community members even helping complete some works as they discovered the artists at work. This symbiotic relationship between “Beyond Boundaries” and its viewers typifies Studios Without Walls’ mission since its establishment in 1997: to not only bring art out of isolated studios and to the people, but also to transform these local green spaces into living, breathing, and most importantly, free art spaces.
Studios Without Walls has been connecting artists and viewers with outdoor exhibitions for over 20 years thanks to its founder, Brookline-based potter, Bette Ann Libby. As an artist who sold work out of her home studio in the early 1990s, Libby “would maybe get 25 visitors to buy my work,” she lamented, “while [artists in artist housing] got 200 to 300 visitors in a day.” This dilemma—a dearth of both community in her practice and opportunities for feedback—vexed her until close friend and Allandale Farm owner John Lee provided a solution: joining a number of Jamaica Plain artists in exhibiting and selling work at his farm. Libby followed his advice to instant satisfaction. “I was so isolated as a potter, as an artist,” she recalled, “that getting out to do those shows was valuable social time for me.”
Struck by the joy of exhibiting work outdoors and the sense of community the shows gave her, Libby broached the idea for an Allandale Farm experience to artists from Brookline in conjunction with Brookline Open Studios, thus laying the groundwork for her establishment of Studios Without Walls in 1997. Every spring, the artist collective organizes a free show in a public green space containing work built to survive outdoors without the intention of sale. “Galleries and museums, by their very nature, have to commoditize the work they show,” says Freedom Baird, a Cambridge-based artist and Studios member. “Working in an outdoor public space, we skirt that particular type of pressure.”
Creating work meant for the outdoors is obviously not free, but that doesn’t bother Studios or its members. The collective’s primary mission is to bring art to the people at any cost, using public parks as a means of incorporating art into the daily lives of those who frequent them. Parks might not be perfect places—“there’s still a stream of money and influence that flows through these green spaces”, says Baird, “but their main emphasis is on serving the public, and making what’s there free to anyone who can get there.” Art museums and galleries can seem like daunting places to those who don’t have an inclination toward the arts, not to mention those who don’t have the wherewithal or income to afford to go to them. Studios dismantles these potential obstacles between viewers and art institutions by asserting new ideas of where and how art can exist. “When you go outside, there’s no way to be selective,” said Wendy Wolf, a Studios member and a curator of the Beyond Boundaries exhibition. “[With our exhibitions], you’re just walking to work, and suddenly there’s art.”
Studios Without Walls’ work in public places fundamentally alters how people relate to that space by allowing viewers to experience a place they may already know in an entirely new way. Although these exhibitions enable Studios’ artists to create and socialize like Libby intended, their true impact lies in the new relationships the community develops to both the art and the green spaces that host it. “Visitors [have] said things like: thank you for doing this, it’s so good for the park, and for the community,” said Baird. “And I told them how grateful I was for the opportunity to work there. That kind of conversation heals the soul.”