NORTH KINGSTOWN — The Mill at Shady Lea is a sanctuary where artists, protected from the daily hustle of selling work, can explore and experiment with the mystery of creativity.
This North Kingstown artists’ colony thrives in an old mill building found where a quiet tree-lined road ends just off busy Route 1. There are private workshops that keep away a daily parade of the public.
“It’s a very nice creative environment. It’s all very interesting — the tools, mediums and approaches people take,” said Bob Martone, who, with his wife, Valerie, toured Saturday the more than 40 studios in the mill on Shady Lea Road during one of three days annually it offers public tours.
“That’s what artists do — they find what’s interesting in the world and we get to appreciate it,” said Martone, a biologist, and North Kingstown resident. He was seeking that day his own muse of sorts by checking whether the mill could be an after-retirement studio for his painting hobby.
In the privacy of this 199-year-old mill — whose grand first days centered on making the wool used in blankets for Union soldiers in the Civil War — artists burrow in workshops.
For some, they can escape from judgment and criticism. Others pry loose from swirling chaos or blank minds. All are seeking creative inspiration. The public later sees this transformation in a cup, a painting, some jewelry or a refurbished 1800s clock.
“Here you have a haven,” said Trish Hurley, whose plein air paintings line her studio walls. Tools, paint and brushes lay on nearby tables.
“You close the door, listen to music and you are not being judged. You’re not going to have someone come in and say, “I don’t like that.’”
The same is true for Jan Hall-Stinson and Donna Thompson who make pottery.
For more than a decade, Thompson has found in the mill a workshop, a collaborative environment and privacy in which artists share their joys, disappointments and frustrations while struggling with creations.
“There’s a lot of synchronizing of energy,” said Thompson. Hurley agreed, saying “I like the diversity in the building. We all learn off each other.”
The life this mill infuses in creativity is hidden by its plain brick façade. It resembles many other mammoth empty and idle textile mills that have New England origins and thrived from the 1800s through mid-1900s.
Staples were this mill’s last major product until the mid-1980s when the manufacturing stopped. They are sprinkled still throughout its wooden floors. In its modern heyday, the staples were found in the well-known Speidel watch bands and various kinds of staplers used by other companies.
These wooden floors that line the hallways of the two-story building offer entry to spacious workshops artists rent. Painters, potters, photographers, weavers and fiber artists, jewelry designers, collagists and sculptors are among the tenants.
Each has something unique to offer.
For instance, walking into Claudia Flynn’s area it’s hard to miss the black-and-white x-ray of a lung firmly encased in a frame. There’s a sideways miniature imitation white skull in the frame, too.
Differing frames dress up various internal organ x-rays that otherwise once brought good and bad news in a drab doctor’s office or brightly lit hospital operating room.
This form of art is her latest calling, she said.
“When my father died, his secretary said she had his x-rays and he wanted his artist daughter to have them,” said Flynn, who has been at the mill for about 12 years. This has inspired her to collect other x-ray films from years ago and design their display in various frames.
In addition, she has a large nail-polish painting of a man against a maroon background with darting blue and white eyes accented by a touch of white on his lower lip and protruding nose, with the white instantly drawing attention to those features.
She had to wear a special breathing mask while brushing on the nail polish due to potentially harmful fumes.
The mill helps to give her a feeling of adventure with her art, she explained.
“To me, this is poetry in three-dimension. For poetry, you need space for reflection. It (the mill) is sort of like a church — how a church or a temple is. You get refreshed,” she said.
Susan Matthews has also been there for about 12 years. She does abstract and fanciful mixed-media sculpting.
“I like to work away from the house,” she said. The mill, although providing solitude for her work, brings the company of others exploring their inner individual spirit.
“You can hear the banging through the floor. You know they’re here,” she said.
In another area, Sophia Weaver was busy Saturday arranging colorful flowers for display at a wedding. She works for Michelle Jeanne Floral Design, one of several businesses using their rented spaces for their operations.
Richard Fyans, owner of Narragansett Clock Shop, has scores of old wooden clocks he tunes up and fixes in his studio. It has been his hobby and business for more than 30 years. The mill gives him a quiet place do his meticulous repairs.
Fyans and others have the mill’s late owner, Andy Reisert, to thank for supporting artists.
It began with Luke Randall, a fine art painter, one of the first two occupants in 1997 at the dilapidated mill that had been dormant for many years. The other was John Bolger, a glass blower.
“We got everyone excited about the place in the beginning, and especially important was the owner,” said Randall.
“He was a highly intelligent man who was kind and harkened from another era. He made it all happen with huge investments of both money and time,” he said.
Reisert’s daughter, Lynn Krim, who oversees the mill, said that the open house was sponsored in part by the North Kingstown Arts Council and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
Supporters in North Kingstown, including Eleanor Acton, a town arts council member and Town Council President Greg Mancini, said that mill and its artists help the arts flourish in their community.
That value cannot be underestimated as well as the mill’s role as an incubator for artisans, said several visitors on Saturday. Biologist Bob Martone understands the importance of that potential for artists to fulfill themselves or just find a muse in retirement as he plans.
His wife, Valerie, looked at the mill as they started to leave after their tour.
“This is a great place for Bob,” she said about her husband who creates two-dimensional visual paintings in charcoal and pastels. “It has the right mix of everything.”