NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — If unique gifts — perhaps one-of-a-kind — fill your holiday list, the artists and crafters at Shady Lea Mill could have the right ones.
Doors to 40 studios of artists line the old mill’s hallways. In this private sanctuary - open for public tours twice a year and afterwards by appointment with each artist — a variety of creations are on display whether jewelry, paintings, woven clothes, clocks or glass blown items.
On Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7 and 8, many artists will be in their studios for the December open house to meet admirers and interested buyers looking for custom and handcrafted works in the mill’s 22nd year of offering this holiday open house.
“It is something not to be missed,” said Lynn Krim, 80, whose father bought the 199-year-old Civil War-era mill that originally made wool used in blankets for Union soldiers. After its usefulness ended for producing staples, it was shuttered for a long time and then he offered rental space there for artists, she explained.
“People love to meet an artist and they think it’s wonderful if they can buy something and you’ve seen them working on and It’s from their hand. It makes it special,” she said.
Petri Kymlander, located in studio 114 agreed. His black gloved hands held a small torch pushing blue and white flame to heat gold on a special fire-proof holder amid hundreds of tools. His crowded workbench included an electronic microscope and customers’ sketches used to make bracelets or ear rings for special occasions.
“I don’t use any machinery or castings. Everything is a one-of-a-kind,” he explained, noting that he also will insert gem stones and semi-precious gem stones as requested in his gold, silver and platinum jewelry.
He has been at Shady Mill for nine years and making jewelry for more than three decades. Right around the corner, are both Donna Thompson in studio 109 and Richard Fyans in studio 113.
Fyans, a Narragansett resident, repairs clocks that generally are more than 150 years old. His Shady Lea Mill workshop, called Narragansett Clock Shop, consists of two small rooms. Walls are lined with old wooden mahogany, cherry and maple clocks. Steeple, beehive, gingerbread, miniature steeple, French mantle and column and splat are there, too.
He said he enjoys this precision work and the gift of knowledge he brings to restoring time pieces passed down through a family. He also has old heirloom clocks for sale.
For Thompson, a potter, the open studios weekend gives her a chance to show the different pottery. She also makes some designs from materials like drift wood. It is called “found-object” art, she explained.
A large brown piece of drift wood hangs from a stanchion near her studio shelves lined with special cups, plates and bowls made on site. The drift wood eerily resembles a skeleton with its jagged edges looking like feet and a top resembling an elf’s hat on a head.
“See that boy up there,” she said, pointing to it, “on that metal thing? He’s just going to be an outside kind of guy. “
She and her studio partner, Jan Hall-Stinson, also create altered art, interactive art and collage. She has been in the mill for 12 years and does not do much custom work.
“We make it and sell it, and that’s great…and no two are alike. We have a great turnout in the studio. It’s varied and we will certainly work with people who need a certain piece of pottery,” she said.
Outside the door of her studio the floor creaks as wood bends when someone walks on these floors that offer entry to spacious workshops of painters, potters, photographers, weavers and fiber artists, jewelry designers, collagists and sculptors.
Down the wooden-floor hallway is Suzi Ballenger in studio 103. A knock on the door brings an opening to a room with red, blue, green, purple, yellow, pink and many other colored threads.
They stretch singularly into looms, large wooden machines pulling the threads together and joining them as a family bound in their purpose of becoming unified for towels, pillow cases and napkins as well as dish, picnic and table cloths.
“People love coming in here because the studio is beautiful and because they can watch someone weave. It evokes all kinds of memories and stories,” emphasized Ballenger, who with her husband, Wayne, have been in the studio for about five years.
“I believe in slow cloth, meaning everything is hand made. I would rather work real hard at something that I love than have to do anything else,” she said, noting that her materials are mostly cotton and linen, and occasionally hemp. She does not do custom work other than for the size needed.
The fire yellow color in her threads match closely with the flames twirling in Anchor Bend Glassworks’ furnaces a few doors away. Hot molten glass drips on the end of long poles put into the 2,300-degree heat causing the glass to melt, twist and turn slowly like molasses trickling off a spoon.
When pulled out of the flames, it’s then either crafted into a specific design or rubbed and massaged on metal into a surreal blend of wavy colors.
Glass Christmas trees in gold, purple, green and red sit on metal shelves. They also have sea images, such as calamari, octopus and waves intermingled through their craftsmanship into glass lamps, chandeliers, jewelry, bowls, vases, candle holders and votive lights.
Anchor Bend is owned by Newport natives and high school classmates Mike Richardson, Justin Tarducci and Timothy Underwood. They started the business in 2003 and now have the glass production site at the mill and a retail storefront in Newport.
They call themselves craftsmen. “We like what we are doing and we think we do it very well,” said Richardson, who along with his partners, takes turns putting silica sand in the furnaces, melting to get clear glass and then applying different colors, before sculpting various products.
Their work is divided among whole sale, retail and custom services, he said. On Saturday they will be offering the sale of custom-made holiday ornaments that visitors can actually help create as they watch the process -- at a safe distance from the furnaces, he said.
“We would never have gotten into this medium without the encouragement of our high school art teachers and counselors, so when we can, we try to give back. We try to show little kids to adults this is how you get glass out, how you make a paperweight or an ornament.”
Giving Richardson and others the chance to show their talents and boost holiday business has been part of the artist colony’s tradition for about 22 years, said Krim, the mill’s manager and co-owner.
Luke Randall, one of the first two artists to use the mill more than 20 years ago, praised Krim’s father, Andy Reisert, for his interest in the arts. Randall, a painter, was joined by John Bolger, a glass blower.
“We got everyone excited about the place in the beginning, and especially important was the owner, Andy Reisert’s enthusiasm and love for the mill. 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.
And now, especially during the holiday season, the public gets to see the return on that investment, Krim said.