NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Shady Lea Mill is at the end of this tree-lined street leading visitors to the enclave of many artists inside this 200-year-old brick building. It’s their home away from home for exploring creativity and passion.
It’s also a place where social distancing and self-isolation have been the norm for many years, broken by only occasional visitors or dropping in at another artist’s studio. So, it was no exception for these artists to face the same when the coronavirus hit this year.
“It never occurred to us we would have to shut the place to the artists,” said Lynn Krim, 80, owner of the mill her father once owned. “There are single artists’ studios, there are very few having two people working in them. It’s like telling them they cannot go into their home.”
However, one major change, said Krim, is the cancellation of the June open house that draws nearly 2,000 people each year to see their work and even purchase it. Virus restrictions and social distancing made it impossible to offer, but a decision everyone understood, she added.
COVID-19 becomes another part of history in the creaky wooden floors where local workers made wool used in blankets for Union soldiers in the Civil War. 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 more than 40 workshops rented by artists. They include painters, potters, photographers, weavers and fiber artists, jewelry designers, collagists and sculptors.
Each has something unique to offer a visitor or someone seeking a design in some medium or off-the-beaten-path craftsman, such as a person who fixes old clocks or repairs antique books. Twice yearly – June and December - Krim and the artists open their doors to acquaint people with their work and make a few sales along the way.
With COIVD-19, visits to the mill have been basically by appointment only and even some artists have been shut in at home caring for children, relatives or just preferring the security of not leaving home in an uncertain time, she said.
Others, though, have ventured to the mill because it was their place away from the focus on an invading virus.
“If it were not for Shady Lea, I still might not be creating,” said Kim Ellery, an expressionist painter for 15 years, a mill studio renter for the last four years and “a creative artist all my life,” she said.
She also took two months off when the COVID-19 virus broke out, she said, because the fear and stress robbed her of creativity. Then it started to return lately, she said.
“It’s very comforting knowing I can walk into my studio and know no one has been there,” Ellery explained. “It’s peaceful and I paint. If Lynn has decided close the building, it would have been devastating for me,” she said.
In that same building is the blazing furnace of Anchor Bend Glassworks. When in full operation 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, the glass design — a cup, Christmas ornament or vase to name a few creations produced — is either crafted into a specific design or rubbed and massaged on metal into a surreal blend of wavy colors.
They also have sea images, such as calamari, octopus and waves twisted and shaped into glass lamps, chandeliers, jewelry, bowls, 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.
“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.
The coronavirus brought their Newport store — where these items made in North Kingstown sit on shelves for retail sales — to a dead stop. Online ordering just slowed, but never stopped, he added.
When it also shut down their mill furnace, these three owners and workers, who manufacture the glassware, considered their next steps, said Richardson. Safety and health for everyone came first, he added.
In recent weeks they have returned to the mill to make some repairs to the furnace and start to review how virus will affect the markets to which they sell their goods.
“We are re-evaluating impacts, wholesale, retail, corporate. We’re relying on our nimbleness to re-direct and refocus product lines,” he said without being specific about how that might change operations for the business.
Having the mill, though, as a retreat and place to just be creative reinforced the reasons the three high school classmates entered the glass blowing businesses. It kept them centered on a creative outlet, he said.
Giving Richardson and others the chance to show their talents and their business has been part of the artist colony’s tradition, 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.
“We got everyone excited about the place,” Randall said in an interview. “In the beginning, and especially important, was owner Andy’s enthusiasm and love for the mill. He was a highly intelligent man who was kind and harkened back to another era. He made it all happen with huge investments of both money and time.”
A virus, said Krim, isn’t going to kill that legacy, these artists or stop their creativity.