Folk Art Guild welcomes community back to the farm

The community of artisans in Middlesex reopened its gallery last weekend and is holding an outdoor “Gallery on the Lawn” this Saturday


The artisans of the Rochester Folk Art Guild are a communal grouping, dedicated to living and working in an “intentional community” on the guild’s 350-acre farm in Middlesex.

So when the novel coronavirus hit, the artisans themselves didn’t stay home or necessarily apart — they’d always been consistently, daily part of one another’s lives. But they were “careful” in master woodworker David Barnet’s words. There was isolation of a different sort, with no visitors to the farm, no customers checking out the guild’s East Hill Gallery save for the occasional order that would be picked up outside the workshop. Not all the Guild membership came in; Barnet’s assistant stayed home. The communal meals continued, but with people spaced apart.

“We were very cautious here,” Barnet said. “We limited the people who could come into the guild, because we have a small residential community; we wanted to stay safe — some of our people are in their seventies.”

The work itself has been a solitary endeavor.

“It’s been very different, because we were used to having a fair amount of visitors. ... It’s forced me to work mostly alone, not firing the big kiln,” master potter Annie Schliffer noted Tuesday. Which allowed more time for introspection and reflection, as well as accomplishing longer, more complicated and involved projects — like those involving carved porcelain, in which she said one piece can take around 12 hours.

“I felt so lucky to be able to work at my workshop and be with other people,” she added. “There are 10 of us who work at the workshop; it wasn’t like being carefully distanced — but in the workshop it was alone. It was more of an introspective kind of calm without the flow of interruptions, to think ‘what do I really want to work on?’”

Barnet described a similar experience. “I got used to working by myself without any help with the heavy lifting,” he said. “I came to a regular, steady rhythm with the days. ... I felt like I was kind of in a bubble.”

It’s a bit less of a solitary bubble these days at 1445 Upper Hill Road, with the East Hill Gallery opening up last week for normal weekend hours — that’s 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, with other visits available by appointment — to “a great surge of interest” in Barnet’s words. And this weekend, the Guild is inviting the public to visit the Gallery on the Lawn, in which pieces by Schliffer and master woodworker David Barnet will be on display for perusal and purchase from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 11, in the open air. (The East Hill Gallery will also be open for its normal Saturday hours.) There’ll also be plenty of fresh eggs for sale from the farm’s free-range chickens, Schliffer noted.

Schliffer’s pottery will include large pieces, wood-fired vases and jars, platters and bowls, plus an assortment of studio ware — mugs, bowls, plates, teapots, vases and more. There will also be a table of “seconds” or discounted items. Barnet’s woodware specializes in turned vessels used for serving food (plus some that are ornamental) and include hardwood salad bowls, as well as nut bowls, cups and the like, from local trees, including the “pagoda tree” in Canandaigua and osage orange in Romulus and Bushnell’s Basin. Some works use old-growth Douglas fir recycled from casks at a Canandaigua Wine facility in Virginia, Barnet noted. There will also be assorted smaller gift items — backscratchers, rolling pins, salad servers, saute spoons and more.

The Rochester Folk Art Guild is a craft center and intentional community consisting of both residents — who live on site at the farm year-round, working together (craftwork and farm labor) and sharing meals — and non-residents. It offers educational opportunities, from classes to apprenticeships, in assorted traditional crafts, including weaving, natural-fiber clothing and folk toys as well as woodworking and pottery.

It was founded in 1957, its creation owing much to the teachings of Russian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff, who taught a holistic approach to self-development focusing on body, mind and emotions, and an emphasis on training one’s attention wholly to what one’s doing at any given moment. Whether one is firing up a pottery kiln or or making a seaworthy boat or hoeing in the field.

This weekend’s Gallery on the Lawn is an experiment, Barnet noted — if it works out, there may be more, but that’s to be determined.

In the meantime, the artisans continue their work and their community living, while beginning to welcome people back to share their rhythms.

“We are so fortunate here with the guild,” Schliffer said. ”... Even though it was a strenuous time, we found a lot of good fortune in the fact that we were together.”

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