CONCORD - This old town has long been known for its writers and philosophers. But recently its humble neighborhood a mile west of downtown has begun making a name for itself as a vibrant artists' community, with pottery wheels and easels dotting the same floors where first mill workers and later auto repairmen once labored.
There are painters, sculptors, and silversmiths, all with studios clustered along the back streets of West Concord village. They create fine textiles, bracelets, bronze door knockers, human figures, and landscapes. And as far as they are concerned, their little corner has it all. A babbling brook. Sunlight shimmering through the trees outside their studio windows. Fantastic coffee and muffins at Nashoba Brook Bakery. And the company of other artists, who are quickly filling up the old industrial buildings near the commuter rail tracks.
Silversmith Hilary Taylor, an acclaimed jewelry maker who sells her handcrafted jewelry under the name Merlin's Silver Star, has had a studio in the village for the past several years. "This area is definitely becoming more and more popular with artists because of the funky kind of buildings," she said recently of the transformation that locals say began about a decade ago and picked up steam in the past few years. "These buildings have lots of interesting nooks, and crannies, and big windows, and the rent is affordable."
Taylor said she pays approximately $10 per square foot for her studio, but the artists in the three buildings are always anxious about the prospect of rent increases.
Just down the hall is Hammersmith Studios, where Su san and Carl Close Jr. work as modern-day blacksmiths. The pieces of art that have been created in this former machine shop behind the Post Office at the end of Beharrell Street have found their way across the country and across the ocean: A fox they cast stands guard outside a theater in London, and a brass railing they made graces the Washington National Cathedral.
At the other end of the blacksmiths' building is a big room with exposed pipes and high ceilings. For the past four years, it has been home to the West Concord Sculptors Studio.
"We have 12 sculptors who sign up to use the studio for 10-week sessions," said cofounder Karen Cadenhead. Because the group is so casual, nonprofessional sculptors are drawn to the space; one participant is a woodcarver, another a book illustrator.
Jean Ford Webb was a management consultant when she first made her way to the West Concord Sculptors Studio - but her talent developed quickly, and she's had pieces accepted by the Concord Art Association. Ford Webb acknowledged that it's not something she ever foresaw as part of her adult life. "As a good parent, you learn to say, 'You can do anything; you can be anything,' but I never really believed that for myself! I never thought I could sculpt. But I started coming here, and I just loved it."
Some of the artists live nearby and like the convenience, such as Cadenhead, who can walk to her studio, or Alden Perkins, who paints in a Commonwealth Avenue building and lives a short drive away.
"Having a studio keeps me in the game," Perkins said of her attempt to balance parenting, contract work as a software producer, and the abstract painting that she had grown to love in recent years. "Since it's close by, if I have just an hour, I stop in. I've learned to be very efficient. While I'm driving to the studio, I'm thinking about what colors I'm going to mix, and I'm always taking in the beautiful landscapes for inspiration. "
Others are willing to put up with a longer commute just to benefit from the area's ambience. Kellie Weeks, also a painter in the same Commonwealth Avenue building as Perkins, drives from Fitchburg.
"There's nothing like getting here on a spring morning, crossing the footbridge over the brook, smelling the aromas from Nashoba Brook Bakery," she said.
Robin Bergman of Arlington has held onto her studio space on Bradford Street for 14 years to house her fine-knits business, Robin Originals. Bergman creates clothing, accessories, and home textiles out of natural fibers.
"I love the building I'm in," she mused. "It's an old mill from the 1800s. It has high ceilings, big windows, and so much charm. I love the thought that, in my same studio years ago, chairs for schoolrooms were manufactured."
The modern-day blacksmiths of Hammersmith Studios agree that the history of the region is meaningful to their work. "The richness of Concord's history was a big draw to us," Susan Close said.
"The Transcendentalists, the writers - it all fits with the way artists think. We waited for two years for a space to open up here. But even though I was willing to wait all that time, I didn't anticipate how idyllic it would be.
"There's a certain energy here, an essence. We tried out so many different places before coming here, and in terms of our work I feel like we finally made it home. We're finally where we are supposed to be."
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.