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Cotton Mill artisans open their doors for annual holiday event

The Cotton Mill Open Studio and Holiday Sale will take place Friday, Dec, 3 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 4, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 5, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Signs will point to the mill from Interstate 91 or downtown. Schedules and directions are available at or by calling 802-257-7731.

BRATTLEBORO—A heightened sense of camaraderie is filling the halls of Cotton Mill these days as craftspeople, musicians, dancers, circus performers and painters get ready for the fifth annual Open Studio and Holiday Sale.

Last year, about 2,000 people came to the open house. This year, it  will be held on Friday, Dec. 3, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., on Saturday, Dec. 4, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 5, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Cotton Mill is a ramshackle, high-ceilinged, three-story, 145,000-square-foot maze of hallways, stairs, doors and studios that dates back to 1919, in the height of Brattleboro’s manufacturing days. Hovering above the Connecticut River, but within walking distance of downtown, the building started as a textile mill and ended as the Dunham Shoe factory.

Now it has become an successful business incubator run by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. About 60 small businesses — including educational businesses, massage therapists and a diaper company — call it home, but it has also attracted a number of artists and arts organizations — many with national reputations — who have, for a variety of reasons, chosen to work there.

Among these people, the Cotton Mill inspires devotion.

“It’s all about the light,” says muralist and scenographer Terry Sylvester.

“It’s all about community,” says ceramics artist Natalie Blake.

“It’s all about having a dance family, a place to work and an audience,” says Luminz Dance Studio’s Aurora Corsano.

“It’s all about being near enough to big cities, the availability of materials and having a low cost of studio space,” said Iron Arts’ James Takaki. “We didn’t move here lightly.”

“It’s all about the ability to connect with everyone,” said filmmaker and designer John DiGeorge. “The Cotton Mill is like a big clubhouse.”

The Cotton Mill may offer inexpensive studio space, convenient access to materials and shipping, freight elevators, loading docks and the other necessities of commerce, but dogs and children hang out in the hallways, people run back and forth borrowing one another’s tools, and sometimes artists find themselves asking each other for aesthetic advice.

“You can refresh yourself by walking out and seeing what others are doing,” Elsie Smith of New England Center for Circus Arts said. “You get inspired.”

“When I first came here, it felt like a factory,” said Cheryl Summa of Wild Blossom Designs. “I didn’t know if I would ever feel at home. It took a while to learn to navigate the building. Then, one day when I was alone in my studio, I heard children laughing in the hallway, and I felt at home.”

Cotton Mill can be seen as “a magnifying glass of what Vermont is known for today,” Blake said. “Art and crafts and self-made entrepreneurial artists are the new heart of Vermont.”

Corsano agreed. “It’s about fierce independence with strong community values.”

Building awareness

Visitors to the open house can attend performances at Luminz, the Vermont Jazz Center and the New England Center for Circus Arts; watch Randi Solin of Solinglass blow art glass; see Blake carve ceramic tiles and occasionally throw a pot; sample handcrafted cosmetics from the new Venus of Vermont line as it is launched in conjunction with the open house; get a free massage; and taste the 25 different homemade jams (“boiled down the old-fashioned way”) and toppings from Sidehill Farm.

The point of the open house is to build awareness of what is happening at Cotton Mill.

“Crafts is something as simple as jam,” Takaki said. “People have in their minds a decreased idea of the value of arts and crafts. Something like the open house increases its importance.”

Most of the craftspeople will be selling their wares; Blake and Solon, who sell their high-end work over the country, will be offering seconds at discounts.

“Some of it will be 70 percent off,” Blake said. “Come and clean our studio out. Just get it out of here.”

The performance spaces will be alive with action.

“We don’t have any jazz musicians for sale,” joked Vermont Jazz Center’s Jane Findlay. “Maybe some seconds. But you can hear performances every 15 minutes throughout the days, and buy tickets and gift certificates.”

One of the benefits of holding an open house is “giving access to people who may be intimidated by what we do,” said Smith.

“Some people think of circus people as carny folks — dirty, unshaven pedophiles who steal your children and take them on carnival rides,” she joked. “Or they think that they’re not 16 any more and can’t put their foot behind their ear. But here they’ll have the opportunity to take short classes, watch our performances, walk on a wire, juggle, swing from a trapeze or fabric and take rides on our new toy, our German Wheel.”

At busy Luminz, people will be invited to sample belly dancing, Zumba fitness, ballet and fencing classes and watch performances of Afro Jazz and improvisation.

Even the artists are turning their studios into events. Sylvester is planning to outfit her large studio — an art installation in itself — as “Christmasland,” with “the biggest Charlie Brown Christmas tree you ever saw,” popcorn and Frank Sinatra singing Christmas music. (She fell in love with Sinatra while she was making Thanksgiving Parade floats in Hoboken, but no, she never met the singer.)

While Sylvester paints a mural, she will offer visitors the option of making a portrait of a friend.

Food will be abundant. Nick Marchese will be making and selling hand-crafted burritos. A mother-and-son team who sold apple pies all season at the Putney Farmers Market will be selling them at Cotton Mill. True North Granola and Sidehill Farm will offer samples.

“The weekend is going to be a blast,” Blake said. “We’ll tell stories about the history of the building and give people a look behind some doors that are usually closed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #77 (Wednesday, November 24, 2010).

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