A place of their own

Natalie Blake and Randi Solin struggled for seven years to find a site for their art, and have the scars to prove it. Now, they are poised to begin a new chapter with the Fulcrum Arts Center.

BRATTLEBORO — After seven years of hard work and too many disappointments, glass artist Randi Solin and ceramist Natalie Blake have joyfully turned their dream into a reality.

At the same time, the dream of creating an artistic corridor on Flat Street has now morphed into a diamond-shaped set of arts destinations that extend from the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center to Route 30 and beyond.

Opening with a celebratory pig roast for the public later this fall, the Fulcrum Arts Center - a half-million-dollar project - will be located in the pre-fabricated metal building on Route 30 that once housed Tom & Sally's Chocolates, and is now home to the Saxtons River Distillery.

The center, owned by Solin and Blake together under the Fulcrum Arts LLC, umbrella, will have large studios for themselves and other artists, a retail gallery, and teaching space. The distillery will remain as a tenant.

Solin and Blake met as neighbors at the The Cotton Mill - Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.'s business incubator - where Solin's company, Solinglass, and Blake's Natalie Blake Studios, have both attracted national attention.

American Craft magazine describes Solin's abstract expressionist vessels as “closer to paintings ... 12 to 15 pounds of glass, with a thick, transparent exterior layer acting as a window on a colorful, lucent interior image.”

Solin's work is in the permanent collections of the White House and in the American embassies of Algeria, Guinea, Praia [the capital and largest city of Cape Verde], Guatemala, Paraguay and Mauritania, as well as in many private collections. She's represented by about 75 galleries nationwide and has been given many single-artist shows. Her glass has won Best of Show many, many times at crafts shows.

Blake has worked in clay for 26 years. She's best known for her colorful and shapely vessels with tasseled tops, but in the past few years she has branched out into making striking wall murals out of ceramic tiles. Her work is in the permanent collections of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art and the Wheaton Museum and in private collections around the world. She, too, has won many Best in Show awards.

The Cotton Mill has been a wonderful arts business incubator for Solin and Blake.

“We love Cotton Mill,” Blake said. “Thanks BDCC! But they've incubated us until we're ready to crack out of the egg.”

“We're big chickens now,” Solin said. “Even before I joined forces with Natalie, I always wanted a retail component. And Cotton Mill is not a viable retail spot.”

“And as my business changed from vessels to murals, I need more space,” Blake said.

“Our whole model has shifted,” Solin said. “To sell our work, we have to travel all the time. We're both married now, and we like being home. And as our children have gotten older, we want to spend more time with them. So we want to bring people to us instead of us going everywhere.”

Even though they work with different materials, the two women say they find many similarities in their work.

“We're a perfect balance,” Solin said.

“We sell to the same clients; we gross about the same amount; we work with the same designers; and we do the same kinds of shows,” Blake said.

Solin describes Blake as “a visionary.”

“She has balls of energy,” Solin said. “She has an unbelievable pioneering spirit and incredible way of getting things done. I feel very safe with her, even if she says outlandish things. I believe in the power behind her words.”

Solin was the first artist to move into the Cotton Mill. Before she arrived from Burlington in 1999, it was filled with small manufacturing concerns. Now it's a vibrant and thriving arts incubator; in celebration, Solin created the popular pre-Christmas Cotton Mill Open Studio Tour a few years later.

Blake calls her a “pioneer.”

“Randi can be incredibly pragmatic,” Blake said. “I feel safe with her because she's a solid, unflusterable human being. People are drawn to her because she's a rock. She's also got the mind for keeping track of numbers and looking diligently at contracts. Together, we just have this easy flow.”

These feelings of trust, friendship, and partnership have been strengthened by their long and frustrating trip through the Brattleboro real estate market.

Ups and downs

Seven years ago Solin and Blake started looking for a place that would house their two studios and a gallery, plus give them space to teach.

They first examined the Tri-State Automotive building at the corner of Elm and Flat streets next to the New England Youth Theatre's property.

The idea then - one held by many of the town's arts organizations - was to create an arts corridor anchored on one end by the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. It would include the Latchis Theatre and Hotel, and then run up Flat Street.

The Brattleboro Music Center had plans to go into the Church Building, and next door, the New England Youth Theatre property would host Fulcrum Arts and the New England Center for Circus Arts (also being incubated at the Cotton Mill) in an “arts campus.” After years of monthly meetings, they found the plan just didn't work out.

“The arts campus took five years of our life, and we ended up poor,” said Blake.

“For us, the idea fell through due to a brownfields issue,” Solin said.

After taking an eight-month hiatus, the artists regrouped to look at the old Riverview Restaurant building, which now houses the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery.

“I told Natalie, 'We have to go look. We just have to,'” Solin said. “So we met with a Realtor, worked on it for two or three months and realized it was way too small. But we loved the location on the water. Then the Realtor said he had the perfect building.”

That would be the Sanel Building on Flat Street. After getting a handshake agreement with the owner, Solin and Blake worked for two years on plans for the building. They had architectural drawings and studies done for a cost of about $10,000. They lined up tenants. They put together bank and Vermont Economic Develoment Authority (VEDA) financing.

The town was “ecstatic” about the project, Solin said. They were ready to go. Then, a week before closing, they got an email from the owner saying he would not sell to them. The building was soon sold to someone else.

Solin and Blake still aren't certain what happened, but Solin was furious and Blake cried for days. Still, they continued their search.

“We are not going to get kicked over,” Blake said.

That was when the Archery Building, on the Connecticut River behind the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and the railroad station, became available. Owned by the town, it was on the National Register of Historic Places. So even though it was about to fall down, it had to be protected.

The town put out a request for proposals and gave prospective tenants a two-month deadline.

“So we rallied again, and we spent more money, and had architectural drawings done, and we wrote and we wrote and we worked our asses off for two months,” Solin said. “The timeline the town gave was totally unrealistic. That was proven by the fact that nobody ended up meeting it except for us. We got it by default. We were given the building. We met with the town and saw that it wouldn't have worked out. It would have been $500,000 worth of renovations and we wouldn't have owned it for about 14 years. Who knows where we'd all be then? Also, it was too small and parking was atrocious.”

Continuing their search for space, the artists finally gave up any idea of building in downtown Brattleboro.

“Brattleboro is too big for its britches in art,” Blake said. “We're busting from our seams in a beautiful way.”

The points of the diamond

The Flat Street arts corridor has turned into a diamond, Blake said.

“Here's Fulcrum,” Blake said while sketching on a pad. “Another point is Cotton Mill. Another point is the Whetstone Studio for the Arts. I'm sure that West Brattleboro and Putney want to be included. And NECCA is looking for land.”

Once they gave up the idea of moving downtown, the undistinguished metal building on Route 30 - the artists call it “a blank canvas” - became the perfect spot.

“We went through all those other buildings, because we're determined chicks in charge, but the universe knew they weren't right for our business model,” Blake said. “So for us, this building is brilliant. It's so ugly, it's awesome.”

“We can't screw it up,” Solin said.

“We can paint it, put lights all over it, put solar panels on it.” Blake said. “Our gallery kitchen and bathrooms are all going to be Randi's glass, the lampshades that Marie Formichelli Walker makes, the tile I do, the concrete counter tops my husband does. It's all going to be handmade, cool and groovy. It's not going to be nasty static boring Sheetrock with a sink stuck in the corner.”

“And the location!” Solin said. “We've always said we want to create a destination, which means, in my mind, a place that you have to make a conscious effort to get to.”

As Solin and Blake have collectors all over the country, they take seriously the fact that most visitors to the area bypass Brattleboro entirely.

“The main reason we're excited about that building is that it's on the tourist corridor,” Blake said. “We all know the problem with tourism in Brattleboro is that people get off Exit 2, maybe stop at the Vermont Country Deli, then go down Cedar Street, up Route 30 and then they're gone.

“For us Route 30 is a great location because they all come by our door. But because we've spent seven years working with all the major downtown arts organizations - who have become our family and our community - our mission is to make sure people know about the incredible Brattleboro we have and to send people back downtown. And for our local family, we'll have art parties.”

“And the classes will be for everyone,” Solin said. “There are a lot of people who are waiting for us to teach. That will be for the people who live here.”

The artists say they'll miss some things about their current incubator home.

“We'll miss our neighbors,” Solin said. “We'll miss being able to walk down and say, 'Can you saw this with your table saw, please?' We'll miss the random people we meet in the bathroom. That sounded odd, but you know, you don't talk to people for weeks and then suddenly you're washing your hands and you run into them.”

“We'll miss hearing the Jazz Center music wafting up, and smelling the jams cooking [in Sidehill Farm's first-floor kitchen],” Blake said. “It's become vibrant here at the Cotton Mill, thanks to Randi. She pioneered it for us, and now she's got to pioneer it again.”

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