Studio breaks down barrier between art fans, creators

Kristin D'Agostino

This weekend, as shopping mall parking lots overflow, many will stay close to home and find handmade gifts for the holidays at the second annual Salem Open Studio Tours.

Roughly 40 artists will showcase work — including jewelry, paintings, photography, film and video — in downtown locations, the majority of them between Summer and Webb streets.

Some will open the doors to their private studios, while others will showcase their work at Old Town Hall or at local shops and galleries throughout town. Many will give demonstrations of their artistic process throughout the day.

Salem Open Studios began last winter after Jennifer “Jeff” Bowie, owner of the Picklepot Gallery, and Sara Ashodian, a mixed-media artist and jeweler, decided Salem deserved its own celebration of local artists in the spirit of Boston’s South End.

Bowie recalls how after a Chamber of Commerce meeting she sat down with Mayor Kim Driscoll and Rinus Oosthoek, chamber president.

“I was grumbling about life in general and I said, why isn’t there an arts association? And they said, because you haven’t started one.”

Due to last year’s success, Salem Open Studios has expanded to two full days, playing off the “Second Saturday” event schedule established by the Chamber of Commerce to boost summer tourism.

Bowie attributes the start of the Salem Art Association last year, in part, to the Salem Open Studio’s success, saying it got local artists excited about the city’s potential.

Gary LaParl, Salem Art Association president, agrees, saying due to last year’s success, he’s hoping to add a second studio tour in the spring.

“Salem has a rich history of artists and craftspeople,” he says. “We want to continue that tradition and grow it.”

Boy maestro

Among the newcomers to the Salem Open Studios Tour this year is 12-year-old John Plunkett, who was discovered by his second-grade art teacher.

“She said he’s amazing — you have to get him into a program, he has real talent,” recalls his mother Deborah.

Plunkett at the time refused to take lessons, preferring to draw when the spirit moved him, which, according to mom, is just about any time he sits still. Finally, last year, the quiet, dark-haired boy from Lynn agreed to take a painting class, and he’s been hooked ever since, going for weekly lessons at Acorn Gallery in Marblehead.

His work is displayed in several North Shore businesses and the Registry of Deeds in Salem, and has been raffled off in charities, with one painting drawing $250 for breast cancer research. A number of his pieces will be displayed at A Touch of the Past on Washington Street this weekend, his first venture into Salem’s studio tours.

Plunkett’s style is impressionistic, his brightly colored oils and watercolors all blurred softly like sidewalk chalk drawings. He’s drawn to nature — golden beach scenes with ladies in sun hats and green fields of beautifully rendered trees. Still lifes of fruit are also common, especially ones with peppers which “are fun because of their funny shapes,” he says.

Some of his ideas come from his collection of art books, others come from his imagination.

Plunkett creates art in his own basement studio, surrounded by about 20 of his own mounted paintings. Most of the time one picture takes him about 15 minutes to complete, while those with elaborate detail may take an hour.

Anyone visiting Plunkett’s bedroom would find it is a work of art in itself, inspired by the Rainforest Café chain. It has hanging vines, stuffed monkeys and pictures of insects and butterflies adorning the walls.

“I drew it out on paper first, then I got all the stuff,” Plunkett says nonchalantly of the space, his brown eyes serious. “It’s a work in progress.”

What does Plunkett’s future hold? When he’s 35 he’d love to move to Vermont, where there are plenty of beautiful fields to paint, and make a living as an artist.

Until then, he enjoys painting in his studio or outdoors, especially at the Willows with his art class. When asked what else he likes to do besides paint, the boy hesitates. “Sketch,” he says. No TV for this Rembrandt.

Tempest in a teabag

Use a teabag as a canvas for art? The idea sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what Jill Heyes, the founder of Original T-Bag Designs decided to do in 1996.

At 35, having recently suffered a brain aneurism, Heyes, a British art teacher who’d recently moved to South Africa, was told she had to give up her career. Instead of burying her paintbrushes, Heyes turned to the local women, who she saw living in tin shacks, unable to support their families, and began teaching them crafts that could potentially earn them money. Teabag painting turned out to be the most successful.

“The notion of a teabag is it’s something we discard that is valueless,” reflects Jodee Hetzer, the company’s U.S. representative. “If you turn it into art the nothing becomes something beautiful.”

Original T-Bag Designs is another newcomer to the Salem Open Studios. The artwork will be on display this weekend at New Civilitea on Derby Street, and Jodee Hetzer, the company’s U.S. representative, will give regular presentations about how the products are made.

There are more than 25 South Africans now working for Original T-Bag Designs, 10 of them handicapped people who assist with preparation work.

To create the pieces, the workers first remove the tealeaves and dry the bags in the sun till they turn shades of brown and gold. Then the bags are hand painted reds, oranges and browns in bright patterns that evoke Moroccan rugs.

The artists incorporate the designs into jewelry, wall hangings, writing journals, cards, table coasters and glass candleholders. The artwork is sold in 50 U.S. cities, in addition to South Africa, and is represented year-round in Salem at New Civilitea.

The most beautiful part of the project, says, Hetzer, is that it is bringing new life to a depressed village where people struggle to make a living.

“They take something tossed away and make it beautiful,” she says. “They could be tossed away themselves, these people living in shacks, but they are painting their way out of it.”