Pioneering Somerville artist live/work co-op celebrates 30th anniversary
Approaching the block of buildings from Chestnut Street, all you can see are five stories of basically identical windows amid levels of concrete. Stripes of color run along the sides, framing the official entrance to 1 Fitchburg St in Somerville.
What isn’t immediately clear, unless you know what you’re looking at, is that this is the entrance to the Brickbottom Artists Association. Behind these windows lies a thriving community and colony of artists and their families, and it’s been that way for 30 years.
In honor of 30 years in the building, Brickbottom recently hosted an event called “Founders Speak” for the longstanding members of this unique community. Artists walked downstairs, or down the hall, from their apartments to see their friends and neighbors talk about how it all started.
Following an intro by Ellen Band, a longtime resident, three speakers stepped up—Randal Thurston, Alana Thurston, and Robert Goss. Each has spent a large part of their lives in Brickbottom. According to Band, the evening was Goss’s idea—he hoped that it would help to excavate some of the history behind the place.
Speaking first, Randal Thurston brought a presentation full of old pics of the founders, early construction efforts, and aerial snapshots. He began with carefully selected words that, over the course of the evening, only grew in their poignancy.
“When we see a place, we only see a small section—the time that you’re in,” Randal said. “The longer you’re in a place, the better you know it.”
Randal, his daughter Alana, and Goss have all spent enough time here to see a large section of Brickbottom’s history—they know it well.
Clicking through slides, Randal explained that Brickbottom came to be because he and about 100 other artists couldn’t stand or afford to live in Boston proper anymore. At 215 A St in Southie there was no heat and countless surprise inspections, while at the co-op on 249 A St there simply wasn’t enough space and rents were always going up. Endless meetings occurred as to where to move 100 people.
When it was finally decided that the grimy shell of an old A&P still full of dry storage goods all the way in Somerville would be the new home for this group, Randal and his partner and fellow artist Alyson Schultz (also present in the crowd) dropped out entirely.
While eventually they both rejoined Brickbottom, the anecdote speaks to how nearly desolate the small section of Somerville was back then. Randal went on to explain that he neighborhood still isn’t residential because the state wanted to build a highway over it. The plans were laid, and houses and businesses were quickly abandoned. But the highway never came.
Randal’s presentation on the physical history of the space helped to provide context for subsequent talks by Goss and his daughter Alana. Also using the projector, Alana explained how she was born in Brickbottom and spent the first 18 years of her life surrounded by 300 artists, including her parents. Set against a slideshow of pics from her childhood—including one in which an Easter basket was “hidden” on top of a work of art—Alana wove in stories about what it was like to live there.
Even as a child, Alana was an artist in her own right. But surrounded by professional artists, she often found herself trying to break the mold. She worked a great deal with pointillism and was very successful with it—as evidenced by the quality of work shown on screen.
She eventually went to school and majored in chemistry, taking a semester abroad to study mushrooms and other fungi. Alana made her way to Alaska to study the effects of warming climates on the tundra. She is now in the process of moving to New Zealand to seek a cure to a fungal pathogen that is killing culturally significant trees there.
But her artistic roots seem to be catching up with her. In recent years Alana found that she could put her talents to use with lab drawings or even textbook diagrams that could more easily explain the work that she was doing.
In his turn, Goss began by saying that his time at Brickbottom is “the longest I’ve been at any one place in my life.”
His presentation consisted mostly of anecdotes, lending a storylike, tall tale-esque quality to the evening. When Brickbottom was first chosen, he recalled, many artists like Thurston dropped out because of the way it looked. He cited the racist graffiti covering the walls and the burned-out car in the parking lot. He recalled the countless meetings—that he was in charge of running—of the artists. Every meeting he could remember was fraught with argument and strife.
“The hardest meeting was standing in front of 100 artists to pick the color of the stripe on the building,” Goss said.
They finally decided on the color of the sweater that one artist in the meeting was wearing—a light blue.
While the meetings were cause for frustration, Brickbottom also provided Goss with a home, and more. He first met his wife, Susan Schmidt, in the process of building selection. When it came time to enter into the housing lottery to see which room they would receive, Goss and Schmidt decided to enter as a couple so they might get a better spot.
At this point in his speech, a member of the crowd shouted, “Is that how you proposed to her?” to the laughs of Goss and the rest of the audience.
But the two did get married, and remain so to this day. They had their wedding in the gallery.
Toward the end of the evening, audience members who were also Brickbottom founders had the chance to speak—calling up ancient memories or simply thanking everyone present for all that they had done. As the event closed, some members stayed to chat and catch. Other artists gathered up their children—also born into Brickbottom—and headed upstairs for the night.