Potter Phil Sellers; Beer and Burgers

Chair of North Adams Open Studios for 2009

By: - May 08, 2009

Sellers Sellers Sellers Sellers Sellers

Hoisting  a few pints with the artist/ potter, Phil Sellers, at the Freight Yard in North Adams, we learned that the glass is half full. Sure these are tough times, and he has taken on the enormous task of chairing the North Adams Open Studios for 2009, as well as running River Hill Pottery with his wife Gail. Despite the challenges he is filled with optimism expressed with a warm and engaging smile and a mischievous sense of humor.

He tends to be a low key, laid back, quiet kind of guy until you get him on a roll. Like last night over beers on a rare  "boys night out." He describes a dramatic change of lifestyle in the move from Ohio, where they are still trying to sell their house, to plant roots in the Eclipse Mill in North Adams. It is much more than a change of real estate entailing a state of mind.

In Ohio Phil worked on his own day to day, with a couple of assistants, creating a production line of pottery. For many years Gail taught school. He describes having little social contact. Now they work together seven days a week but not nine to five. They bought adjoining lofts on the ground floor of the mill. One space houses the studio, kilns and a gallery. The second space is their living area. They put a sandwich board sign out to lure visitors passing by on busy Route Two streaming down from the Mohawk trail into North Adams.

"Because many of the visitors are on their way to Mass MoCA we have met people from all over the world" Phil observed. "They come in wearing their Mass MoCA admission stickers. We have a remarkable ratio between visitors and  sales. Now that we are living full time in the mill we have seen annual sales double each year as more people know of our work. We do five major shows each year and also wholesale to a number of shops and galleries. Originally we did about 75% wholesale but now it is more like 50% with the other half of sales out of the studio and through shows."

Phil has often conveyed to me the enormous satisfaction of having a life in the arts. Being able to support themselves with the studio. They put two kids through school using some creative financing. "Our kids went to private schools" he said implying that they wanted the best for them. The move to the Berkshires was largely motivated by being closer to Gail's parents who live in Adams. They also travel to Ohio and Arizona to keep up with the grandchildren. With great emphasis Phil stated how family comes first and everything else is secondary.

But when and if they get out of debt, it would surely help to sell their property in Ohio, Phil surprised me by stating that he would love to get back to painting and print making which was his major as an undergraduate. He would like to branch out and explore his creativity and says that he doesn't see himself just doing ceramics for the rest of his life. "We are the leading ceramic basket makers in the country" he said with a great grin. To which I responded that there didn't seem to be a lot of competition. But he explained, discussing some not to be revealed trade secrets, that it is not as simple and obvious as it seems to make woven clay baskets. It took a lot of experimentation and creativity to make it work. The pieces are unique and labor intensive as compared to throwing pots on a wheel.

With just the two of them producing a line that means being in the studio every day. But there are interruptions. Which Phil actually enjoys. In addition to clients with pretty steady traffic in season there are also neighbors who drop by. He has found himself more involved in local issues and politics. The other night they hosted an evening with a candidate for Mayor and some 25 of their neighbors attended what proved to be a lively and successful three hour meeting.

Many artists have settled in North Adams with hopes and dreams of creating a vibrant community. On many levels it has been a slow and somewhat frustrating process. This summer Mass MoCA celebrates its 10th anniversary and that's the engine that drives the community. There is also the presence of the Mass College of Liberal Arts and its Gallery 51. Last summer MCLA sponsored the Downstreet project which is returning this year including an artist's coop. Gail and Phil have been active in the Eclipse Mill Gallery. There are efforts to revitalize the Beaver Mill up the street which formerly hosted the Contemporary Artists Center which has since relocated to Troy, New York, just up Route Two.

There is a lot going on but the challenge is to connect the dots. For the first time there have been attempts to create some synergy among large and small arts groups. The trick is now to make the smaller arts organizations a part of the big bang of Mass MoCA celebrating its anniversary. This will be the first full season of its magnificent Sol LeWitt  building which opened last fall. But the risk is that after that big PR launch last year  it may be old news this summer. The challenge will be to invent new marketing strategies and make all of the local arts presenters partners and players in the synergy.

Everyone agrees that there is enormous potential but until now there has not been a focused template and game plan. North Adams has a ways to go regarding getting its shit together as has, for example, nearby Pittsfield which has made enormous strides. The city management of Pittsfield has been a major player in arts development. It is precisely what has been missing in North Adams and many would like to see a regime change and fresh energy.

So taking on the position of chair of North Adams Open Studios puts Phil in the thick of it. This will be the fifth year  for North Adams Open Studios and it has steadily grown bigger and stronger. It started in 2005 confined to just the Eclipse Mill in a project organized by the ceramic artist, Dianne Sullivan. She was also founding chair of the Eclipse Mill Gallery and last summer headed the North Adams Cooperative Gallery as a part of Downstreet.  The project was expanded in 2006 to city wide locations under the artist Jane Hudson. She and her husband Jeff now run antique shops on Main Street as well as the Mass MoCA campus. The artist Sharon Carson chaired in 2007. She is now curating the art installed in the North Adams Regional Hospital. Last year web designer, Jason Morin, and MCLA arts administrator, Jessica Conzo, co chaired.

For Open Studios 2009 Sellers states that "It will be what it will. I am trying to do the best job with the people we have. Not everyone wants to volunteer to put in so much time and energy. People, particularly artists, have only so much time to donate. But this is our own event."

Having spent a year chairing the Eclipse Mill Gallery Committee Astrid and I well appreciate how such undertakings can suck up enormous time and energy. So I asked Phil why he has taken on such a burden? "I'm not sure why I'm doing it" was his disarmingly frank response. "Partly I didn't think anyone else would step up to the plate. I came here from Ohio where I never got involved in anything. In Ohio taking on a job like this I would be so nervous and scared. Here, my response is 'Let's do it.' My vision for Open Studios is; what would happen if it was a whole weekend long event. We are trying to see if we can have something happen on Saturday night after the studios close."

Coming into its 5th year the event is now more established. There is a grant of $1,000 from the Mass Cultural Council (MCC). From the prior year there is a carryover of $2,500. Last year there was no cash in the kitty to start off with. The Open Studios are receiving a Gold Star Award based on prior success with a ceremony conducted by the Local Arts Council in September. This year, in addition to the tour of studios, Sellers hopes to involve the theatre group Main Stage, the music programming of Railway Café, and Skyboro in the Windsor Mill. He is hoping for a puppet show.

Having a bit of seed money is allowing for advertising and marketing in the publications Culture in the Country, and American Style Magazine. Mass MoCA has offered a comped ad in its summer program. The primary source of revenue is getting artists to enroll at $35 for early registration and $45 closer to the event on October 17-18. Jason Morin has designed a web site with capability of postings by artists and sponsors.

Because of the Downstreet project, last year, some of the storefronts in downtown North Adams, where artists had exhibited previously, were not available. Because a number of artists participated in the Coop Gallery they did not necessarily show in their studios or sign on and pay fees. Although a number of individuals did subscribe. Overall some 80 to 100 artists participated. Most importantly the developer Ariel Sutain made space available to some 30 artists to show their work in NOAM a mill directly across the road from the Eclipse Mill. This helped to focus traffic. There was good attendance on Main Street but less so at other locations like the Beaver Mill. There is a lot to see and absorb which is why Sellers is promoting more of a weekend long event with evening activity. The NOAM space will again  be available this year and Sutain is interested in using some of the vast space as an ongoing gallery.

Connecting the dots continues to be an issue. When visitors come to Mass MoCA the challenge is how to get them to visit other venues. Last year MCLA published a map listing all of the locations. But there needs to be a greater effort to sell the North Adams story as more than just Mass MoCA. This is critical not just to various arts venues but also for  restaurants and local business.

Why North Adams I asked Phil? "We came here looking for a place to rejuvenate our creative juices. The original motive was a family reunion. When we were visiting Mass MoCA we picked up Eric Rudd's brochure about loft spaces in the Eclipse Mill. When we got back home Gail called Eric and offered to buy a space sight unseen. Eric refused and the following week we drove back to North Adams from Ohio. There was only one unit left. We returned in the fall and told Eric we needed two spaces. Eventually it worked out."

Compared to most folks, despite the ups and downs we all experience, Phil appears to be remarkably fulfilled about his family and life in the arts. It is  a pleasure to spend time with such a friend. As we talked, and I dug into his background, he laughed and said "You are finding out a lot about me." Particularly from a guy who plays a tight hand.

Phil was born on September 21, 1948 in East Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute, in 1970, with a BFA. Phil met his wife Gail at the Institute.  "It was one of the few schools in the '70s that offered a BFA in a four year program. Most of the art schools just offered diplomas. Six of us went for interviews and they accepted four of us. So I went with my friends. We had a great high school teacher, Al Beck, with whom I recently reconnected. He didn't teach us techniques so much as learning to think outside the box. To realize that art is in everything you look at. I would love to go back to painting. I hope that being in the Eclipse Mill eventually allows that. In high school I was very good at drawing portraits."

At first he struggled in the portrait classes on Saturdays at Cooper Art School in Cleveland. When he came back for the next semester there was a change of instructors and he thrived under the teaching of Jose Cintron. "We drew the scull" he said "So you understood the structure under the features. I haven't done portraits since 1977 but would like to go back to it."

Instead he and Gail developed a line of pottery. For a time Phil was an art teacher. He enjoyed teaching but not the administrative apsects and creating lesson plans. Gail taught for many years. I asked about Gail and was surprised how they got together. "While living in Ohio my family vacationed on Cape Cod" he recalled. "I thought the Massachusetts girls are so beautiful l'm going to marry one. I feel that fate always grabs me and gives me what I want. I have always believed that. You have to keep your eyes open. If you snooze you lose." As fate would have it Gail was that Massachusetts girl. Phil had his eyes wide open and Gail is the love of his life. Cheers.