ibegan volunteering at the big blue Victorian house on Lincoln Street in Brunswick when I was 13 years old. While I was nervous at first, I quickly felt at home in the magical space that greeted me, as Spindleworks is simply a lively and welcoming world of its own. The front door of the house acts as a portal to this world, revealing room after room filled with bright colors, diverse art and the friendly aroma of coffee. Walls are covered in drawings, paintings, photos, sculptures, pottery, fashion, jewelry and weavings. Hardwood floors, worn from heavy foot traffic and covered in paint from decades of art making, echo the din of conversation among artists, staff and visitors. One simply cannot be a stranger here for long.
As I tackled my first jobs—helping to organize the in-house library and clean the mountain of paintbrushes—I began to take in everything about the house and people. Works-in-progress covered the counter in the paint room, and when I tried to pick at the paint on the table, I was told to stop, because I was erasing the history of a table blessed with paint marks from decades before. So began a great learning experience, one bursting with a sense of community.
During my hours of volunteering, it’s been impossible to ignore the tightly knit, yet welcoming community inside of Spindleworks. In every room, for example, one comes upon people sitting, chatting and making art together. Sometimes it’s in the sewing room, with artists searching through buckets of fabric, buttons, ribbons and findings; sometimes it’s in the woodshop, with a mentor clamping down a piece of wood to be drilled; sometimes it’s in the fiber room, with fellow shoppers looking through the house for the first time.
Dance group on Wednesdays and Thursdays for artists or visitors as well as volunteers features new playlists curated by a staff and artists alike. Some days the music pays tribute to the kings of classic rock, with Elvis or The Beatles crooning through the laptop speakers. Other days act as odes to the pop of the last two decades, featuring Britney Spears and Black Eyed Peas. It’s a way to get the energy out and to bring everybody together, always making sure to give wheelchair users and folks with adaptive equipment the room to dance, too. On Thursdays, Spindleworks hosts a Fiber Circle inviting artists and makers of any age to join the Spindleworkers as they create their own fiber projects. Participants help each other as they make tiny stitches into fabric, or use sharp needles to felt objects. The doors are closed and the room becomes a quiet sanctuary for those who need it.
Spindleworks, technically considered a “community support program” by its parent company, Independence Association, is aptly named. The program was born in the late 1970s by local artist Nan Ross out of a need to integrate individuals with a disability into the greater community. Nan quickly realized that art was a way that these individuals could be seen and valued in their community because of their intuitive abilities to create. In addition, these professional artists are able to sell their wares, aiding them to be more independent members of their community. Initially the program offered a variety of fiber skills, but it has since expanded, guided by the interests of the artists, to now offer any imaginable media. Spindleworks organizes a dozen or more art shows in the community at local businesses and galleries including the annual “All Species Art Show,” testament to the fact that the tight community inside the walls of the Spindleworks house actually reaches far beyond its studios.
The program offers further community art workshops including classes taught by program artists and involves the artists in self-selected civic actions, including attending national protests to end gun violence. Spindleworks has collaborated with a variety of local businesses and organizations including the Maine Arts Commission, Frontier, The Theater Project, The Harlow Gallery, Brunswick Downtown Association and many more. It has now gained national recognition as one of the premier progressive art programs in the country, which has led to increased recognition of adults with disabilities in the arts.
In 2018, after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, Spindleworks opened its doors for concerned citizens to make protest signs. Then, together as a unit, Spindleworks and the people of Brunswick walked the streets to call for change. Artists from Spindleworks have also joined together at the Statehouse in Augusta to advocate for disability rights. They are advocates, because they must be.
In the town of Brunswick, Spindleworks artists utilize the community. Daily trips to the coffee spot or a local eatery, errands at the local art store or the bank or the pharmacy make Brunswick a great fit for the lives of these artists. Proximity allows many to be as independent as possible. During the summer, artists will sometimes go to the farmers’ market in the park, searching for the perfect quart of blueberries, or maybe just to enjoy some cute dogs! Other times, field trips include walking the streets of Brunswick and poking into local shops or browsing the shelves at the library.
Now, during a time of heightened caution and social distancing, things at Spindleworks have changed. They now host a podcast and a murder mystery on Zoom. Most field trips are virtual or outside and distanced, and the house is closed off to the public, but community engagement is still a main focus. When it opens again, locals again will be able to experience the magic of Spindleworks: its community, its camaraderie and its art.