DEER ISLE — Change happens at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts the way the moss grows on the rocks and the wooden timbers of the decks and cabins: slowly.

It’s that way on purpose. There’s a minimalist modesty and thoughtful humility to this place that is evident in the way the buildings interact with nature and how the people who come here to study and teach interact with the architecture. They blend together over time and become part of something bigger. That quiet, efficient and purposeful evolution reflects the value system of the school, which is just enough and not too much.

Since the mid-20th century, artists have come here to work — in ceramics, glass, metals, wood and more — paying as much as $2,000 for two weeks of instruction, studio access and fellowship with other artists. The campus is carved into the trees at the end of the peninsula, offering artists both the solitude and space they need to think about their work and the facilities to turn their ideas into tangible things.

The view from the loft of a sleeping cabin. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

Each building and each piece of equipment is designed for the purpose at hand. The studios are outfitted with the kind of equipment artists will work with when they return home. The dining hall is big and open with long tables where people can sit in groups or find a quiet space for a private conversation and meal.

The sleeping cabins, part of the larger vision of architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, are blessed with the same simplicity and economy as when they were built nearly 60 years ago, with straight lines and wooden shingles. Artists in residence hang their clothes on a wooden peg and lay their heads on rustic beds made with pine 2-by-4s and plywood.

They were just enough and not too much.

It’s been that way since 1961, when the school relocated from Montville to the Sunshine peninsula of Deer Isle on the coast of Jericho Bay. This year, it will be different.

To the delight of many artists whose only complaint about this place might have been the fitful nights, Haystack has refurbished all of its sleeping cabins with 100 new beds, side tables and storage units. They’re still simple and modest – and twin-size small – but also more comfortable.

Instead of plywood, the mattresses are supported by wooden slats that allow more air circulation, which is advantageous in Maine’s damp coastal environment. And the new beds, made with European birch, are designed with a headboard that can be maneuvered into an upright position to allow for comfortable reading, and reading lights now clip conveniently on to the headboard. Before, if you wanted to read in bed, you made do with a ball of clothes and whatever pillows you bribed from your cabin mate to prop your head and back.

“A lot of those beds were really old,” said Haystack Assistant Maintenance Director Kit Loekle. “We’ve replaced them over the years, but some go back 40 years. People pay a lot of money to come here. We should upgrade the quarters without changing the character of place.”

The new beds are made of European birch with mattresses supported by wooden slats, rather than the old plywood, to allow better air circulation on damp Maine nights.

MINDFUL OF TRADITION

There’s the rub. Change comes hard to Haystack, and director Paul Sacaridiz, in his second year on the job, knew he was undertaking a delicate project. He inherited a legacy of place when he became director, and he was mindful of balancing progress with tradition. “This was about replacing a bunch of beds, but it was really about so much more,” he said.

Haystack is part of a larger tradition of artist retreats in New England that dates to the early 20th century, when artists, writers and musicians sought quiet places of refuge to escape the cities and the summer heat. Maine became an obvious destination, because of its natural allure and relative ease of access via water and rail. At Haystack, and other places like it, the physical place and the routines it inspires become as important as the art-making itself.

The beds are part of a cabin refurbishment project that will cost about $150,000 over four years, paid for with grants and donations, Sacaridiz said.

He looked internally for the bed project, asking longtime trustee and furniture designer Rosanne Somerson to take on the task. Somerson, who is president of Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, collaborated with John Dunnigan, who is on the furniture design faculty at that school, to make the perfect bed for Haystack. Somerson and Dunnigan have personal history at Haystack and understand the school’s aesthetic.

They took on the task of designing a comfortable, practical twin bed that would fit the characteristics of the space and the value system of the school, while transforming the very personal experience of a good night’s rest for artists.

Somerson embraced the challenge of honoring function, aesthetic, beauty and what she calls “the majesty of the site” in a modest way. She and Dunnigan set out to create a highly functional handmade piece of furniture that would satisfy the needs of creative people without overpowering the humble experience of staying in a simple cabin, while also accounting for Haystack’s damp environment.

Her responsibilities at RISD usually prevent Somerson from getting the time she wants in the studio. She made time for this project.

“Haystack is near and dear to me,” she said. “I’ve been involved with the school for a long time. It’s a magical, special place, and I really respect the less-is-more approach.”

After settling on the design, Haystack worked with Fancher Chair of Falconer, New York, to set up a small-scale run of the beds. The beds arrived in the fall.

Tyler Inman was among those who came to campus to help assemble them. Inman, who grew up in the central Maine town of Pittsfield and attended Haystack as a high school student, also teaches furniture-making at RISD and assisted during the design phase by building the prototype of the bed before it went into production. He also refined the design of the under-bed storage unit.

He helped install about 60 beds in the fall before the weather got too cold and the campus was closed for the season. Inman returned to Haystack in April to finish installing the remaining 40 beds. Once he got into a rhythm, it took him about 15 minutes to install each bed.

“I was working under a deadline of my own,” he said explaining the efficiency of his pace. “I had to be back in Providence to wrap up another project and deliver it that weekend. Otherwise, I would have slowed down and enjoyed the beautiful Deer Isle scenery a little bit more.”

Generations of artists have passed through Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, with its sweeping views of Jericho Bay, all sleeping in rustic cabins on notoriously uncomfortable beds. That is changing with the 2017 season. The cabins are still rustic, but Haystack has fitted them with 100 thoughtfully designed new beds (top) with adjustable headboards, side tables and storage units. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

A GOOD NIGHT’S (OR DAY’S) SLEEP

Sleep is an integral component of the artistic experience at Haystack, said Tim McCreight, a Harpswell metalsmith and jeweler whose Haystack experiences go back 40 years.

Over those years, he estimates he’s spent 60 to 70 nights at Haystack. Sleep is not necessarily a priority at there, with the studios open 24 hours a day, and it’s not unusual for artists to stay up all night or wake up in the middle of the night to work. But it’s important to sleep well, McCreight said.

“Life at Haystack is so different than any normal, regular life,” he said. “Up there, the studios are always open, so you drift – maybe you are done at 5 in the afternoon or maybe it’s 5 in the morning. It depends on what you are doing. You drift. If you wake up at 3 in the morning and feel like going to work, you do.”

His only complaint over the years has been the discomfort of the beds, and especially the difficult nature of finding a comfortable position to read in bed. He hasn’t experienced the new beds yet but gives Haystack two thumbs up for its efforts.

“They nailed it,” he said.

The Haystack season has begun. Artists are on campus for residencies, and the first two-week session begins June 11. The new beds are being used, and Sacaridiz appreciates that they look like they’ve always been here.

“There’s a subtlety to them, but they’re very special,” he said. “They make sense in the space. They are new and timeless at the same time.”

That’s the Haystack way.

Contact Bob Keyes at 791-6457 or:

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