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Interview with Sarah Turner

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New board member Sarah Turner, Pres­i­dent North Bennet Street School, talks about NBSS, her history as a maker, and why she joined the FS board.

Meet New FS Board Member Sarah Turner

We’re excited to welcome Sarah as one of our new Board Members. It was over a year ago that artist and educa­tor Sarah Turner offi­cially became the new pres­i­dent of Boston’s renowned North Bennet Street School (NBSS). Here, Sarah talk about the impor­tance of commu­nity connec­tions, getting hooked on craft and the dynamic world of education. 

This is your 2nd year as pres­i­dent of NBSS. What has been one of the most reward­ing parts of this position?

Yes — thank good­ness I had at least one year in the seat before the Covid crisis hit! I had the benefit of a year of learn­ing, under­stand­ing and rela­tion­ship build­ing, which are all so key right now. There are two big rewards of being at NBSS (among many). The first is the people, which is showing itself as a reward even more in this time of crisis. The School has a remark­ably good-hearted, hard-working, open-minded commu­nity – from the students through to the faculty, staff, board members and greater commu­nity… I learn and marvel every day. The second big reward is the focus of the educa­tion: that we train for employ­ment, for useful meaningful work. 

NBSS goes back to 1881. If you were to go back 100 years, what is some­thing that has radi­cally changed over the years there? 

Well, if I were to go back liter­ally 100 years, we’d find that women were just on the cusp of gaining the right to vote and the School’s founder, Pauline Agassiz Shaw, was an orga­nizer for the suffrage move­ment — all of which has been on my mind of late. So, that’s a truly radical change, and not just for NBSS

NBSS started as a settle­ment house: a commu­nity center that offered neces­sary train­ing to early immi­grants to Boston; both a train­ing place and social place. While we still follow that spirit, we’ve become more profes­sional’, in the sense that we’re now accred­ited and train in longer full-time programs. As far as students go, we don’t have the same focus on train­ing on the local immi­grant commu­nity as we once had — we’re much more national in our reach to students. We’ve seen an uptick in our Veteran student group, repre­sent­ing 15%-20% of our student body, which we’re proud of. 

What has stayed the same?

So much about mission and vision has stayed the same, but adapted to the times. The conti­nu­ity that really strikes me is true commu­nity connec­tion – inte­grat­ing what we do and teach with what our commu­nity needs. Our students tune the pianos in the Boston Public Schools and we’ve recently started repair­ing the BPS stringed instru­ments. We do field work: build­ing barns for the Depart­ment of Recre­ation and Conser­va­tion, repair­ing historic build­ings, build­ing food lockers for a women’s shelter. Our grad­u­ates are in commu­nity libraries and univer­si­ties repair­ing books and tending to archives. All this is built on endur­ing and long-stand­ing part­ner­ships of work and usefulness. 

Clearly your students and commu­nity — and Furni­ture Society readers — recog­nize the value of craft. How are you going about educat­ing the wider commu­nity about the impor­tance of skilled craftspeople?

For us, I think we focus less on educat­ing people about the impor­tance’ of skilled craft because frankly, once people see skilled crafts­peo­ple at work, it turns out they already know it’s impor­tant. What people don’t know is that these things still exist, are still being taught, and impor­tantly, are still a valu­able thing to do – and a way to make a living. We educate people by giving good infor­ma­tion, reach­ing as many as we can, promot­ing the work we and others do and keeping craft and trade as part of a conver­sa­tion bigger than itself. 

When/​how were you exposed to design/​making?

I don’t come from a family of crafts people or makers, but I do come from a creative and curious family that values knowl­edge in many forms. I came to craft through instinct: after an impul­sive move from the east coast to the west coast, I followed a curios­ity to visit the Oregon College of Art + Craft in Port­land. There I found just what I was looking for: intel­li­gence, tech­ni­cal empha­sis, creative work, and a balance of tradi­tion and inno­va­tion. I was hooked, stayed for studies and work, and have made craft-art-design educa­tion my focus ever since. 

You were trained in jewelry, metal, wood­work­ing; what led you to move towards education?

I do come from a family of educa­tors, in many ways that’s our family busi­ness’. So, that was a life and lifestyle that I knew well and liked. But I also moved to educa­tion because it is dynamic, collab­o­ra­tive, complex, chal­leng­ing, reward­ing and gives people a way to recog­nize and develop their own abil­i­ties. I love the whole work of educa­tional insti­tu­tions and the many many parts and roles that are required to keep them vital and useful. 

I read you continue to work on your own craft? What kind, and how do you fit it into your daily life?

I try to, yes. I tend to look less at what the balance is between the office and the studio on any given day or even year, but over a longer period of time. It ebbs and flows, of course and I need one to balance the other, even as that balance is shift­ing, always. When I’m in the office more, my work gets more low-tech: sewing, works on paper, draw­ings on paper cups — things that don’t require shop spaces. When I’m in the studio more, I tend toward print­mak­ing, some jewelry and object-based work. 

How did you first become connected with the Furniture Society?

I’ve known of the Furni­ture Society – and the work of many of its members – for a long time (remem­ber, I was a furni­ture minor at OCAC). Being at NBSS defi­nitely recon­nected me though, since furni­ture making is a big part of what we teach and do. I also knew a couple of people on the Board – I met Adam Manley at Haystack and have been a fan of A Work­shop of Our Own, Sarah Marriage’s project, for a while. That kept me tuned in. 

What made you want to be part of the FS board?

It’s so impor­tant (and fun) to stay connected to colleagues from all over, so this was a big moti­va­tor. Plus, I hadn’t been in touch with the furni­ture commu­nity in a while and wanted to renew my knowl­edge and learn­ing about what it’s up to. With NBSS having such a strong program – differ­ent than many others – I felt it was good for me to share what we’re doing too. Plus, I’m a good board member: I show up, help, contribute, think, work. I like to do that for the commu­ni­ties I care about. 

Have a favorite hobby that fills your spare time? 

My new hobby is explor­ing my new city, Boston – now, at a distance from other people. It’s a great walking city with so much to see at human-scale. It’s also a deep dive into Amer­i­can history, every­where you turn. 

What’s one thing someone would be surprised to know about you — that you can share…

I used to run an aquat­ics program at a YWCA – teach­ing every­thing from swim lessons for adults to deep water aero­bics – in the time of mixed tapes!

NBSS is liter­ally a hands-on school, what are some ways you are finding to work with the NBSS students/​community?

I’m amazed at how adapt­able the whole school has been to this new normal, although for us we were madly trying to get hand tools and even work­benches to some students, even as we addressed tech­nol­ogy needs. We’ve had to shift our focus from direct hands-on instruc­tion to things related to profes­sional devel­op­ment, research, history, design, plan­ning, etc. It’s not ideal, but the students and faculty are rally­ing – in part to stay connected and stay in touch, which means lot. It would be easy to drift away from class’ right now, but we’re not seeing that – people are hungry to continue the community.