Interview with Sarah Turner
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.