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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.

Sarah Turner

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.