Culture and Creativity as ComebackAug 31, 2020 12:44PM ● By Sean Sullivan
The great outdoors has been one of the few bright spots in the shadow of this summer’s shutdown, during days since the pandemic took and held sway over everyday life. Sequestration and separation from family and friends inspired a mini migration, coaxing denizens ever outward from within the walls of their homes.
It’s been a savior for the sanity of so many that New England weather was warming just as the gates and strictures of the shutdown began to bar commonplace habits and haunts of the season. And as these outdoor spaces have become more trafficked, they’ve come to be transformed.
Sidewalk concrete continues to be a canvas for interactive installations of chalk-art, with passersby invited to partake in a fleeting game of hopscotch as they make their way. Missives of well wishes and inspiration are still being inscribed on the pavement in chalked pastels, lingering long in a summer with scant rainfall.
Natick’s Hunnewell Forest became populated for a fewfortnights with fairies, the small, handmade figures appearing in the hovels and hollows of trees, and every other woodland nook and cranny Mother Nature could conceive of. That “Fairy Project” became a favorite attraction of children and adults near and far.
Now, curating that kind of welcoming culture and creativity among Natick’s outdoor spaces is considered crucial in continuing the town’s comeback during the coronavirus.
Also on the open-air menu is Porchfest, an outdoor collection of mini concerts, each performed from the perches of private homes. That the venues are dispersed throughout Natick center’s outskirts should satisfy social-distancing strictures, allowing people to space safely while attending these porch-based performances. The music event, held around mid-September, has been popular in years past and is being considered this season among a slate of outdoor events.
The town is also contending with the logistics of Halloween, how to safely host the costumed children who haunt the front doors of neighbors.
Playing a prominent role in the promotion and planning of such events is the Natick Center Cultural District, an organization with a mandate to foster the cultural, economic and social life of the community. The NCCD had been based above Natick’s Fair & Yeager Insurance Agency, but has recently moved to its new Court Street headquarters.
The new street-level office has superior visibility, with more the character of a storefront than an office building. Baldwin Hill Framing had long been a business tenant in the location, but moved its operation at the beginning of this year.
The location is suitable for two small businesses, with a porous partition separating the two sides of the space. The building’s exterior is a welcoming brick façade, a common fixture of downtown Natick character.
Athena Pandolf has been executive director of the NCCD for five years. During the pandemic shutdown, the organization has been playing a supportive role, offering guidance and Covid signage to businesses seeking to navigate this new landscape.
“We really are focused on how we can help these small businesses,” said Pandolf. “That’s the heartbeat of the downtown.”
The spot is ideal for events, with a great balance of charm, visibility and limited car traffic. Perpendicular to Main Street, its sidewalk is amenable to artistic events, with the potential to pull passersby from that busy thoroughfare. Court Street’s eastern end meets Washington, home to several Natick restaurant staples, many of which have adopted outdoor dining to ensure patrons’ safety.
“This is a place where we could be more visible,” said Pandolf. “It’ll be a really nice place to be, on Court Street.”
Tents and umbrellas have blossomed to shelter diners during the dog days of summer, transforming parking lots and curbsides. And while these pop-up culinary venues haven’t quite yet approached the charm of Parisian and Italian al fresco cafes, they’re getting there. That’s where the NCCD is hoping to make a real impact.
As diners have been shifted into this new setting, some leaders and creatives have started to imagine such outdoor spaces anew, seeing potential in lieu of shortcomings. NCCD is focused on repurposing these surroundings as canvases, blank slates upon which to install and encourage artwork, to inspire a more inviting and interesting outdoor experience.
Think of them as public works projects, undertakings intended to make these spaces more beautiful and beneficial places to be during a time when that work is sorely needed.
Overall, the focus will be on creating an immersive, interesting and inviting atmosphere, one that will foster the feel and attraction of an outdoor marketplace.
While the shutdown has been the source of many businesses shuttering their operations, the NCCD and Natick will be welcoming a new addition to its downtown artistic commerce community. Uni-T, a shop that sells its own line of sustainable hand-printed t-shirts, will be sharing the split store space with the NCCD.
Uni-T is also a venue for local artisans and artists, selling an eclectic mix of hand-made artifacts and works of art. Eujin Kim Neilan is a celebrated children’s book illustrator and visual artist, and has been a creative influence in the town for more than a decade. She started Uni-T to share her artwork on wearable canvases, and now ships her shirts worldwide through several online sales channels.
The small and successful shop has come full circle, having been born just a stone’s throw away at the Natick Common. There, at the town’s weekend farmers markets, is where Neilan started selling her t-shirts about 10 years ago. The weekly events have long been a favored venue for local makers to showcase and sell their wares.
Now during these days of social distancing, that outdoor model has taken on new significance.
Neilan’s Uni-T soon opened a shop in the Natick Mall, where it was successful for years and garnered a loyal base of fans and customers. Yet when the Court Street location became available earlier this year, Neilan jumped at the chance to once again become part of Natick’s creative downtown culture.
“I feel like I came back where I started,” said Neilan. “To be surrounded by extremely talented people. It’s an artist community.”
During the swelter of July and August, while seafood connoisseurs dined just next door in The Dolphin’s open-air restaurant, NCCD and Uni-T were both setting up shop in the respective sides of their new Court Street location.
While the former was installing chairs, desks and office equipment, the latter was artfully arranging elaborate exhibits of mannequins, framed artwork, jewelry displays and hand-crafted keepsakes. Although the interiors of the two sides could hardly differ more, the vision and goals of the two tenants is aligned.
“That’s all we really have to rely on,” said Pandolf. “Each other.”