Greenwich House’s new Director of the Pottery Fabio J. Fernández measures his life against the maxim, “Realize your values in your work.” This immigrant son of a carpenter and a seamstress brings his desire to do good to an organization that has stood for over 120 years, doing good for countless New Yorkers. Established in 1902 as part of the “settlement house” movement, Greenwich House served Irish and Italian immigrants, offering social services and education to help them assimilate into American life. The art education programs grew out of training that provided young people with needed technical skills for employment in trades. Drawing on Italian culture, programs in woodworking, stone cutting, and technical drawing were some of the first courses offered. Pottery was introduced in 1909 and by the 1920s was an integral part of Greenwich House’s developing mission: to improve quality of life through creative work. Fernández stands ready to carry on this tradition, bringing his fifteen years of experience as Curator and Executive Director of Boston’s Society of Arts+Crafts.
Fabio J. Fernández, Insulator Series, Glazed Ceramics, Less than 3 inches tall
Fernández considers himself a generalist in American Craft and is a noted sculptor. He earned his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Sculpture and has extensive experience in curating exhibitions. He began his journey, however, in the field of business, encouraged by his parents to earn a college degree and find a job that would provide a good wage and health insurance. With a BS in Business Management from Seton Hall University, he found employment with Prudential Insurance in Newark, NJ. He says, “It was not a good match.”
Realizing that he was not satisfied by where his parents’ idea of success had led him, he made a change. “I knew I wanted to do good and I wanted to somehow use my Spanish language,” he explains, “so I joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and ended up in a Texas border town on the Rio Grande.” He organized a barter program there for residents that enabled people to meet their needs and the needs of their neighbors outside of a monetary system. When his period of service was over, he took a position with Teach for America in Phoenix.
As part of his teaching assignment, he was asked to present an enrichment class in any subject. “It was supposed to be something you love,” he recalls, “and I didn’t know what I loved. I remembered a professor at Seton Hall, an art professor who taught a clay class that I took in my senior year, to fill an elective requirement. I recalled loving the class and doing well in it. The professor encouraged me to keep creative work in my life, somehow. So, I managed to get 500 pounds of clay donated to the school and at the age of 26, I knew I wanted to be an artist.”
Fabio J. Fernández, Sculptures in Love with Architecture, Collaborative Series with Tom Lauerman, 2006-present.
With no formal training and no portfolio, Fernández enrolled in an MA program at Montclair State University and began to build his craft as a sculptor. From there he went on to earn an MFA in Sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art and was hired as Associate Curator at the Cranbrook Art Museum. His prior business experience served him well as he built a resume in arts administration. A move to Boston followed, where his future wife was working as an architect. He found a curator position at the Society for Arts+Crafts and twelve years later, became its Executive Director.
Fernández comes to Greenwich House at a time of transition. The COVID-19 pandemic helped to squelch a major building and expansion project that stood as a hole in the ground throughout the crisis. Fernández says, “When I walked through the door, the place was very familiar. I had come from a very similar venerable arts organization, with similar programs in education, exhibition, and residencies. And, we had just accomplished a complex move caused by the sale of our space by the landlord. It had been a stressful three years of dealing with all the aspects of a major building project. I feel as though I was tested by fire.”
Fernández will put that experience to use as the Greenwich building project moves forward. The first phase involves significant improvements to the clay-making process. It will include a basement space for clay and glaze mixing over a two-story, ADA-compliant structure that will house a kiln room. “We are currently mixing clay in a cramped space in a cramped building in a cramped city,” says Fernández. “The clay is hoisted in 200-pound buckets outside the building!” He says that potters often take pride in “making do” with primitive spaces and equipment, but he feels that Greenwich, as such a venerable organization, deserves better.
Fernández admits that he is needs more education in the technical aspects of clay and looks forward to taking classes after his first year of acclimating to the new organization. He says, “I like how clay fits into Greenwich’s wider mission.” His first goal is to take time to listen to the staff, faculty, and students, acknowledging that others have a much longer tenure. He hopes to find a degree of consensus after a period of listening. He says, “There are people who have been taking classes here for 50 years. That demands a humble manner.”
While Greenwich’s growth will demand Fernández’s administrative and business expertise, he will still find time for his creative work. I use my sketchbook to hold onto the thread of my creative process,” he says, “and every couple of years, I take a residency to feed my practice.” He describes that creative spark as “the hyphen that connects people, ideas, and objects.” That connection is at the core of the work at Greenwich: social and educational programs that serve community. By following his core value of “doing good” Fernández has accomplished not only his goal, but the dream of his parents for a better life.
Learn more about Greenwich House Pottery at https://www.greenwichhouse.org/pottery-about/home/