As the year 2020 got underway, ceramic artist and teacher Jill Leary was looking forward to another year of growth at her Westchester studio and school, Railyard Arts Studio. Open for about eighteen months, the converted former lumber yard building was humming with activity, with potters busy in the clay studio and a variety of artists painting, print making, and working in stained glass in the big “art room.” Leary’s dream of creating a warm and welcoming community for artists had become a reality. By March, that dream was under attack by a micro-organism called COVID-19.
Railyard Arts Studio closed its doors on March 13 as the pandemic began its relentless rampage through Westchester County and New York City. “Everybody here was terrified,” she says. “Suddenly, my studio was empty. No one was leaving their house.” The way Leary had structured her business worked against her in receiving federal pandemic aid. Because her instructors were paid as contract providers, the business technically had no employees, making it ineligible for small business paycheck protection programs, grants, or loans. And, because the business was relatively new, Leary had deferred taking a salary, eliminating the relief of state unemployment aid. But Leary found resources within herself, resources that had served her through past difficulties.
Leary was born with a congenital abnormality. Her right arm developed only to below the elbow, leaving her without a hand. “I had great therapist at the age of 4 or 5,” she explains, “and I wear a prosthesis.” She was determined to major in art at Syracuse University. “I started in painting and art education, but the department was so large, it was easy to be shut out of classes I wanted to take and found an opening for a ceramic hand building class. Unfortunately, I hated it. However, I kept passing the wheels in the studio and I knew I could do this. I had to teach my professors to believe in me. And I succeeded.” With her BFA and MFA in Ceramics and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education, she began a career in arts education with the New York State public schools.
After twelve years of teaching elementary art, she shifted her focus to charitable work and raising her children. When her young nephew was diagnosed with a rare childhood leukemia, Leary launched a fundraising charity, Crafts for a Cure,a carnival of art projects for kids which raised more than $100,000 for childhood cancer research. She also created “Healing Hugs Happy Hearts,” a non-profit program that collects more than 1,000 handmade valentines for hospital patients. As her children reached middle school, Leary rented
studio space and returned to her creative beginnings. She recalls, “I found it to be quite lonely and I began to imagine my own art school.” She envisioned a place that would become a community. “I wanted the feeling of a place that nobody would ever want to leave.” By the time COVID-19 arrived in New York, Leary had created just that, in her Railyard Arts Studio. The studio’s two large workspaces are connected by a comfortable lounge where artists can relax and share ideas over a cup of coffee or tea. Both rooms are equipped with frame molding for shows. Artists with studio memberships form the backbone of the community, with instructors and students coming and going throughout the day.
Leary needed to save the community she had created. She had to come up with her own COVID plan. She established a “remote” membership for pottery, providing materials for artists who wanted to work at home, as well as limited “in studio” pottery memberships for experienced potters. In the art room, tables were rearranged to form distant spaces and one of the painting teachers offered a class. Leary says, “I thought it was working, and that I’d be able to open in the fall, but then there was a positive COVID test scare in the painting group, and everyone panicked. I realized this would be insane on a larger scale and I couldn’t open in the fall.” She had to come up with an alternate source of income that could sustain operations until the pandemic is under control. “With the help of some of our members,” she says, “we created six semi-private studio spaces in the art room. We built movable walls that give the artists their own space, with a bulletin board and shelving for storage.” Eventually, artists started to come back and she currently has five of the six spaces taken. Along with the eight pottery memberships, she feels she can meet her needs.
Before the pandemic, the studio had a tradition of celebrating the artists’ birthdays in the lounge. Leary had a birthday recently, and the group celebrated with an outdoor party. “It was good to see everyone again,” Leary says, “even at a distance.” Throughout the summer, many of the artists continued to create, many in great quantities. Leary organized a pop-up sale with a small, socially distant, arts and crafts fairs outside the studio and plans another for September. The persistence of the community to survive is evidence of the healing aspects of art. Leary says, “I never expected the studio to be so meaningful for so many people. Many of our members are coping with illnesses, grief, and loss, and their stories have become part of our community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has pervasive effects on every aspect of human activity. The arts community, while not considered “essential,” has nevertheless been touched, as we have seen at Railyard Arts Studio. The economic aspects of the working artist’s life have been hard hit. Yet, the fundamental work of the artist – to present a vision of an aspect of the world – may serve to allay fear, enhance understanding, and bring us together at a time where human contact and community are desperately needed. Jill Leary’s lifetime of meeting challenges is helping her do her small part for the Railyard Arts Studio community.
Learn more at www.railyardartsstudio.com, or on Instagram, @railyard _arts and @jl.pottery