Bringing Artists Together: the Jamaica Plain Artists Association

Latin Quarter Mosaic Project artists (L to R) Richard Youngstrom, Fiona O’Conner, Andrea Tamkin. Photo courtesy of Richard Youngstrom

By Noemi Arellano-Summer
BU News Service

JAMAICA PLAIN – Jamaica Plain has always been home to artists and other creative people. The Jamaica Plain Artists Association began in the 1980s as a way for local artists to share their art with the community and each other. Artists could meet to exchange ideas, share work and introduce contacts.

Today, the steering committee of the JPAA has two main goals. The first is to support its 40 to 50 members through exhibitions, and the second is to expand the presence of art in the community through open events.

“We definitely want to do more exhibits,” Fiona O’Connor, an artist and member of the steering committee, said. “We just had our annual meeting and there is a strategic plan to do more things like that.”

Last year, JPAA had two member exhibits, one at JP Licks and the other at Turtle Swamp Brewery in Jamaica Plain, which was a new venue for the artists association.

“There is a demand for support from members,” said Cynthia Kollios, artist and fellow steering committee member. “Groups would like to paint together, learn tips and share with each other. Members are looking for spaces and local areas, maybe in other neighborhoods, for opportunities to show their work. Space-wise it’s tough.”

Hyde Square Task Force mosaic students & teachers. Photo courtesy of Richard Youngstrom

JPAA also works with other community organizations, including the Hyde Street Task Force, a youth and community development organization. The students focus on the performing arts, however, and according to O’Connor, it was a natural collaboration.

“You have young people of color, working with performing arts, and us mostly white older visual artists,” O’Connor said. “They hadn’t done visual art.”

JPAA members Richard Youngstrom and Andrea Tamkin ran a series of mosaics and watercolor classes, respectively. Together, both organizations gained a grant to do a community mosaic project on the public plaza of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Square.

The project took the form of summer sessions throughout 2017 and 2018, with community members pitching in, as well. The two mosaics were unveiled in October 2018.

Mosaic Church of Blessed Sacrament. Photo courtesy of Richard Youngstrom

The space had been abandoned for the past few years, said Youngstrom, and the Hyde Square Task Force bought the church and planned to turn it into an arts and civics center.

“We’d like to grow the relationship [with the Hyde Square Task Force] and have more than a short, one-time workshop,” Kollios said.

The Community

The Jamaica Plain Artists Council organizes JP Open Studios every September for artists to open their studios to the community. JPAA is beginning to look at a collaboration with JPAC, in order to explore a closer relationship between both leadership and members. 

JPAA’s members are all visual artists in a number of different mediums. Among them are mosaics, painting and collages.

Artist Barney Levitt joined JPAA when he moved to Jamaica Plain around 1987. 

“Their feedback and encouragement of my work gave me the courage to apply for membership in The Copley Society of Art, which I was juried into in 2004,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know many of the members of the JPAA and show with many of them during Jamaica Plain Open Studios. It’s where I finally took my painting seriously.”

Artist Jessica Burko joined JPAA when she moved to Jamaica Plain in 2003. She had been looking for a group of local artists, and she was glad to find the artists’ association.

“Being an artist can be isolating as one is alone in the studio as much time as possible,” Burko said. “I’m grateful to be able to discuss art, techniques, materials and life as an artist with others. Meeting new artists in the area and becoming friends with longtime members is an important way for me to be involved with the local arts community.”

Kollios moved to Jamaica Plain just after receiving her BFA from the University of Connecticut. Though she liked JP Open Studios, it was only once a year. She learned about JPAA and figured it was another opportunity to showcase her art.

“Being an artist with your own studio can get you isolated,” she said. “It was nice to know others to reach out to.”

Kollios combines mediums in her artwork, using oil paint, pastels and graphite on paper to create mixed media, including collages.

“I do object-oriented work,” said Kollios. “I like map imagery, and I’ve done series on objects that I’ve gotten obsessed with. I start with the realistic, then push so it becomes something else. In the balance between something you recognize and something more abstract, my work hangs in the middle.”

Artist Terry Boutelle has been at JPAA since the beginning, when artist Helen Hummel started the organization.

“I went to her very first meeting, at Curtis Hall, which was well attended with all different types of artists,” Boutelle said.

For the past 13 years, he’s taught painting at another of JPAA’s community connections: the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts. He has also taught painting at the Mother Brook Arts and Community Center for four years.

O’Connor, on the other hand, didn’t come from an arts background and has only been making art for the past four to five years. She creates paintings, mixed media and mosaics.

“I’ve always been a maker,” she said. “I have two tenets for art: one, you have to have very high expectations, and two, you have to forgive yourself when you don’t reach them.”

Changing Times

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Burko has been continuing to make art and hold virtual workshops. 

“Times are difficult for everyone during this global crisis and particularly so for the arts community,” she said. “Many artists do not have full-time jobs with benefits and are really suffering financially. Plus, many are struggling creatively.”

Levitt said that Covid-19 has made it harder than ever for artists to sell their work.

“Visual artists now have to rely almost exclusively on showing their work online,” he said. “Most of my selling venues i.e. Open Studio events, public shows, even galleries, have been canceled or shuttered.”

However, Levitt believes that art is more important than ever in the pandemic.

“I’ve been pushing ahead with new painting projects, building up my inventory, trying to remain optimistic in the face of this crisis,” he said. “I know there will eventually be a return to normalcy, and there will be a pent up demand for artwork. The world needs art, especially in these difficult times.”

The coronavirus has hit the arts community in ways no one could have imagined.

“Activities, of course, are on hold with the virus,” Kollios said. “We’re mostly doing email contact through our Google group about online exhibits, podcasts and info on aid that is available for artists in need.”

The artistic community in Jamaica Plain was already struggling, as rising rents prices make affording to live in the area increasingly difficult.

According to the real estate company Boston Pads, in March 2020 the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Jamaica Plain was $2,430. The average for Back Bay was $3,600, while Dorchester’s average price was $2,060.

“That’s part of the age gap. Older artists aren’t under pressure to move out,” O’Connor said. “Members have had to leave. I know people who have literally left town ‘cause they can’t afford to live here.’”

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