Cambridge artists’ cooperative showcases locals’ work over three decades

A display case in the Cambridge Artists’ Cooperative in Cambridge, Mass., holds pieces of jewelry made by Marcia Dean, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Photo by Laura Guerriero/BU News Service.

By Laura Guerriero
BU News Service

This article was previously published in the Cambridge Chronicle. 

CAMBRIDGE — “Did they say Cheater? What a name for a baseball player.”

Mary Ann Babula stands behind the store’s counter as she recounts the time when she received a phone call telling her Derek Jeter had purchased one of her pieces.

“It was blue and gray, of course,” Babula said.

Babula, a Cambridge resident, is one of 15 volunteer associates at the Cambridge Artists’ Cooperative at 59 Church St.

Babula’s a “cold worker.” She carves glass without the use of any heat. Using diamond saw blades, she cuts the pieces of glass while wet, laminating and carving until she reaches the desired product. The matte finish on many of her pieces is created by dipping a ground surface into acid. Materials she has used include mirrored glass, granite, black glass from dumpsters and red glass from stoplights.

Most of her pieces are pendants, but she makes some sculptures as well.

Criteria for becoming a member
On a recent Saturday afternoon, soft music played as customers browsed the artwork.

Glass cases and shelves line the walls, packed with pottery painted with earthy-hued cave drawings to brightly-colored earrings made from flower petals. Down a short flight of stairs, quilts, racks of clothing and a table of cashmere hats and gloves signal the approach of winter in Cambridge.

Currently, the CAC has eight full-time members. They differ from the part-time volunteer associates because they work more hours in the store each month as well as sit on the jury committee.

Before becoming a member of the cooperative, an artist must be approved by the jury committee which looks at an application and work samples. Each month, the jury committee decides if it will accept any new members.

Cooperative President Marcia Dean said the jury’s criteria include whether the art is original and handmade, its quality, salability and if it will fit in the store aesthetically with the other pieces.

The store’s location right off of Harvard Square has caused some trouble for the CAC because rent in the area is expensive and rising, Dean noted. The CAC does have below-market rent, due in part to having a landlord interested in supporting the arts.

“But not hugely below,” she said.

Committing to passion
Dean, a member and president since CAC launched in 1988, said art has been a part of her life since childhood.

Today Dean is a full-time artist, making quilts and jewelry when she is not working in the CAC. She uses opal as the focal point in many of her pieces, and cuts images such as trees into metal with a jeweler’s saw.

Mixed-media artist Ariel Kessler serves as assistant inventory manager. Her artwork includes collages, printmaking and painting. She sells prints, cards and, during the holiday season, ornaments at the CAC. Kessler believes becoming a full-time artist was a hard but necessary transition for her.

“Financially it’s the hardest, committing yourself to your passion,” Kessler said. “Sometimes you have to make something that you don’t necessarily want to make.”

But sometimes, an artist makes something for herself and it’s a hit.

In 1996, the Museum of Fine Arts bought one of Babula’s pieces, she said.

“It was great, they treated me so well,” she said. “I bought a vacuum cleaner with the money they gave me.”

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