The Right Light: Artists At Fenway Studios Open Their Doors

An artist is always looking for the right light, and at 30 Ipswich St., just a five minute walk from the Hynes Convention Center, Boston’s artists have just the place—a beautiful, century-old red brick building in the middle of the city that remains closed to the public for most of the year.

Fenway Studios has been home to select working artists since 1904, making it the oldest building of its kind in the entire country. On Nov. 15 and 16, Fenway Studios will open its doors to the public during the annual free Open Studios event.

Each studio features 12-foot windows facing north. To artists throughout history and in all parts of the world, the light from the north is considered to be the most pristine light. When an artist paints or sculpts with natural light from the north, he or she can avoid glare and direct sunlight into the studio. The north-facing windows in Fenway Studios all have large shades that allow the artists to easily manipulate the sunlight in the room. This gives them control over what they are painting, as they control the shadows in the room for more detailed work.

For Lynda McNally, Fenway Studios holds a special place in her heart. McNally is the founding president of Friends of Fenway Studios, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of Fenway Studios and to promote its artists.

“I think the most accomplished bit of history for this place is the fact that it was a purpose-built building,” McNally said. “It wasn’t anything else before it was Fenway Studios.”

Since its inception in the early 20th century, Fenway Studios has maintained 46 studios specifically designed for artists to both live and create their work. Instead of conferring with a construction company or city-planning group, the men and women whose dream it was to build an artist’s haven spoke to artists themselves to develop what many of the residents of Fenway Studios today believe is still an artist’s dream.

Every part of the building was designed specifically with artists in mind, and the importance of the specific design of the building actually helped to save the building at the turn of the century, according to McNally.

“In 1998, our board [Friends of Fenway Studios] saw the peril that the building was in as the result of proposed construction of a skyscraper over the Massachusetts turnpike extension that is across the street from Fenway Studios,” McNally said. “The construction would have completely interfered with the purpose of the Fenway Studios, casting shadows that would have blocked a good part of the building, which would have completely negated the opportunity that the artists have with the north light.”

Due in part to a group of artists from Fenway who went to Washington, D.C. to propose that the building be recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the skyscraper construction was suspended.

“It was a long and arduous process, but it was completely worth it,” McNally said. “We now know that the integrity of Fenway Studios will always be preserved.”

Because Fenway Studios has stood strong among more transient studios, it has always attracted many working artists. The waiting list to get a studio has been known to reach upward of 12 years.

Alexander “Sasha” Gassel has had a studio at Fenway for four years, but not before having his name on the waiting list for over six years.

“I forgot my name was even on the list,” Gassel joked. “But I was very happy to get the call from Fenway Studios saying that I was finally accepted.”

Gassel moved from Russia to America with his wife 34 years ago. He barely spoke any English when he arrived, and after working for a railroad company for a few years, he quit to pursue art full time.

“I love it here [at Fenway Studios],” Gassel said. “The light is perfect, which is very important to us [artists], and it is always quiet, comfortable, and safe.”

For Kayla Mohammadi, who got an undergraduate degree in business and went back to art school after years of working in business, Fenway Studios’ location is key. She found out about Fenway from a friend who had a studio there and had read an article about it in the newspaper. She immediately knew it was something that interested her, so she applied to have her name put on the waiting list. She spent eight years on the list before finally getting a studio three years ago.

“I don’t live very far away, so it’s very nice to have the option to walk to my studio,” Mohammadi said. “The location is perfect, since it’s right in the middle of Boston, and the history of the building itself is just so fascinating. It’s really a great working space.”

Unlike Mohammadi, artist Nan Hass Feldman, who has been at Fenway Studios for nine years and was on the waitlist for 17—attended art school right after graduating high school.

“I grew up around art,” said Feldman, whose mother was an artist and grandfather was a goldsmith for Tiffany’s. “I lived in Brooklyn, and every Saturday from ages 12 to 18, my best friend and I would take the train into Manhattan and spent the whole day at art museums. We were art nuts!”

Feldman spent years working in her studio in her Framingham home before getting her studio at Fenway. For Feldman, her Fenway studio allows her to focus solely on her art.

“I spend at least two nights and three days here a week,” Feldman said. “When I’m here, I can paint for a very long time without being interrupted and distracted by the other things going on in my life.”

For most of the artists at Fenway Studios, Open Studios is a cherished event. It allows the artists to speak with people about what they are passionate about and have spent their life working on. The event also allows the community to learn about the importance of the National Historical Landmark.

“Beautiful treasures disappear without the support of the community,” McNally said. “This building itself is such a treasure, and once people discover it, they tend to see the merit in needing to preserve it.”

Featured Image Courtesy of fenwaystudios.org | Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Photo Illustration