(Editor’s Note: ‘Helping the Helpers,’ a cooperative effort between The Pennsylvania Capital-Star and Uniontown Herald-Standard is a daily series highlighting the work of volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania who are making a difference in their communities. The stories will run through Christmas Day)
By Jennifer Garafalo
FARMINGTON TWP., Pa. — Every June through September, Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington Twp., Fayette County, comes alive with artists – experts and novices – who want to hone their skills in areas like blacksmithing and ceramics.
Many stay on the Farmington campus for what Touchstone’s marketing manager Dean Simpson calls an “immersive experience” of classes scheduled throughout June and September and taught by artists from across the country.
“In March, our season was gearing up. We were doing really well with preregistrations, things were looking really good, and then COVID happened,” he said. “We couldn’t risk having people come from all over.”
With their season scuttled, Touchstone shifted to some virtual content.
Some artists who were scheduled to teach offered virtual happy hour programming, giving viewers a glimpse inside their at-home studios.
Although it wasn’t the preferred way to conduct a season, Simpson said the format allowed Touchstone’s instructors and the center itself to reach a whole new audience in different states and countries.
“About 1,000 signed up for the happy hours over the summer. Typically, in a season, we would have 500 to 700 on campus, so we doubled the number of people we could reach,” he said.
Many of those who rely on creativity for a conduit for expression have been without arts organizations due to forced or voluntary pandemic-related closures.
- HOW TO HELP: To donate to Touchstone Center for Crafts, visit www.touchstonescrafts.org. A link to donate can be found at the top of their homepage.
“Even before the pandemic,” Simpson said, “arts programs in schools were cut back.”
Touchstone offers a way to help fill that void, he said, offering a wide range of programs for children and adults to flex their creative muscles.
Yet even in a time when gathering in person was made more difficult by the pandemic, Simpson said artists engaged virtually.
It’s a trend he’s seen across the board.
“In all of the arts, there has been an amplification of people sharing their work, and it helps us get through,” he said.
It is, in short, a form of self-care for those who enjoy it, he noted.
“[The need for] self-care is amplified with the pandemic, but it’s also something we should’ve been concentrating on before. We never take time to do something for ourselves, and we’re all guilty of that,” he said.
Touchstone is making pandemic-friendly plans for a 2021 season, measuring out studios to determine how many can safely be in any given class and on campus. They hope to begin taking reservations for classes as early as January.
They’ll offer many of the classes planned for 2020, including a teen week and an educator’s retreat in July. In August, they plan to bring in New Jersey-based Frontline Arts to work with veterans and their families in a unique program that makes artwork out of military uniforms and memorabilia.
The five-day workshop, free to veterans, is a “very reflective and emotional process,” Simpson said.
The center was one of dozens that received donations through the Fayette Gives campaign in November, and Simpson said donations also helped to support Touchstone in the summer.
And while even the smallest donation is appreciated, Simpson said he’s hopeful that the 2021 season will bring people back to the center for their many workshops.
“Participating in a workshop is probably the best way to be a part of this organizations, and be a part of the community,” he said.
Jennifer Garafalo is managing editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. Readers may email her at [email protected]