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Artisans Breathe New Life Into Historic Winsted Mill

Don Wass. Photos by David Archambault.

By Lauren Curran

Here in the Rural Intelligence region, we are blessedly removed from the land of strip malls. We like our commercial areas to be as artistic as the people and contents inside. And we’re fortunate that New England’s history of mills and factories has left its legacy in buildings begging to be repurposed into centers like the one we’ve just discovered. Whiting Mills, which sits at the end of a nondescript street in Winsted, one of Connecticut’s old mill towns, is a mighty, brick giant whose dusty, historic innards are being transformed into a small business and arts mecca.

The four-story, light-filled former factory, known in the 1800s as Winsted Hosiery, is being revitalized into studio space for a wide variety of artisans, small business and retail shops. Paintings, yoga, handmade soaps, model railroad supplies, carpentry, farrier-related products, basket weaving, sculpture, photography, video production and a silversmith’s wares are among the activities breathing new life in the building’s 52 large, airy, studios and shops.

“It’s becoming a success story,” says photographer David Archambault, who also rents a studio there. “My goal here is to have no vacant studios.”

The studios have been a long time coming. Winsted was one of the first mill towns in Connecticut, and Winsted Hosiery was a small manufacturer of men’s hosiery, later becoming the largest hosiery manufacturer in the state after expanding its product line. Whiting Mills LLC was established in June 2004 when Jean Paul and Eva Blachere of France bought the aging 135,000-square-foot complex and later renovated it.

Now the goal is to become a destination spot, Archambault says. One way of doing this is hosting Open Studios, an event when all the artisans and businesses are open, sharing their studios and services with the public.

“It really is recognizing that there’s a major art community here in Winsted,” Archambault says. “That’s what Open Studios is all about.”

Whiting Mills Open Studios will be held on Saturday and Sunday, June 6 and 7 (with a block party on Sunday), and again during the holidays. Last December, more than 1,500 visitors walked through the mill in two days, says Archambault. He continues working diligently to attract visitors from Connecticut and New York, citing Route 8 as a major thoroughfare.

Several artists from New York City rent studios at the mill, citing the reasonable cost and ease of getting there. It will also be the future home of a mural described as “the largest indoor collaborative artwork in the world,” an endeavor of The American Mural Project, which will include the creative work of kids from across the country and be a tribute to working Americans.

It’s not difficult to imagine the mill as a bustling center of commerce during New England’s Industrial Age. Artifacts remain: a black, narrow wooden ladder extending from floor to window, wide fire doors once used to contain factory dust fires, and a center courtyard overgrown with weeds hearken back to the mill’s glory days.

Debra Lill.

Artist/animator Don Wass was one of the first artists to claim a studio at the mill. Surrounded by a medley of canvases, paint jars and brushes, he contently works on a piece destined for an art gallery in Denver. “It’s really exciting when we see so many new artists coming in,” he says.

Many of the artists renting studios in the former factory have works exhibited outside Connecticut’s borders. James Gagnon of James Gagnon Design is a contemporary craftsperson and sculptor working with pewter, silver and gold. A piece of his resides in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Debra Lill, a book cover and mixed media artist as well as a fine art photographer, has had her work appear on books authored by John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark, among others.

But Archambault refuses to rest on the mill’s laurels to date.

“We’re not finished growing yet,” he says.

Open Studios and Block Party at Whiting Mills, with live music, food,
farmers’ market, studio demonstrations and more.
Saturday June 6, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday, June 7, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
100 Whiting Street, Winsted, CT
(860) 738-2240

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