Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts (Photo/submitted)
By Ed Karvoski Jr., Cultural Editor
Boston – Abigail Norman drew upon her lifetime of experience with community-based arts to boost growth for the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts in Boston’s Jamaica Plain (JP) neighborhood, where she has served as director since 2007. There, over 1,500 students of all ages currently study arts and crafts. Additionally, over 2,000 children attend its classes through partnerships with Boston public schools, libraries, housing developments and community centers.
Its building at 24 Eliot St. has housed various levels of education since 1676. Norman recognizes parallels in Eliot School’s evolution from the 19th to 21st centuries.
“In the late 19th century the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Eliot School, were reactions to the Industrial Age when people still wanted to make things by hand,” she noted. “Today, we see the rise of the digital age. We’re all tied to devices and also still crave to have a real community. The Eliot School is a place that satisfies those cravings.”
After studying social sciences at the New School for Social Research in New York City and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1977, Norman worked for several years in the independent film and video industry.
In 1986, she relocated from New York to Somerville. She joined Somerville Community Access Television as access coordinator in 1987, then became its executive director in 1990.
“Somerville is community-minded with art-filled neighborhoods,” she said. “Bringing together my interests in social issues, community building and the arts was a wonderful experience.”
Norman moved to JP in 1994 and gave birth to her daughter in 1995. Also at that time, she attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and received a BFA in printmaking in 1998.
“It was the perfect time to take a break, do some freelance work, go to MassArt and see what would happen on the other end,” she relayed. “It was a good decision.”
In 2002, Norman began as program coordinator for Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET), founded to promote and preserve historic elements of Forest Hills Cemetery in JP. Among her responsibilities were coordinating a monthly concert and poetry series at its Forsyth Chapel, and the annual Lantern Festival based on Japanese memorial ceremonies.
“Going to work there every day was passing through a curtain into a beautiful Victorian landscape,” she recalled.
While working for FHET, Norman was encouraged to apply for the Eliot School director position by two of its board members. She applied and was hired in 2007.
“The Eliot School was a resource waiting to happen,” she said. “It was an invitation for growth. At the time, there were between 150 and 300 people who came to classes each year.”
Norman and her team increased class schedules, hired more teachers, improved signage and developed several partnerships citywide.
“The school grew amazingly over the next decade,” Norman declared. “We’re fulfilling our mission to inspire lifelong learning in craftsmanship and creativity for all of our broad demographic.”