SWAMPSCOTT – A large Colonial house on Burrill Street, with bright red doors opening onto bright white decks, is home to a secular organization, but in some ways, it’s like a temple.
It’s a refuge for anyone who wants to drop in, drink coffee, paint a picture, sing a song, or make a new friend. “It fulfills some of the tenets of Judaism by helping to be inclusive and be expansive,” said Heidi Shear, the co-president and director of ReachArts, a Swampscott nonprofit community arts center. “We’re trying to make it a place where people feel welcome to just come in and become involved, and we’ve seen it happen with a lot of people. It’s a very easy place to drop into, and I think for some people, it fulfills some of the social things that temples also do.”
This quirky house on Burrill Street, which the town of Swampscott leased three years ago to a burgeoning arts organization, is also a grand temple to the arts and the people who love them. It has a large, light-filled dance studio where toddlers and their parents learn to move together. People learn painting, yoga, and Qi Gong, the ancient Chinese art of healing. Marblehead Little Theatre veterans teach acting courses and Berklee music professors guide voice techniques, and Salem State and Dean College professors teach art.
On Halloween, it turns into a haunted house where Swampscott High School drama students paint their faces to entertain children.
Downstairs is a cozy, heymish drawing room full of quilts, blankets, and deep chairs for book groups, writing circles, or idle chatter over tea and coffee. Down another flight of stairs is a soundproof room for recording music, a kitchen, and the main gallery, the nucleus of ReachArts. In the gathering room full of paintings and photos and strewn with lights, local artists exhibit and discuss their work, often to packed crowds attending an opening or a talk.
Starting this month, a rotating art exhibit will spread the work of multiple local artists throughout the building for a few months before a solo artist has the chance to give the house a whole new flair. On Friday night open mic nights, the gallery is full of music, voices, words, and laughter, punctuated by moments of silent reflection. On Jan. 12, the new Compass Café will open in the gallery on Sunday afternoons.
“We’re providing a place for artists and novices to come and take classes … and we have space where people can come do their artistic work if that’s what they want to do, and in our gallery exhibits we allow people to come in to exhibit and promote their work,” said Shear, who joined the organization with her husband, David, right after a call was put out to help spruce up a building. That was three years ago, after the town of Swampscott asked citizens to submit proposals for what to do with a vacant property it owned. A loose confederation of local artists decided it should be devoted to nurturing the arts in Swampscott and Nahant, and ReachArts was born.
Right around that time, the Shears had returned home to the North Shore after spending 27 years in Oklahoma City raising their two children and working as lawyers for a chemical manufacturing company. While her husband grew up in Swampscott, Heidi spent her childhood in Oklahoma City. Her parents have North Shore roots: her mother Zelda grew up in Lynn, her father, Dr. Robert Brown, was raised in Medford. Her parents moved to Oklahoma after her uncle explained that Oklahoma was an up-and-coming, affordable place to resettle. There were only about 450 Jewish families in Oklahoma City at the time, and many sent their children to an Episcopalian school with Christian prayer each day simply because it was the best school around.
“I found it easy to be Jewish there, although the community is much smaller, and Christianity is more dominant in Oklahoma,” she said. Still, she went to Sunday school and temple services often, so was able to retain a Jewish identity.
Since David and Heidi both have family here, they kept a house on the North Shore while they were still in Oklahoma, and decided to come back to the place they love after many years. ReachArts seemed like the perfect project for David, who is an established abstract expressionist painter and opened up studio space in Boston for a time, and Heidi, who self-effacingly noted that she draws mostly stick figures, but brings a lawyerly precision to behind-the-scenes efforts.
“I support the mission mightily, and someone’s got to do the back office work,” she said. That work includes helping ReachArts refine its mission, develop programming, and turn the threadbare house into a home.
The last part has presented the biggest challenge. Swampscott leased the building to ReachArts for just a dollar a year, but ReachArts is responsible for utilities, upkeep and building maintenance. They’ve had successful campaigns on crowdfunding website Indiegogo to replace the boiler in the building, but thousands more is still needed for an elevator, sprinklers, and other improvements needed for the building to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Still, Shear is optimistic for the future and feels proud of what they’ve accomplished so far: “I’ve really enjoyed it, and feel like it’s been a huge success so far – we have things going on here all the time, and we’re serving a lot of people.”
To learn more, visit reacharts.org.