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Peterborough artist has made more than 1,000 art supply kits for community

  • An art supplies table outside the Peterborough Town Library's temporary location off Route 202. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/20/2021 4:52:42 PM

The Art Table started out as a simple concept, and so it remains: anyone can pick up one of the assembled kits of art supplies, laid out on a table in downtown Peterborough. Local artist Erin Sweeney sees no end in sight for the project she started almost a year ago, in the early days of pandemic shut-downs. To date, she’s made and given away 1,117 kits, in addition to rolls of paper, mixed supplies, zines, and handmade books.

“I started the Art Table in April after my teaching job went remote because of COVID-19, and I was providing childcare and home school help for my niece and nephew,” Sweeney said. Sweeney is an art instructor and previously taught classes out of her studio, as well as through the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Maine Media Workshops, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

“I wanted my niece and nephew to learn about community service as part of their schooling, so we set up a table outside my studio and got to work,” she said, making kits of art supplies that people could take as needed from a table outside her house.

At first, Sweeney drew on her own studio’s surplus of materials. “I’m also a complete art supply hoarder,” she said, in addition to regularly receiving supplies and materials from friends and acquaintances, which she frequently passes  on to her students. Almost immediately, she received a box of supplies outside her door, to incorporate into a future kit.

It was a fun challenge to figure out something to do with each material donation, Sweeney said, once receiving four giant bags of junk jewelry, another time a load of cigar boxes, another time a large supply of wood shavings from a woodworker friend. The biggest creative challenge came when a friend brought a glut of Mason jar lids – “no jars, just the lids,” Sweeney said, which she eventually decided to hand out as the bases for a “make your own pincushion” kit, capitalizing on an earlier sewing kit she distributed. There have also been kits for knitting, collaging, and several iterations of sock puppets. Guest artists have contributed their own kits, some with instructions, Sweeney said.

Sweeney thought she might take a break the operation in the fall, and said so to two ConVal students as they walked by her house. “They were like, ‘No!’” she said. Sweeney instead approached the Peterborough Town Library to host the table, where she restocks it weekly, sometimes twice a week. A Keene pick-up location is also in the works, she said.

Although kits steadily disappear, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to who is using them, Sweeney said. “A lot of our families that do online story times are taking them for family activities,” librarian Aimee LaRue said, and there appear to be a lot of repeat customers. “I do think adults are taking them too,” she said, and that several patrons have asked to make sure that adults were, in fact, welcome to take a kit. “It’s really popular,” she said.

“I would really like to know how it’s going for them,” Sweeney said of all the anonymous kit users in the community, but added that documenting a child’s use of the kits is likely not top priority for busy families, particularly during remote learning. 

“It’s nice to know that… there are other people out there doing them at the same time that you are,” LaRue said, and that it gives her a feeling of unity in an otherwise isolated time. The library has an extensive collection of arts and crafts books that make great pairings with the kits, Sweeney said.

Arts Alive! offered to include the effort in their annual fund around the time the project moved to the library, Sweeney said, and several monetary donations from community members came around the holidays, Sweeney said,  which helped her buy more crayons and markers. “A little bit of money goes a long way, but I still have so much stuff of my own,” she said.

Sweeney said she sees a continued relevance for distributing art supplies well into  the future. “I’d like this to be my job,” she said. Sweeney expressed gratitude for every one that’s helped the project so far, and directed community members interested in contributing to reach out through erin.swn@gmail.com or at www.erinsweeney.net or by phone at 562-7077.

“If someone has something crazy and doesn’t think I would use it, I probably would,” she said. “My hope is to grow the project, collaborate with more local groups and artist friends, and eventually develop curriculum, particularly around themes of social justice and anti-racism.”


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