Fibers of Being

Fibers of Being

In a sunny storefront on East Street, a number of artisans are sitting down, helping the rest of New Haven do the same. From their perches, they make wine totes with stamped motifs, hand-dyed scarves, hand-woven pillow covers and decorative hand towels.

Most of all, they fix chairs.

East Street Arts is where they work. A project of the Woodbridge-based nonprofit Marrakech, Inc., which provides services for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, it’s been around since 2015. But Marrakech dates back decades, started by two Yale undergrads in 1971 as a halfway house for disabled women. Then, in 1992 it took over the Association of Artisans to Cane, a chair caning program that gives people struggling with mental health issues a chance to learn a trade while earning an income.

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Eric Ginnish, Marrakech’s director of creative development, showed me around. He says 17 artists now participate in the East Street Arts program, many with a range of mental or physical disabilities. Trained by other artists, they typically work from about 10:30 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon.

I visited on a Wednesday at about 11 a.m., when artisans were busy caning chairs, as well as block-printing fabric canvases with large handheld stamps. Caning is an age-old practice, covering the seats and backs of wooden chairs with careful, intricate weaves of reed or fabric. Over years of use, such chairs can become weak or worn, necessitating replacement, and in the IKEA era, caning is a more peculiar art, requiring increasingly rare skills.

East Street Arts is both a retailer—taking in donated chairs, fixing them up and selling them, along with the aforementioned bags, scarves and the like—and a repair shop. The materials they weave vary from glossy cane to shaker tape to Danish cord. Chair repair, Ginnish says, is East Street’s most popular project. Some of its artisans even helped recane chairs for Old Sturbridge Village, the Massachusetts “living history museum” that’s hosted generations of Connecticut schoolchildren on field trips.

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Hopkins School

“Mostly what we get is the hand cane,” Ginnish says, referring to cane that’s stretched across the seat through holes drilled into the rail. But they also work with “press cane,” in which the caned portion is woven separately and pressed into the seat all at once, and “paper rush,” a vine-like twine that loops around the outer frame. “There are so many different kinds of weaving, but those are the three we get all the time,” Ginnish says, noting that ESA can handle many other types too.

I watch artist Steve Colligan use a loop of paper rush to create a woven, geometric chair bottom. Assisting him is caner Josh Hawkins, whose introduction to the program was as the job coach of one of the participants 12 years ago. Of his former charge, Hawkins says, “He still comes here every Monday.”

According to Ginnish, the participants receive a portion of the proceeds from repair and retail revenues, with the rest going into materials and training. “Anything that we make, comes back to the program for more teaching,” he says. The rest of the training costs are covered by state and private funding.

While Ginnish stresses the importance of providing a creative outlet, he says East Street Arts is more about being an avenue for growth. Though some participants have been around for decades, others have moved on to different jobs where they can use their crafting experience. “That’s kind of the goal, that they’re not here forever—that we are able to teach them some skills where they might be able to go out and find a job that they like, and can sustain that job,” he says.

Over at an enormous loom, James Jones is weaving a nubby table runner out of dark blues and browns interspersed with lines of warm orange. He points out another of his weaving projects hanging on the wall. “I picked it up fast,” he tells me, sliding the wooden shuttle back and forth atop the half-formed cloth.

According to Ginnish, a personal touch is what makes East Street Arts special. “You’re not just buying something from some big store. When you’re buying something from here, it’s handmade. It’s created by somebody who benefits from that sale.”

East Street Arts
597 East St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-6pm
(203) 776-6310

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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