For more than a decade, Olympia’s Arbutus Folk School has been teaching such traditional arts as ceramics, woodworking, music and blacksmithing, preserving and furthering the development of arts with long histories while also building community. In December, the folk school moved across 4th Avenue to a larger and better laid-out location that will give the school — and its mission — room to grow.
The school is celebrating its new digs, at 705 4th Ave. E,, next to Courtyard Antiques, with an open house Jan. 18. There is a lot to celebrate, said Hillary Tully, the school’s executive director. The space is bigger (4,180 square feet compared to 1,096 in the school’s previous home at 610 4th Ave E,) and has larger classroom spaces as well as high ceilings, bright lighting, air conditioning and a parking lot.
“We’ve just been bursting at the seams for years now,” Tully said. “I remember seeing a waitlist for a ceramics class that had 37 people.” It was a wheel-throwing class, and at the time, those classes could accommodate only 6 or 7 students. That’s an extreme example, she said, but waitlists have long been common.
“It has been a really urgent problem,” she said. “When people find out about us, they get excited — and then they get on a waitlist. It’s really frustrating. I’m excited to be more accessible. … We have more room for all of our classes, so we can open them to more students.”
Exciting as it is, the bigger new home isn’t the only change Arbutus made in 2023. The school also began offering glass-sculpting classes taught by artist Mary Van Cline and cooking classes by various instructors, both of which — like the blacksmithing classes — take place offsite.
The new headquarters will allow the school to offer more kinds of classes onsite, and Tully has lots of other ideas incubating. The school has been fundraising (https://www.paypal.com/us/fundraiser/charity/1379434) to pay for the move and is continuing the effort to help fund new equipment and supplies. “A community craft space like this is specialized and expensive to build and operate,” said Stacey Waterman, who founded the school. “The community deeply values access to this space and the programming Arbutus provides, and hopefully ongoing community support can help it continue to grow and meet the needs for creative space in South Puget Sound for many years to come.”
Tully had known for years that the school needed a bigger space, but the opportunity to move across the street arrived unexpectedly. Olympia Coffee Roasting wanted more space for roasting and storing coffee, and landlord Steve Cooper, who owns both buildings, suggested that Arbutus move to the space formerly occupied by AlphaGraphics. “It was a good fit,” Tully said. “I’m really happy that we are still downtown.”
In its new home, Arbutus has a bigger ceramics studio that can accommodate more pottery wheels and a bigger woodshop with room for a table saw — but probably the biggest change is in the flexible space used for fiber arts, music, scrimshaw and other classes as well as for meetings and gatherings. “We haven’t been able to do events,” Tully said. “Now we can.”
The flexible space in the school’s former home was chopped up, with the biggest part of it a long and narrow room — just 8 feet wide — that wasn’t even big enough to accommodate staff and teacher meetings. “The space didn’t serve very well as a community space,” she said. “We weren’t able to gather there. … When we had fiddling classes in the new space, everyone was able to sit in a circle, which had never happened before. You could see everyone.”
The new space is also better suited for classes that require specialized equipment and that can get messy. Pottery classes had to use a small sink in the woodworking area, for example. “We made it work, and it was a great opportunity for students, but the new space is much nicer,” said Jane Stone, who teaches wheel throwing. “It has better lighting. It’s better organized, and there’s more space to work in.”
Stone, who taught art history and studio art at South Puget Sound Community College, said she loves the camaraderie that forms among students at Arbutus. “It’s really fun,” she said. “Adults can get away from their working world and meet new friends. There’s a lot of friendships that form. It’s a very friendly and supportive environment.”
Arbutus Folk School open house
Noon-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18
705 4th Ave. E., Olympia