Made in South County

Inside four studios where local artists are creating beauty for a living


When you think about it, South County is the perfect place to be an artisan: quiet, cultured, and surrounded by water and forest. Crafting takes time, talent, and patience – and in the villages of southern Rhode Island, there’s lots to go around. Here are some snapshots of four makers – people who create beauty for a living, and often teach others to do the same. You might see their work, hanging from a wall or planted in a square, and never realize that they are your neighbors, calmly plying their trade in a workshop down the road.

Sculpting a Dream

Sculptor Peruko Ccopacatty is the master of metal in his West Kingston studio

The four sculptures that appeared in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza in February are the perfect introduction to Peruko Ccopacatty’s work: a human form, shaped from ribbons of stainless steel. A shimmering angel, assembled from reclaimed car bumpers. Two llamas, composed of papery metal sheets. Even beyond the hours that went into realizing these pieces in his West Kingston studio, this installation was a long time in the making; Ccopacatty had waited 20 years to showcase his work in the heart of the capital.

“Life is a mystery,” says Ccopacatty mystically. “It fits with dreams.”

Dreams are important to Ccopacatty, whose career has taken incredible turns in his decades-long career. He grew up in an Andean village in Peru, descended from the indigenous Aymara people. Ccopacatty spent many years studying sculpture, but no medium attracted him like metal.

“I was tired of other materials,” he says. “Stone is heavy. Cement, it’s messy. But metal is more simple. I had no money to buy metal. But in college, there were huge piles of scraps. And I thought, ‘I can make something from that.’”

Ccopacatty met his wife in Peru, and followed her back to her native Rhode Island to make a life as a working artist. Ccopacatty’s studio is built into a converted schoolhouse, where the former classrooms are packed with impressionistic statuettes. His yard is a veritable museum of larger work, many of them visible from the road. While Ccopacatty’s work is celebrated throughout the US and his native Peru, he lives a quiet life, soldering his masterpieces together in the tranquil isolation of South County.

But this most recent installation in Providence has been of particular interest to the local community, and a point of pride for Ccopacatty. He originally proposed a sculpture, called “Generations,” in 1995. Several human figures would be walking together, each representing a different age. Ccopacatty specializes in living forms, usually in dynamic motion – laborers working, men running, women with arms outstretched – and “Generations” would exemplify that image.

The installation was delayed. Years marched by, yet Ccopacatty never gave up hope. This winter, through a partnership between Providence-based public art program The Avenue Concept and RIPTA, the the first figure went up in the plaza, along with some of his other works. February 4 was declared “Ccopacatty Day,” and the two-decade-old dream started to be realized.

Still, the project isn’t yet complete, and the aging sculptor can think of little else.

“I have to finish ‘Generations,’” he says. “It has taken so long. But I have to finish it.” 

Handmade Music

Guitar maker Dan Collins takes the ultimate DIY approach to music in Peace Dale

Undistracted, Dan Collins needs only three weeks to turn raw lumber into a sleek, one-of-a-kind guitar. If Collins was a full-time luthier, and he spent every day cutting and shaping, he might sell a handmade guitar every month for $4,000 to $10,000.

But Collins doesn’t rely on this wondrous ability. Instead, he teaches others the art of guitar making at his school, Shady Lea Guitars, in Peace Dale. Collins’ workshops attract four or five students at a time, and over the course of many months, these pupils transform their wood into musical instruments – acoustic, steel-string, and even ukuleles.

“It’s a time commitment,” says Collins. “You have to pay attention to certain details, like humidity. If you haven’t done it before, it can be challenging. The shape of the neck, for instance, getting that to be a perfect curve.”

Collins’ life is full of surprises. He’s studied a variety of visual arts, from pottery to painting, as well as photography at the Hallmark Institute. In 2001, Collins offered to photograph Vermont luthier George Morris for a then-forthcoming book about guitar-making. Morris was a family friend, and instead of payment, Collins asked to spend the winter apprenticing.

“I have always been into making functional art,” Collins muses. “But I had never worked with wood. I had no idea how much I would enjoy it.”

Though Collins can play guitar and loves music, he doesn’t perform publicly. Instead, he is a co-founder of the Pump House Music Works, the beloved music venue that occupies the same historic space as Shady Lea Guitars. Guitar-making classes take place in an adjacent workshop, which is outfitted with workbenches and milling machines. In the concert hall, Collins sees singer-songwriters every week, but he doesn’t foist his guitars on passing musicians. Sometimes he’ll take commissions from friends, but he focuses most of his creative energy on the classes.

While many craftsmen grumble about mass-produced facsimiles, Collins feels little threat from the cheaper models pouring out of faraway factories.

“I think the craft of luthiering is pretty timeless,” he says. “I don’t think the introduction of the CNC machine affects me. I’m sure it affects other builders who are trying to sell guitars for a living. But there are disadvantages to those factory instruments. A luthier can hand-select the woods and tailor a guitar to a particular player. In the end, a handmade guitar is going to sound that much better.”

Love and Leather

Leathersmiths Houston and Tiffany Hoyle make their work a family affair in Westerly

One day, Houston Hoyle was browsing the shops at a Renaissance fair in Florida, and something caught his eye: leather armor. He’d always liked handmade objects, and he also liked medieval gear. But when he saw the price tags, he balked. He wondered if he could make armor for less money.

“I went home and bought half a cow’s worth of armor-grade leather,” Houston recalls. “I made a pair of wrist guards for myself. I had a lot of leather left over from that project, so I started making other things.”

Houston’s interest was infectious. When he met his future wife, Tiffany, she also started tinkering with leather. One thing led to another, and the Hoyles now own The Rogue Fae, an online storefront specializing in custom leather products. In their Westerly house, they converted an upstairs bedroom into a workspace, and they’ve posted about 200 different items to their online catalog.

“Less than half of the items are made and ready to ship,” says Tiffany. “The rest are made to order. We keep a stock photo in the online shop that represents what the product looks like. Then we make and ship their order in one to two weeks.”

Both of the Hoyles are self-taught leathersmiths, and their educations are in radically different fields: Houston is a chef for the Coast Guard, and he spends much of his time in the kitchen of an 87-foot cutter. Tiffany has a Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management; for her thesis, she mapped sea level rise using aerial LiDAR equipment. But ever since they had their two children, Tiffany started running the leather business full-time, while Houston contributes between Coast Guard shifts.

Running a business can be stressful, especially while juggling other obligations. They have often considered retiring the business and treating their craft as a hobby. But the Hoyles also appreciate the time they spend together, etching personalized shapes into the tanned skins. Each piece bears special meaning for the client, and bringing that vision to life brings satisfaction.

“Since the leather is hand stitched, hand dyed, and hand tooled, no two items will ever look exactly the same,” says Tiffany. “That’s the beauty of what we do.”

A Natural Weaver

Textile artist Sarah Swift creates dreamlike tapestries in Wakefield

When Sarah Swift begins a new project, she starts with a loom. But the materials she weaves into that loom could be anything: wool, silk, rubber, and twisted plastic bags. The compositions come together as tapestries of found fibers, dreamlike collisions of color.

“It’s always organic,” she says. “The materials evolve in these cycles. I’ll photograph a piece of work, blow it up, and then use that for a new piece. I’m fascinated with the buildup and breakdown of natural phenomena.”

During the day, Swift is the director of Hera Gallery in Wakefield, where she schedules programming and helps curate shows. Then she retires to her apartment, where her living room doubles as a studio. After years of developing her abstract style, Swift is reaching a broad new audience: she’s scheduled to show her work in four different shows by the end of 2018. Her solo show, “FLUX: Cycles of Change,” just closed at Hera Gallery.

“I figured I would be exhausted,” she says. “But I’ve been so motivated to do more work.”

Swift grew up in Exeter, the child of marine biologists, and she yearned for urban culture. She went to the Pratt Institute in New York City to study painting, and she stayed in the city for seven years. She presented her work at some group shows, but the competition was cutthroat.

“I wasn’t getting the shows I wanted,” she recalls. “I did okay, but it wasn’t the community that I wanted.”

To clear her head, Swift backpacked alone in Europe for three months. After touring museums in 13 countries, she felt rejuvenated and returned to Rhode Island. But before she could make her next move, she learned that Hera Gallery was looking for a new director. Swift started volunteering, made her interest known, and was eventually hired. The directorship is full of responsibility, a tall task for any 25-year-old. But Swift loves her new role, and working with artists all day has only heightened her enthusiasm for her own projects, particularly the weaving.

“I love the tactile quality,” Swift says. “I’m literally using my hands. I still do paint, and I have moments of inspiration and will shift into a totally different medium. But in the end, I gravitate to the materials I happen to come across.”