Barely 20 minutes from Providence, Rhode Island’s capital city, you can easily get lost in the rolling hills and woods of Foster. It’s hard to prowl the back roads of this place at more than 25 mph—and even harder still to find a home without horses, sheep, and even sun-bathing llamas in an adjacent pasture. The words “subdivision” and “cul-du-sac” seem to have no meaning here.
But just because the pastoral nature of Foster (pop. 4,274) has remained intact over the years doesn’t mean it’s culturally impoverished. For years a magnet for professors and graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, Foster and the neighboring communities of Glocester and Scituate have always offered the creative spirit a quiet place to alight and flourish. But it has only been in the past few years that the talent behind the trees has become an organized network—FosteringArts.org, formerly known as the Foster Foundation for the Arts. And, in the process of providing an outlet for the creative imagination, FosteringArts.org has forged a strong bond with its communities.
“There were so many artists with so many talents living out here, but nothing had converged,” says musician Elwood Donnelly, who recalls the genesis of the artists’ network at a casual gathering in his living room one Sunday in 1999. “Once we got started, artists just started coming out of the woodwork.”
It began with the Peep Toad Coffeehouse, a monthly performance at one of the local churches that draws both local and nationally known musicians. Over time it expanded to include a series of art exhibits and cultural performances as well as educational programs. Community contra dances and Big Band swing dancing, both popular in the ’50s, now draw dancers of all ages. With grant funding from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, Citizens and Students Together (CAST), and even a locally-based business, Droll Yankee, the nonprofit group was able to bring Providence’s acclaimed Trinity Repertory Theatre to Foster twice a year to perform Shakespeare at no cost to the audience.
One of the group’s most successful events has been its “Artists Open Studio,” first held in the fall of 2001. Forty area artists were enlisted to open their studios for one day to several hundred visitors who came from as far away as Long Island, N.Y., to navigate the back roads of Foster, Glocester, and Scituate to watch them at work.
“It was more successful then we ever imagined it would be,” says Dick Walls, the group’s president. “One of the artists lives in a place that’s really hard to find and when I got there, there were 15 cars parked in between the trees. He had over 200 people visit him.”
Integral to the success of the artistic smorgasbord offered by FosteringArts.org is the reception it has been given by the community. Look at the audience at one of the Shakespeare performances and you’ll find as many people in denim overalls as in Dockers. The relationship has taken time to forge, says Kirk Badeau, the group’s past president.
“It was a rough transition in the beginning because we didn’t understand how town ordinances work,” admits Badeau, who manages his wife Rachel’s jewelry and clock-making studio. It was also no easy task to convince some long-time residents that having 1,000 people swarm into town for an event could be a good thing.
Since that time, the town has not only helped provide space for events, but also has created a special seasonal permit that eliminates the need for individual permits for each performance. FosteringArts.org has reciprocated by funding an annual scholarship to a student of the regional high school bound for art school.
Colette Matarese, a former councilwoman, calls the effect FosteringArts.org has had on the town and its neighboring communities “phenomenal.”
“They’ve brought a different perspective to town,” Matarese says. “There’s a wonderful sense of community you get when you go to something like the Shakespeare plays, because you’re not only getting to see a great performance, you’re also bringing your blanket and your picnic basket and seeing your neighbors there.”