Although it's a partnership that works on many levels, Stonybrook Fine Arts really owes its existence to the vision and determination of Anne Sasser. A multi-talented woman, Sasser brings a business acumen to the school and studio that frees Morris Norvin to sculpt and teach and keeps the technical genius of Ben Todd focused and supported. It's no coincidence that she originally hired both men to work at the first art business she created when she was just out of college, Diablo Glass & Metal in Roxbury.
When she graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1998, Sasser took the not-so-obvious next step and got her Massachusetts real estate sales license.
"I grew up with real estate. It's in several generations on both sides of my family...so it's in my blood," she said.
Sasser had an innate understanding of how her art career could be enhanced and supported by a real estate career. Furthermore, her parents were interested in investing in Boston real estate. A quick assessment of the market conditions at the time led her to purchase property on Gainsborough Street.
Meanwhile, as broker/manager, she helped organize the real estate business of two men who owned several properties on Mission Hill. When she told the men of her idea for a glass and metal school and studio, they quickly found an available property. In 2001, with the substantial proceeds from the sale of her condo and other angel investment money she had attracted, she created Diablo Glass & Metal, Boston's only glassblowing studio. Unfortunately, through a series of maneuvers she was marginalized and ultimately eliminated from the partnership. She was able to preserve the angel investor's capital, but was back to square one. Still, she is justifiably proud of and remarkably supportive of the ongoing accomplishments at Diablo.
"Diablo is amazing. It's good for the kids. It's good for the arts community," she said.
With Diablo in the rearview mirror, a savvy business woman, Sasser set out to repeat her success and avoid her mistakes. First, she took Norvin and Todd, the "Metal" half of Diablo Glass & Metal, (now known simply as Diablo Glass School) with her. During their tenure at Diablo she and Todd had established a frequent ritual of unwinding at local watering holes. It was a friendship the likes of which Todd had never known.
"[It was] something I had rarely ever done, before her, you know, gone to a bar to relax after work," he said. "I would have gone home and done homework or worked on another project or try to teach myself Japanese or something silly like that. You know, hanging out with her kind of brought in the whole social thing."
As for Norvin, he and Sasser realized that they had so much in common that they fell in love and married. Today, the three partners live in two apartments in the same house on Mission Hill. As a byproduct of love and friendship, Stonybrook Fine Arts would have unity of purpose.
Next, she identified the property on Porter Street and induced the angel investor, her dad, back into the fold. She took responsibility for all of the business dealings, leaving her art partners to do what they do best. In this case, that meant renovating an old industrial building that sat in two feet of Stony Brook water which runs directly below it.
For her father, she manages ten art studios on the second floor of the Porter Street building as well as several other properties on Mission Hill and in JP. In addition, she continues to work with another business partner at a Beacon Hill real estate company, Sassmorr Realty Group, while she manages the day-to-day at Stonybrook Fine Arts.
As evidence of their growing popularity, a recent Groupon resulted in 400 buyers for half-price introductory classes. Caught a little off-guard, the school has had to ramp-up to meet the surprising demand. The goal is to turn the introductions into full-session enrollments.
The Friday night Women's Only Welding class, taught by JP resident Lisa Pearson, is one of the school's unique and popular offerings. Many women are interested in learning the traditionally "male" skill which harkens back to WWII when women entered the industrial workforce in unprecedented numbers. Women also attend the other welding classes, but for those who are intimidated or uncomfortable in a mixed sex setting, the class provides an alternative. Like all the welding classes, it has a maximum enrollment of five which ensures safe and personalized instruction.
When asked how their non-profit developed, Anne replied, "My mother passed away two years ago and she was always very supportive of the arts, so we wanted to make the arts more accessible and CASTBoston is what eventually came from that desire to create the opportunity for people...we've always had a lot of interest from people who wanted to take classes with us but couldn't because of financial hurdles...we wanted to have funds available for teens, adults and groups. The main focus is for teens in the neighborhood, teens at risk."
Sasser notes that her husband Morris benefited from the generosity if his mentor, Ralph Rosenthal.
"If he had not had access to those art classes, you know, with a single mom, he might not even be alive today. The art was a huge inspiration and offered him a whole different path," she said.
Sasser points out that art can be the lynchpin to a trade as well, something often lacking for at-risk teens who have never had a chance to work with their hands. She wants to do for other people what has proven true for herself and Norvin and Todd: create a less obstructed path to the empowering nature of art.
"If people are able to do things and have access to job skills, that opens doors," she said.