Clockwise from left: Alena Gomberg, Zoe Beatty, Lizzy Wakefield, and Sophia Michahelles.

Clockwise from left: Alena Gomberg ’20, Zoe Beatty ’05, Lizzy Wakefield ‘24, and Sophia Michahelles ’09. 

Crafting in Community

By Claire Jeantheau 

When you imagine a craftsperson, what do you see? Perhaps a lone figure, hunched over their work, diligently tinkering with metal, fabric, paper, wool, or wood, plying their trade into the wee hours? While some solitude is important for the following student and alumnae artisans, their work in costuming, jewelry, processions, and fiber arts is inseparable from others'. Some collaborate with their friends and neighbors to stage performances or knit sweaters; others source inspiration from the ancestors and creators who preceded them. The forces outside their studios are often as influential as the tools and materials inside. 

The Renaissance Woman

It's a slow period for Alena Gomberg ’20: She's collaborating with the production group Krymov Lab NYC to design the wardrobe for a run of theatrical performances based on classic literature. And contributing stop-motion animation to a film about the storied Mars Bar in the East Village, which hosted (and, on occasion, was smashed up by) early punk acts like the Ramones. And creating costumes inspired by Slavic folklore for an act she's pitching to summer festivals. Did she mention the outfits she made from recyclables for her friends' performance piece, which unites "Tuvan throat singing with dub and electronic music"? 

Alena (who also goes by Luna Gomberg in the world of art) used to introduce herself as an all-around "artist." That soon stopped, though, when she realized others assumed she was a painter. "I don't love painting. I don't even really like drawing!" she insists. While no one title could cover the breadth of her interests, her new preference, "costume designer," captures her drive to work across a multiplicity of physical media. "It's very important for me to work with textiles and just tangible things in general," Alena says. "I feel like I perceive the world through touch rather than visually or through auditory sensation." 

Textiles may be her primary means of perception, but Alena has always been a creative polymath. When not soaking up painting and printmaking at Commonwealth, she took every theater role, on stage and off—set design, costuming, even editing a translation of Evgeny Schwartz's The Dragon from Russian—all the while drawing inspiration from literature and Latin classes. (The mentorship of humanities teacher Don Conolly, who discussed War and Peace with her on a day visit, was a key "reason [she] ended up at Commonwealth in the first place.") Soon after beginning art school, she found the norms of contemporary art could no longer contain her expanding worldview and left to pursue her own path. "I don't have much of an interest in the fine art world," she says, "mostly because I want to work with bodies—that's why I want to work with costumes. I think it is fascinating to work with human anatomy and in dialogue with the body."

Staring down what she calls "the beginning of a very, very long path" of a career as an independent costume designer, Alena's versatility has served her well as she works with a variety of collaborators and repurposes unlikely materials. "You can definitely make art out of trash. It can be terrific!" There's a constant push and pull for Alena, though, between the demands of necessity and the desire to place herself in a greater crafting tradition—the difference, she says, "between giving materials a meaning of your own and using materials with a given meaning and building on historical thinking." 

For Alena, that historical thinking emerges in her connection to textiles, a medium with traditionally feminine associations, as a woman, as well as her Slavic heritage. Her folkloric costumes in progress, of mythological figures like mermaids and the sirin (a bird that accompanies fallen soldiers' souls in a role Alena likens to an "angel of death"), are a means of processing the war in Ukraine as an artist with both Russian and Ukrainian family. Alena's attitude towards audience reception is just as broad as the range of textiles and influences she works with. "It is great if my art starts a conversation or a thought process for someone," she says. "There are many possibilities. And I would not be offended at any one of them."

The Jeweler

Many children string beads together and make necklaces and friendship bracelets. Not as many, like Zoe Beatty ’05 did as a child, also haul around books about the minerals behind the beads everywhere they go. Growing up with a family of artists and musicians, Zoe's early love for jewelry, and the natural resources used to produce it, knew no bounds. "People would say, 'How was your vacation?'" whenever her family returned from a trip, she remembers, "and I'd say, 'Oh, it was really cool...look at all the rocks I found!'" 

Her childhood enthusiasm led her to classes in copper- and bronze-working at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, and then, at age twelve, to the inaugural silversmithing workshop—an opportunity typically reserved for adults—at Boston's North Bennet Street School. As a Commonwealth student in the early 2000s, she loved hanging around our studios for classes like ceramics and photography. Later on, those experiences would steer her back towards North Bennet, where she would earn jewelry certification and begin pursuing a career in the craft. 

Today, Zoe is the entrepreneur behind jewelry imprint MAKAZOE, successfully transitioning to sole proprietorship after working at jewelers like E.B. Horn, one of the oldest American companies in the industry. Her time at North Bennet, where she would spend hours in small classes practicing one design or technique to perfection, provided her technical foundation. After finding joy in freeform jewelry-making workshops, though, she's not afraid to experiment. "I think it's cool to break the rules—I like to know the rules so I can break them even better," Zoe quips. And that includes an unwritten rule of the trade: that jewelry is strictly the provenance of luxury designers. 

Others' first associations with jewelry, Zoe has noticed, are high-end brands and diamonds. Those are images she strives to avoid as she plays with the limits of form, working with sustainable gold, silver, and far less conventional materials, like a fish skeleton that she found on the beach at Wellfleet. (Its delicate bones ultimately became molds for a series of intricate, prickly pieces, such as earrings cast in sterling silver, then oxidized.) For Zoe, the most compelling aspect of jewelry isn't its prestige but the people who make it—and the ways they make it their own. 

It's "craftspeople, historically, who pioneered all the techniques that we're still trying to figure out with modern science," Zoe says. Unfortunately, she notes, "most artisans didn't keep records and were never named"—so she's dedicated to staying in touch with the ones working in the present. She previously served on the board of the Boston Women's Jewelry Association, and she loves hearing from jewelers who aim for higher ethical standards, like the use of recycled materials, within the industry. There's just something special, she thinks, about "the community that you can find, and connecting with people that share the same values." 

The Leader of the Processional

A row of paper lanterns covered with poetry that passersby are invited to take. A walking tableau of costumed people showing the development of Manhattan's West Side, from its time as a hub for longshoremen to its vibrant LGBTQ+ disco scene in the 1970s. A procession in Hudson, New York, led by the city's youth that winds through a different neighborhood each year. 

"People have a preconception of what a parade is," says Sophia Michahelles ’93. They picture it as "a presentation of something to other people, usually on the sidewalk or sideline." But, if the performances above—all co-organized by Sophia—are any indication, she doesn't deal in the linear route followed by annual events, like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, in her home state of New York. Instead, her specialty is an eclectic, collaborative craft form she calls the "processional arts." 

Sophia sees her role as the co-founder of Processional Arts Workshop (PAW) as creating "carnivalesque performances in public space, in collaboration with local communities." No two places yield the same sort of procession—they might draw the whole neighborhood or just a few participants, coincide with a special occasion or have a spur-of-the-moment feel. "What is this ritual form of procession—some kind of celebration with a group of people moving through space?" Sophia always asks herself when designing. "And what story do those people or does that place tell?" 

Each procession presents plenty of opportunities for material craftship, as volunteers make life-sized puppets or elaborate costumes. Unlocking that story Sophia speaks of alongside a group of collaborators, though, is its own sort of craft. Processional Arts Workshop is typically invited to perform in communities at their members' request. After conducting research and building trust with local participants, Sophia and co-founder Alex Kahn tease out a theme to explore—which can be particularly complex when PAW arrives in a gentrifying setting like the West Side. "The community is changing, so we said, 'Well, we'll figure out who the community is,'" Sophia recalls from that procession. Neighbors' varying memories of the area's history led to costuming needs for both blue longshoremen's wear and clubbing dress.

Sophia and Alex are pioneers in the processional arts space: "I'm always joking that we don't really have colleagues," Sophia says. An unexpected path took her from Commonwealth's drawing and painting studio to studying architectural history and theater at McGill University, where she carried on her interest in design through set building. She and Alex first worked together in 1998 to design a performance for Greenwich Village's Halloween festivities; after inviting volunteers to their studio to help as deadlines drew near (and realizing that "people weren't just doing it because they felt sorry for us"), they wondered how else the energy of participants could be harnessed in performance art—the starting point for PAW. 

Now, when processions end, Sophia hopes participants allow that energy to keep guiding their perceptions after an event is over. "On the day of a procession, you're encountering space in a different way," she says. "There is that memory that stays with you, even though it's an ephemeral performance." 

The Fiber Artist

In Lizzy Wakefield's telling, her fiber-working skills were handed down to her like a family heirloom. Her mother took up knitting when she was pregnant to make baby clothes for Lizzy; she taught her daughter how to crochet, then knit, when she was six, resulting in an abundance of scarves and hats. But, Lizzy says, it wasn't until her first knit-along—a long-term group crafting project—that she was fully ready to embrace the gift. 

"A knit-along is where a bunch of people knit the same pattern; they all pick different yarn, and you make a timeline so you finish at the same time," the current Commonwealth junior explains. The finished product, a cardigan (coincidentally, the cardigan she wore while speaking with CM), was "the biggest project [she'd] ever done," she says. "Everybody ended up finishing after our supposed end date; I finished in about a year." That didn't deter her from knitting; if anything, the sense of accomplishment kept her going. 

Years of knitwear creations have followed: a rainbow skirt for LGBTQ+ pride, hats in every color palette imaginable, countless birthday presents for friends. At Commonwealth, Lizzy can be spotted by her signature "school blanket": 250 crocheted hexagons and flowers in fifty different colors, born from a pattern lent to her by history teacher Melissa Glenn Haber ’87.

Lizzy's interests extend beyond the craft of knitting to the origin of the materials in her hands. On the recent trip to Peru with students in Commonwealth's Spanish classes, she reveled in seeing the pigments produced by native plants and the wool gathered from alpacas. Before that, she visited Shetland Wool Week in Scotland. "There's classes and there's knitting and crocheting...It's just amazing," she reminisces. "You hang out with sheep, you hang out with little Scottish ladies—and someone there taught me how to do color work, which is when you knit with two colors in the same row." And it's easier than ever to exchange inspiration with a worldwide audience. Lizzy often turns to Ravelry, a website where knitters and crocheters can upload free patterns, and hopes one day to post the finished color work designs she created for Project Week in January 2022. 

But one doesn't need to travel far, of course—physically or virtually—for knitting. A highlight of Lizzy's fall was the Greater Boston Yarn Crawl, where she perused deals and collected stamps in a booklet at local craft stores. Back at Commonwealth, recess announcements wouldn't be complete without her weekly reminder for the organization affectionately known as Knitting Cult. Lizzy's main goal for the Cult this year: to mentor others as they take on their own projects. "I really like when people make things and they get really excited," she says, "because they've created something on their own."

A Look at the Crafts

Claire Jeantheau is the Communications Coordinator at Commonwealth. This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.