Jan. 18, 2010, is a day New Boston artist Jon Brooks says he will never forget.
He was awoken around 3:30 a.m. to a warm glow pouring through his loft bedroom windows. Though it took some time to realize, the light was coming from his studio, 600 feet away and separate from his house, filled with Brooks’ handcrafted wooden sculptures and furniture, finished and in progress.
“My wife [Jami Boyle] was the one who woke up,” said Brooks, who speaks softly and deliberately. “She heard a popping noise. It was the double-glazed [studio] windows blowing up. She woke up to the sound and elbowed me to wake up, which I did.”
The fire had begun just half an hour earlier. The studio was engulfed in flames by the time the volunteer fire department arrived.
“I had a feeling there was not much the fire department would be able to do, but I was still hopeful,” said Brooks, who moved to New Boston in 1970 and began building the studio in 1972. “Things were burning for about an hour; there wasn’t much left.”
The fire was out by 8 a.m. All told, it took with it three art studio buildings, a guest house, Brooks’ tools, about 20 pieces of completed artwork and 20 works in progress. The fire marshal and chief later told Brooks that a live wire, which ran from the exterior of the studio to an above-ground transformer, was weighted down by heavy, wet snow and was pulled out of the building. The wire sparked at the point of contact, setting fire to the studio’s shingles.
Like the building, Brooks was ravaged by the fire.
“I was personally thinking, ‘How am I going to get through this? We don’t have enough insurance. I’ve lost everything,’” Brooks recounted. “It was a heavy hit. All of my sketch books, photos, books — how does one recover from that? It’s logical to say just move on, but that’s easier said than done. I was in a state of grief.”
It didn’t take long for a community to assemble around Brooks to help him start over. People began showing up at his home, and his spirits started to lift, he says. Brooks’ godson, who managed his website, set up a way for people to make online donations, which soon began pouring in from all over the world. Vermont’s Craft Emergency Relief Fund, which helps artists who have encountered disasters, also sent a donation.
Brooks’ brother, familiar with post and beam work, assured Brooks that he would get another structure up right away. And so on a surprisingly warm February 2010 weekend, Brooks’ friends, brother and crew, along with members of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters organization, gathered to rebuild Brooks’ studio. Fifty-five people showed up. Someone even arranged for catering.
“Everyone’s support — that really steered me on in a big way,” said Brooks, whose work has been shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. “The gods were shining down on us. … Everyone was high as a kite. The spirit of helping was involved.”
By Sunday afternoon of the same weekend, though far from finished, the structure was up. Brooks spent the rest of the winter “fitting out the interior” and “getting back to” his work.
Now, more than two years later, Brooks has replaced his studio, which consists of three buildings instead of four. He gauges the project’s completion at around 85 percent. What’s left is getting his machine room in order and replacing the rest of his tools.
Brooks is also making artwork again — for exhibitions, clients, schools, museums. He is kind and humble and deeply affected by the support he has received. He and his wife have decided to host an open house at the new studio on Saturday, June 16, to thank everyone who has helped them.
“Because of their support, I am where I am right now,” he said. “I had a lot of patrons and supporters that realized I needed all the help I could get. … It takes a village to raise an artist. You are my village. An artist can’t survive without an audience.”