Stephen's Branch Studio: A Two-acre Arts Residency Grows in Barre

Updated: Mar 2

Stephen's Branch Studio provides artist Sabrina Fadial with ample room to develop her practice within a setting where nature provides a guiding influence.

Along a thinly developed stretch of Vermont Route 14 south of Barre is a modest farmhouse and detached garage that are the humble origins of Stephen's Branch Studio. Named for one of a dozen tributaries of the Winooski River, Stephen's Branch is the dream of multi-materialist and mixed media sculptor Sabrina Fadial. Backpacker caught up with Sabrina on a recent tour of her property to learn more about her artistic journey, her materials and process, and the vision for Stephen's Branch. Taking a break from work on a new site-specific installation at Woodstock's SculptureFest2018, Sabrina gave us a tour of the 2-year old facility, talked about her life's work and shared plan for Stephen's Branch Studios as Barre's only retreat for working artists.

Sabrina works out a 2,500sf studio packed with years of investigation into materials, form and richly organic themes. Sabrina's work is infused with tactile expressiveness, technical prowess, and biomimetic designs -- and a clear set of ideas about social and ecological connectedness fed by feminine themes as powerful as her hammer-swinging biceps. Stephen's Branch is currently home to a couple of interns who assist in her projects as well as the Studio's first artist in residence.

Stephen's Branch Studio is the kind of place where a restless investigation of materials and form is in ample evidence.

Touring her working studio, it is clear that materials are important to Sabrina. She studied textiles at RISD, and over her life as an educator and working artist Sabrina has picked up an eclectic batch of talents. Her current work is primarily in metal, though she never pigeonholes herself into any medium. At one point, she said, she would have called herself a blacksmith, but she realized that was limiting. She’s an artist now; even the label of ‘sculptor’ seems a bit small, though the majority of her visible work at Stephens Branch is three-dimensional.

Sabrina is a three-dimensional sort of person. She is comfortable with her hands, and her works are as tactile as they are visual. This comes through even when one can only see her work--the textures, shapes, and angles all evoke a sense of feeling, even when actual feeling is impossible.

Like most work in three dimensions, Sabrina’s art is best viewed from all angles. With her, this applies metaphorically as well. While there are clear feminist and environmentalist messages, she really wants you to make what you will of them. During our interview, she showed us a piece consisting of three women she had sculpted out of steel wool, and offered up a variety of points of view. These are women made of steel, posed comfortably and openly, seemingly a display of strength. But they are also made of an object used to clean--related to traditional roles women are pushed into. The steel, she points out, is rusting, which could be interpreted as a further sign of weakness. That said, having explored Sabrina’s artwork, it’s hard to imagine her seeing rust as something negative.

Sabrina thinks that a desire for too much control is what’s wrong with the world. Whether it’s the desire to conquer nature or the desire to constrict the choices of women, the current progression of society is dangerously overbearing. Her approach is quite different. She doesn’t go into a piece completely blind, but she also doesn’t expect everything to turn out the way she planned at the beginning. It’s a dialogue between her and the materials. This is sometimes literal, like pleading with a wire for it to stay bent in a certain direction. But most of the conversation is with her hands. “Each material has its own language,” she says. They can’t be expected to feel or act the same, or convey the same messages. But being as fluent a speaker as she is, Sabrina can coax them into amazing, seemingly contradictory things--and make us feel that that’s the way they were meant to be all along.

Stephen's Branch Studios is the culmination of Sabrina’s lifetime spent in the arts and a deep desire to share that experience with others. She’s traveled around the country as a working artist, but Vermont -- and this specific site in Barre -- appealed to her for its proximity to nature and Barre’s stoneworking roots.

Situated on 2.5 acres just south of Barre, the property consists of a two story farmhouse, a renovated garage, and a storage shed amidst a mix of wood and meadowland. "This is where one residency cottage will be," Sabrina enthused as we toured the property, indicating the storage shed showing signs of age. "We're going to pull it out of the floodplain first. But come on down to the river; the fern grove is Jurassic!"

A fern grove along the Stephen's Branch provides a powerful sense of connection to a time on earth well beyond human settlement.

Indeed, the gently sloping lot is bordered on the west by a northward meandering tributary of Winooski River. A band of floodplain between the river and the upper fields is densely packed with ferns, knotweed, scrub and elm. It is not hard to envision camping platforms and a fire circle, the murmur of nighttime voices blending with the river and crickets as smoke and sparks rise beneath the stars. Themes of the capacity for human connection to land; placemaking, work and meaning; and seeking inspiration in nature for materials and design tumble from Sabrina’s mind as quickly as the river churned past.

Nature corrodes. Plants rot. Sabrina is inspired by nature, and much of her work consists of leaves and flowers fashioned out of metal. Rust is one connecting point between her art and what it emulates. We got to see her work on the middle stages of her newest installation at the Sculpture Fest in Woodstock--a giant metal replica of a caterpillar-eaten leaf she had found at the site months earlier. Its skeleton was made out of scraps which were already rusting slightly, but Sabrina found no problem with this. As the outdoor sculpture was exposed to nature, she expected it to change and fall apart. Anything else would be some sort of betrayal to its fragile inspiration.

Sabrina's installation in progress at Woodstock's SculptureFest2018, inspired by the deterioration of a birch leaf found on site.

The idea of Stephen’s Branch as it stands is to create a year-round residential retreat for artists who have a problem to solve. It will be a place to undertake their challenges within a context infused by nature, social engagement, and technical support in the trades and fine art. Residencies, open on a limited basis to emerging and mature artists, offer early participating artists the opportunity to influence the design and program at Stephen’s Branch as well. The early inclusive and participatory nature of the Studio raises the importance of what an artist brings to the residency -- the quality of their investigation, the capacity for Stephen's Branch to support their work in a meaningful way, and the artist’s enthusiasm to shape the future of Stephen’s Branch Studios as a world-class resource for artistic investigation within community. Good luck Sabrina, we can't wait to check back in next year!

Learn more about SculptureFest2018 here; learn more about Sabrina Fadial here.

Special thanks to Backpacker arts apprentice Clementine O'Connor who contributed significantly to this profile, her first!


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