hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture November 2022


Maker space with a green mission

In a 19th century mill, two artists create a center for ‘upcycling’


Dozens of cast-off bicycles are gathered in one room at the Old Stone Mill Center for Arts and Creative Engineering. After repairs and modifications, most will be shipped to countries in Africa to provide basic transportation. Susan Sabino photo


Dozens of cast-off bicycles are gathered in one room at the Old Stone Mill Center for Arts and Creative Engineering. After repairs and modifications, most will be shipped to countries in Africa to provide basic transportation. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer

ADAMS, Mass.

On an August afternoon at the Old Stone Mill, Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger were outside by the Hoosic River, tie-dying aprons with Pauline Dongala and Josephine Moundouti.
They built a fire and heated the dye over it, coating the pot in mud to keep the flame from darkening the metal.

Fried listened to Dongala and Moundouti as they talked about the dye plants they have known since they were children and the villages in the Congo where they were born. They remembered gathering with people, cooking over a fire and dreaming.

Here in Adams, they cooked potatoes in the embers while they hung the aprons on a clothesline to dry. They were making patterns in deep greens and smoky blues, teasing art and play out of linens a local company would have thrown away.

Dongala, of Great Barrington, has been working with the Old Stone Mill Center for Arts and Creative Engineering to send daily necessities to the community in the Congo where she once lived — like bicycles so children can get to school, and sheets for hospital beds. These are goods the people there sorely need, and that people here were ready to toss out.

Moundouti, from Burlington, Vt., has led her own nonprofit in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 10 years. She learned about the Old Stone Mill partnership in a YouTube video and reached out to the mill’s owners.

Fried and Augspurger look back to that August gathering recently as they explained how they, as two artists from Cummington, came to buy an old gutted woolen mill in Adams and give it a new purpose. Connections like this, they said, are what the Old Stone Mill is made for.


Upcycling on a wider scale
Fried and Augspurger took on the Old Stone Mill in 2016, and they are growing it as a zero-waste maker space.

She is an artist and printmaker, and he is a metalworker. While she is making monotypes and linocuts in her studio in their roomy old barn in Cummington, he is repairing and reconstructing bicycles, including many adapted for people with disabilities.

Here at the mill, at the core of their mission, they take in surplus materials from local sources and find new uses for them, keeping them from ending up in landfills.

Brought into the sunlight, the amounts they are finding become quickly staggering. Every year, Fried and Augspurger take in thousands of pounds of used sheets, blankets and chef’s shirts from just one local company, Aladco Linen Services, in Adams. The cloth adds up to 15 tons a year.

Aladco supplies linens for Williams College, local restaurants and hotels and more. For 25 years, Augspurger said, whenever anything became even slightly torn or stained, the company would send it to an incinerator.


In one of their projects, Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger have collected more than 90 tons of fabric cast off by a local linen service, thereby keeping it out of an incinerator and instead redirecting it to local nonprofits and to communities overseas. Susan Sabino photo

In one of their projects, Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger have collected more than 90 tons of fabric cast off by a local linen service, thereby keeping it out of an incinerator and instead redirecting it to local nonprofits and to communities overseas. Susan Sabino photo

In its six years of operation, the mill has taken in more than 90 tons of cloth that would simply have been burned. Instead, the cloth has gone to local nonprofits, including homeless shelters, and to communities overseas, from the Ivory Coast to hospital wards in Honduras.

In concrete programs like this, Fried and Augspurger say, they want to look toward the future by blending sustainability and creativity, practical skills and resourceful energy.


The roots of change
Their vision took root some 20 years ago, Fried said. By then they were living in Cummington, a small hilltown about 20 miles to the east and halfway to Northampton.

Cummington has the kind of community that sustains the Old Creamery co-op market and coordinates an annual seed and plant swap in early spring, where local people bring offerings they have transplanted from their gardens: raspberries, crimson bee balm, hyssop smelling of anise.

Among their neighbors, Fried and Augspurger started a sustainability group. Friends would come together and talk about how they wanted to live and shape the future.

“We had meetings for months,” Fried said. “We watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and talked about climate change. It was amazing really.”

They shared books and documentaries and resources, Fried said, and the philosophy and research that emerged in those conversations still guides their work.

“What we’re doing now is building the root system of this building,” she said. “It’s more than 160 years old, and it will outlast us. We’re trying to project about the future. And we’re not in a hurry.”
In her print studio in Cummington recently, Fried has been working on an image that encompasses that sense of the world. She printed the spiral of a snail and found herself thinking, “snail’s pace lightning fast.”

In part she means that the systems they are putting in place can grow gradually over time and then have the capacity to move fast, as they find and build resources and then find someone who needs them.

And in part she means that she and Augspurger take the time to see what they have around them and think about how they can use it.

“We’re accelerated because of the things we use,” Fried explained. “Technology accelerates us.”
She sees people focused on instantaneous decisions, spending less time in looking around and looking closely. And she finds value — and fun — in that kind of attention. She and Augspurger show the results they have gathered around them with humor, with things as practical as a drill press and as imaginative as an obstacle course or a treasure hunt.

As they find and trace streams of goods, they look at what people in the community are making and buying and disposing of. Fried looks at the pressure of continuous manufacturing, and she talks instead in terms of a conscious, rooted energy. She sees it as the inverse of a tree that grows for a hundred or a thousand years and then gets cut down in a day.

“We need perspective,” she said. “The way Mike’s doing with his metalwork workshop, because no one knows how to measure now, even how to use a ruler or a tape measure. These are life skills that we don’t develop because we don’t need them, and they’re important.”


Multiple projects and treasures
And so, in an old mill that was built around 1860 and originally manufactured uniforms for Union soldiers, she and Augspurger now have stacks of tablecloths and hospital scrubs, along with bolts of cloth donated from people in the community. In the front hall, they have remade grain sacks into storage bags.

Open spaces are full of projects and windfalls. A grain grinder run by a bicycle stands near cotton batting from hundred-year-old church pews. Augspurger said he and Fried stripped away the old, worn fabric and found the seats filled with real cotton. Now they have 30 bales worth.

They are now sufficiently well known that people often call them in to salvage things. They get calls from people who haven’t had the time for planning: a school in Springfield that closed because of tornado damage, or a company making office furniture that shut down.

That last adventure left the mill with the tops for 90 conference tables, Augspurger said. He turned some of them into tables for a new cafe coming into the Adams Theatre.

“When a company goes out of business,” Fried said, “what happens to what they’ve bought?”
She opened drawers full of vividly colorful paper from Crane Co. in Dalton. When the company moved its factory, she said, it had to clear its warehouse of 30 pallets of paper within a week. Company officials told her they had intended to recycle the paper, meaning that in the best-case scenario, reams upon reams of high-quality paper would be chopped up and repurposed — into more paper.

Fried thought she could find a more efficient and useful alternative. She recalled a friend talking about the conservation of previous effort, and she wanted to respect the resources that had gone into making this beautiful paper.

She asked Crane if it could wait two days, she said, to give her time to spread the word, and the company agreed to open the warehouse for three hours on that Monday and Tuesday. She posted to Facebook and got thousands of hits. Teachers came from as far away as Vermont. People showed up in trucks and trucks and cars and trailers. And in two days, the warehouse was clean.


Evolving, broadening mission
When goods come into the mill, Fried and Augspurger have the space and time to store them until they can find people who need them. Some items they keep in their maker space for remaking, repairing or redistribution. Many others they send to local shelters, youth centers, schools, camps, art studios and gardens.

“Our surplus is their scarcity,” Fried likes to say.
They are collaborating now with three or four people who fill shipping containers for communities in the Congo and Honduras and hospitals on the Ivory Coast.

Moundouti has told Fried that in her former home in the Congo, a company from China has bought the land surrounding the village, where the local families used to grow crops as their only food source. As a result, the adults have to walk 25 miles to the fields they cultivate, leaving their children.

She has sent them bicycles from the Old Stone Mill, and also parts — pumps, tire irons, inner tubes — encouraging them to learn to make and repair their own machines.

Photographs on Fried’s wall show people who have piled their bicycles with grain sacks in stacks twice a man’s height, and she reflects on how highly people in one place can value something people in another place scarcely notice.

For the first five years, she said, the mill gave away everything it gathered, completely free. But as she and Augspurger began to handle larger quantities that take more time to process, that model became unsustainable. Now, she said, they sell goods at very low cost in ways that do not compete with the places that have donated them. Or they coordinate with other organizations that help direct materials to the people and groups who need them.

“I used to spend hours on the phone talking with Shelters and Springfield Rescue,” Fried recalled.

Now, she said, the mill works with Helpsy, a socially and environmentally conscious clothing recycling company that helps with the volume of sheets and blankets they take in. (The mill also has Helpsy recycling bins for clothing out front, accepting clothes and shoes people want to offer at any time.)


A community maker space
More and more, in quiet ways, Fried and Augspurger are reaching out to the community around them. In a front room with high ceilings, tall windows and a wood floor, they hold open studios with Fried’s cards and prints, which she also offers now at the Mass MoCA shop.
They have visions of this room filled like the Boston Children’s Museum with barrels of found oddments for art projects — polished wooden spheres, scrap metal, glass and more for imaginative play and art.

Right now, anyone in the community is welcome, by appointment, to come in and look around on their own. Fried calls this a makers market. You can come in and pay for a bag ($3 to $10) and simply fill it with anything you see.

The center room is busy with shelves of cloth and fabric, easels and cleaned paintbrushes, wrapping paper, and a collection of picture frames. Fried used to frame art and photographs years ago, when she and Augspurger lived in Boston, and people so often throw frames away, she said.

This fall, they have begun offering workshops in the maker space. Fried has set up a print shop on the second floor, and she is leading a group in monoprints and collagraphs and linotypes, all kinds of ways to create shapes and play with inks on paper.

One floor down, Augspurger is leading a class in his metal shop, and for their first project the class is making rollers for Fried’s print shop studio out of the grips from bicycle handles.
Those grips have shapes imprinted in the rubber, and when they repeat, overlaid with green and red and gold inks, they can form patterns as bright as kente cloth.

The grip fits around a short piece of the bike’s metal handlebar, Augspurger explained, and turns around a thin bar of metal as an axle. He is teaching his workshop to make a wooden tube to fit between the handle and the axle. Then they repurpose old screwdrivers to become the handles of the rollers.

He shows the spot welder, lathes, grindstone, milling machine — some of the machines in his workshop he has made and adapted himself. For years he made titanium wedding rings, he said, as he showed a teal blue band shaped from the outer casing of a bowling ball. But chiefly he repairs bicycles, including bikes for sale to support the mill, as he has for 40 years.

“When they invented mountain bikes, about 1981, we were living in the city,” Augspurger recalled. “I used to race motorcycles, and I couldn’t do that there. But I loved mountain bikes, sturdy bikes with flat handle bars … I started working at a place in Somerville that made them.”
Out here, even on a rainy fall day, he can still casually pop a wheelie and skim up a ramp half the height of the mill’s double-story walls. The top floor of the mill is an open space right now, full of bike jumps and a motley crew of wheels.

“It has to be fun,” he said, laughing.
Augspurger has made and repaired unicycles, reclining tricycles, scooters and bikes of all sizes. For four years, before Covid, he and Fried partnered often with a local youth center.
He has swings up here, hanging from the beams, and rings and a kind of bouncing bar hanging from a spring. Hold those handles, and you can let the spring take your weight and fall freely into the air.