“People are interesting. They are,” says Boo McLoughlin, executive director of Craft Alliance, as she walks between a smattering of strange, beautiful teapots in the art nonprofit’s gallery space on Delmar Boulevard. She’s elegantly dressed in a black sweater with an artfully draped red and gray scarf, and has been at the helm of the nonprofit for about eight years now. Currently Craft Alliance is in the midst of Fif-Tea, their 14th Biennial Teapot exhibition, which will be up until March 23rd of this year. “This one looks like wood, but it’s actually clay,” she says, motioning to a piece that does indeed look like a bark-covered wooden teapot that somehow sprouted out of the ground, complete with two wood-patterned teacups.
Recently they’ve also opened a second location in the heart of Grand Center, which houses an artist residency program in addition to the many classes offered at the Delmar location: glass work, metalsmithing, pottery, and looming are among the options available to potential students of all ages. When McLoughlin was 8 years old, her mother, who has since passed away, became the first director and paid employee of Craft Alliance. McLoughlin grew up in the Central West End surrounded by artists, many of whom were good friends of her mother and father and worked with Craft Alliance. “What art gives as a gift isn’t monetary, is not a quantifiable thing. It really is something that stirs your spirit, or your soul,” she says.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and it’s freezing cold outside out on the street.
“Am I interrupting?” A voice reaches in from just outside McLoughlin’s office. It’s Robert Longyear, community outreach coordinator and metals instructor. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he says, as he hands her a thin gold piece of metal with a clear outline of a heart on it. It has a smooth, tactile surface and a satisfying weight in your palm.
“Thank you. That’s really nice.”
“Your dudes better outdo it, though,” he says.
“I don’t think I’m going to get a valentine from a guy this year. We’ll see–maybe,” she says.
She grew up taking art, sculpture and claywork classes with her five siblings. Together, they’d write poems, stories, and act in plays. “The neighborhood was really multi-racial. They made a big point of making sure the classes were offered to people who lived, frankly, north of Delmar as well as south of Delmar,” she remembers. She watched the power of art as a common language–even words, which she loves, can separate people. “We have different languages, nationally, but we also have different cultural languages.” The idea that art is a universally understood language isn’t a hypothetical, fleeting assumption from McLaughlin’s perspective. She’s seen it in practice. “Anybody walking into that gallery, whether they’re from north of Delmar and have had a difficult financial picture their entire life, or they’re somebody who comes from Clayton and has had every advantage, you see people in the space with art really both finding joy in something that they’re looking at, and maybe having a moment of understanding between each other.”
When she graduated from high school, McLoughlin moved east to attend the University of Virginia and then headed for New York City, where she worked for a civil rights law firm called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “It was a very exciting job, because that is the body that really changed our country,” she says. The firm was responsible for drafting civil rights legislation in the 60’s and litigated all the cases leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. She wrote annual reports, newsletters, grants, and spearheaded fundraising for the organization until 1985, when she gave birth to a daughter, the first of three, and moved back to her hometown.
“The reason we came back was that it was really difficult have a baby and work and live in our little apartment in New York,” she says. “My kids’ dad, who I’m no longer married to, was from Princeton, New Jersey. He really liked St. Louis because it’s a great baseball town.” McLoughlin’s husband worked at Anheuser-Busch and her children attended the prestigious John Burroughs School in Ladue, where she became what she calls a “Burroughs mom.” “I had this corporate wife thing going on, and it was a little bit, frankly, too staid and conservative for me. Sometimes I would think to myself, ‘This is not quite me–this world I’m living in.’ It was a world of privilege. It was a nice life. But it was not as mixed up and varied as I like.”
Upon moving back to St. Louis as a new mom, she took an eight-year hiatus from full-time professional life and involved herself in the arts where she could. Her hometown had changed since she’d been gone. “It’s really blossomed in the last 12, 13 years since the Pulitzer opened,” she says. She worked with Logos School to help with fundraising and became part of the team that helped establish Shakespeare in the Park. “Getting into the mind of the playwright, the mind of the characters, and working with other people to create a theatrical production was exciting. It was a little bit scary.”
McLoughlin then went back to work full time, brought about by a painful divorce after 20 years of marriage. “It was completely heartbreaking for me. And I had these three daughters and it was really hard for them too, because we had a great family. We didn’t have a miserable situation. I had my children, who at the time were 12, 15 and 18, and needed me to be strong.” McLoughlin sold her house, went to work full time at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) under director Paul Ha, and moved back into a house roughly a block from her childhood home. “I moved to a place where I wanted to live, where I wouldn’t have lived if I’d stayed married: the Central West End, where I grew up.”
At CAM she worked on fundraising, educational outreach, and ran their bi-annual art auction. While returning to work full time brought her back into the art world, the workforce had changed significantly in the eight years she’d been gone. “It was just different. It was a different landscape. You’re constantly getting all of this email and people want responses.” She had to figure out how to make her life work in a new, unfamiliar way, and her children’s lives as well. “It was sort of like a big door closed, which broke my heart. And I’m sad about my family being a broken family–very sad about that. But a whole world opened up, because I had to go make my way in the world.”
Eight years ago, the director position at Craft Alliance, the same one her mother was the first to hold years before, opened up. The organization had changed a great deal. “It was much smaller then, but she did it for three years and she adored it,” she says. “The reason she stopped was because she had six kids and I think my father felt like things were falling apart at home–not really, but just–it was a little wild because she became so focused,” says McLoughlin, who was 8 at the time. “She became so–she loved Craft Alliance and she became very focused on what was going on at Craft Alliance, so after about three years–it was not a job that paid well enough at that time to make it possible to have all the backup care you need,” she says, with pragmatism she has discovered within herself as a mother as well.
“She adored the job–she was in her element. It was her favorite job that she ever had in her life, I know that. When she left, it was hard. But they were a team,” she says of her mother and father. Her father had a corporate job at Crown-Zellerbach, a large company that makes corrugated paper, where he worked as the regional sales director for many years. He’d work with large media companies like CondeNast and create custom solutions, like boxes that would allow them to ship their magazines and then turn into display easels. “I just remember this when I was living in New York–he was so excited,” says McLoughlin. Her father was still working when he died at 80 years old, a craftsman in his own right.
“We like to make art–we like to make things that are beautiful, things that speak to what our experience is,” says McLoughlin. “I think that sets us apart from other creatures, at least as far as I know. Maybe beavers are trying to make something beautiful when they make a dam, I don’t know. Or nests–maybe there’s an art to nests. But what I do know is we use our hands to make things of beauty and use. It’s wonderful to be part of an organization that reflects that history.” She’s seen art bridge impossible divides in the studio when people from all different walks of life come into the gallery, or when Craft Alliance instructors and artists in residence come together to work. “To me, the conversation that comes out of an exhibition is intellectually challenging, but it’s beyond that. It really is exciting in a way that moves your heart, your spirit, your being.”
When McLoughlin was 30, her older brother, who was 37 at the time, died of an aneurysm, leaving behind a wife and two young children, who were 7 and 10 at the time. “It was horrible,” says McLaughlin. “I think the way you deal with these sorts of things is that you have to put one foot in front of the other. You have to get up the next day. At the time, my second daughter had been born. I had a brand new baby, so that was a great solace because there’s something about young life that just is joyful.” It was 26 years ago, and McLoughlin was in a completely different place in her life. “I was married and I was very in love with my husband at the time, and he had lost a sibling so he really helped me through it. So I think it was really our family coming together—we had each other. It wasn’t as if I lost my only sibling.” Poised and resolute, she says, “You overcome these obstacles in life because you must. You don’t have a choice.”
Her other brother went to Vietnam, and came back a born-again Christian. “He sort of wants to convert everyone to believing in God,” she says. Mary, one of her sisters, is five years older and has struggled her whole life with bipolar disorder and mental illness. She serves on the board of Independence Center, a rehabilitation center for adults with mental illnesses. “My sister writes well and she’s smart, so they got her doing this very involved process–she’s written lots of articles and spoken for them all over the country and Europe as part of two teams that go and help other cities set up clubhouses like the Independence Center,” says McLoughlin. She calls Mary her “mostly companion,” which she learned from the children’s book series, Eloise. “Remember Eloise? About the little girl who lives in The Plaza? She’s this wacky little girl and she has a nanny–her nanny is her mostly companion. That’s what she calls her. She’s with her all the time, and her mother is off shopping or something, I don’t know–she’s very remote. And this little girl is wreaking havoc in The Plaza in New York.”
She walks outside in the snow, deftly navigating between patches of ice, to the group of studios upstairs: metals, glass, looming, and more. Pottery and clay are downstairs, where instructors are firing a smorgasbord of freshly crafted bowls, mugs, small sculptures, and even a small piggy bank shaped like a distressed cat. Throughout the course of her workday, she’s often affected by what she calls “the transformative power of art–to fill people with joy, and to create connections that don’t happen in the natural course of life. Really deep connections.” It’s part of why she feels art is so vital, so important to a society’s identity. “I feel connected to some of the artists in the show we have [at the Grand location] because they’re really speaking to things that have a lot of resonance about what has been happening in this country in the 21st century.” After stopping by the upstairs studios, McLoughlin walks into her office in a back corner of the building. It’s covered in papers, photos, and Craft Alliance brochures. She has already made tea with an artful tea set, a pot and two small cups, and prepares to handle her directorial duties for the day.
“It’s a privilege, because I loved my mother,” says McLoughlin. When she was hired at Craft Alliance and found a house a block away from where she grew up in the same month, it seemed like more than a coincidence. “My friends all thought she was up in heaven making things happen for me,” she says. “I always thought of myself as this person who was striking out, moving to New York–whatever. It’s kind of lovely following in her footsteps, actually. I like it. Because I thought she had good footsteps … she was a really interesting, dynamic human being who took risks.” McLoughlin will always be tied to Craft Alliance, for many reasons. “It’s been a privilege to be helping expand the horizons of this organization that she so loved–that I grew up loving. That’s been a big part of my life.”
For more information about Craft Alliance, visit www.craftalliance.org