The heart and character of any neighborhood are defined by the local independent restaurants, shops, boutiques and galleries that line its streets: it is because of these places that people venture out of their homes, say hello to one another, and a neighborhood turns into a community. As 2011 begins, the residents of East Millcreek have two new destinations that bring their community together: Urbanscrap Boutique and Millcreek Arts. Both are part of an ambitious project spearheaded by Amber DeBirk that brings a community art-education studio, eco-friendly artisan boutique, and children’s arts-and-crafts space to the established studio spaces known as Flynn Artipelago.
DeBirk initially worked in a small studio at this East Bench stretch of artist spaces housed in a cluster of World War I era buildings that local saxophone player Kevin Flynn saved from demolition. The enclave’s name plays with the idea of an “archipelago” or cluster of islands in the middle of the sea, suggesting that in these historic brick buildings you’ll find a breath of fresh air and a palpable change of pace from the surrounding urban sprawl peppered with strip malls.
I met Flynn and DeBirk here on an overcast weekday afternoon to tour the spaces and talk about the new project. Flynn has a gentle nature and a serene quality that makes him easy to talk with. There is an unmistakable gleam of joy that comes to his eyes when he starts speaking about playing the saxophone, art, and his love for old buildings. In the 1920s, Flynn tells me, the buildings of the Artipelago housed the Baldwin Radio Company, where the first radio headsets were produced by a team of 150 men and women, all hired by the inventor of headphones, Nathaniel Baldwin. Since then the property has gone through a handful of owners, ending with Flynn, who purchased it in 1996. Through Flynn Artipelago, Kevin has combined his passions in a unique area that houses 22 artists working in 15 studios. At their regular open houses attendees are treated to an array of artwork including handcrafted furniture, oil and watercolor paintings, pottery, fused glass, and even live music.
My tour concluded outside the Grotto Gallery, where a sampling of the tenants’ artwork can be seen. The gallery is adjacent to Urbanscrap Boutique and Millcreek Arts, all of which are housed under one roof at Flynn Artipelago. DeBirk greeted me in the Urbanscrap Boutique, a space where colorful glass mosaics are prominently displayed. She conveys the warm reassuring confidence of an experienced teacher who is excited to offer her craft to the people around her.
All of the pieces in the Urbanscrap Boutique have been made by local artists who work with recycled, scrap, or natural materials, an effort that speaks of DeBirk’s lifelong commitment to conserving natural resources. As an intern for Westminster College in 1996 she developed eARTh Team, an award-winning recycling and environmental education program, for the Utah Arts Festival. The 2002 Olympics found her working on the Waste Management Committee, and she also served on the National Board of Directors in Washington, D.C., for America Recycles Day. Today DeBirk says she is one of only two glass artists in the state of Utah who works with recycled glass.
Next to recycling and her own work with fused glass, DeBirk’s love is bringing these things to the community. Alongside Urbanscrap Boutique, she has opened a new classroom space known as Millcreek Arts, which also features a children’s arts-and-crafts room. At Millcreek Arts DeBirk hosts classes that range from making fused-glass jewelry to stained-glass wall hangings. The classes have been a big hit and she says that in every session there are at least one or two students who are so enthusiastic about the process that they go out and buy their own kiln. For people who have already taken a class from her DeBirk provides an open studio option where they can come and use the studio space and tools. She even offers to fire the work.
Every second Saturday of the month DeBirk organizes a green arts-and-crafts children’s activity that occasionally has a holiday theme. The children’s space is a special area set aside just for kids; Amber’s two daughters who are 3 and 5 like to call it their studio.
For DeBirk the boutique reflects her personal commitment to eco-friendliness and the workshop space is about community. At the grand opening almost 1,000 people from around the valley came to see Urbanscrap Boutique and the Millcreek Arts because, after all, this is one of those places that defines the heart and character of the neighborhood.
Dale Thompson has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from The Evergreen State College and an Masters degree in communications from Westminster College. Her writing career includes work for a local theatre, journalism in Park City, and freelance contributions for various nonprofit organizations.