Hortonville is undergoing a renaissance. One of the people largely responsible for this is Claire Abitz. Three years ago, the artist/maker returned to the Fox Valley from Queens, NY, and moved into the old police and fire station near downtown. In addition to being her residence, the building became home to Standard Projects, an artists’ residency, and her retail shop Fox Valley Found + Collected (FVFC). And if that isn’t enough, it also served as a venue for local bands and housed a recording studio (Claire’s boyfriend, Ryley Crowe, who’s in the band Darn It, can attest to that).
I had a chance to catch up with Claire in the space, which evokes its mid-century origins. It’s late in the afternoon and the sun is pouring in the huge windows in her studio, which she has opened up to community members as a place to make and create.
I came back to Wisconsin for creative space and freedom. As I began repurposing the former police station, it became clear that this was an inspiring platform to facilitate and collaborate with other artists. The authenticity, support and accessibility of being in a small town have allowed me to meaningfully connect with the local community.
The Appleton native’s mom, Therese, discovered Hortonville’s potential 10 years ago when she opened her tailor shop, The Crooked Door. Claire was still in high school and would help her mom remodel on the weekends. She shares:
“I remember thinking as a kid that everyone’s mom did construction stuff, so there was a while I didn’t really embrace it because I didn’t know it was unique. I realized pretty quickly as a teenager that it wasn’t normal, but of course, no one wants to be like their parents at that age. She was cool though; she never really pushed it on us. She was sewing a lot when we were younger and occasionally building a shed out at our cottage or for the neighbors. She started doing construction full-time when I was maybe eight years old and then renovated a house downtown Appleton on her own a couple years later. My siblings and I would walk over there after school and help, so that’s probably when we started being more involved. During that renovation, there was a weird doorway issue that I was talking about with her, and I suggested she cut the wall in some angular shape under a stairway, and she grabbed a Sawzall and did it. Maybe that was the moment. She took her 11-year-old daughter’s aesthetic suggestion seriously, showed me how to make it happen, and then I remember us looking at it and we both liked it afterward. A couple years later, she started renovating her shop on Main Street in Hortonville and that was an intensive project; it took three years. Her interior design aesthetic has definitely influenced me in that she approaches building (the process) and buildings (the structures) as an artform, though she would never admit it! In the renovations I’ve done here at Standard Projects, there are pretty clear mixes going on that I didn’t realize I was doing when I first started. I had an ‘Aha’ moment during the thick of my time as a decorative painter when I realized that there are still insanely skilled trades in construction. I was really enamored with watching other workers install millwork, stone, pearl inlay… that was just unbelievably beautiful and all done by hand still. So I kind of funneled that level of nuance and care and art vs. craft into my personal work while I was still in New York, and that grew into pursuing my own studio space here.”
When we first established the store, we wanted it to be independent so it could move, simplify and grow or be managed by other contributors.
And so Standard Projects was born. Not only has Claire rediscovered the charms of this Fox West community on Black Otter Lake, but so has her sister, Grace, and Grace’s fiancé, Jane, who are getting ready to open Alley Cat Coffeehouse on Main Street in April. In February, Claire announced she’ll be moving Standard Projects across the street from her sister’s cafe, just a half block from its current location.
“When we first established the store, we wanted it to be independent so it could move, simplify and grow or be managed by other contributors… flexibility,” Claire says. “My mom has had her tailoring business on Main Street for about 10 years so we are essentially trading! Her space is more historical and has big, feature windows and my storefront space is a bit larger and has a lot more parking. We also thought FVFC would be a great combo with the coffee shop across the street and soon to be florist… with greenhouses!”
Claire’s own work utilizes many different natural materials, such as wood, metal and leather. Her forms are very organic and there is a laidback, mid-1970s vibe to her work, but at the same time thoroughly modern and sleek. She not only creates jewelry and wood forms, but she also works with silver and gold leaf, making mirrors and signage. She recently had a solo exhibit installation at the Oberreich Gallery at UW Fond du Lac last October and November, and she sells her own jewelry online and other artists’ work at FVFC (mainly jewelry and wall art).
One of the most delightful things to come out of the residency program is that almost every artist who has donated work to the shop (because the residency is free) has sold work. That was something I didn’t think was actually an option for the residency, and it’s crazy that it works. It’s totally up to the artist as to what they want to do, and they chose to go for it. That is really cool.