The Skylands region in northwestern New Jersey is an idyllic part of the state to explore in the fall. Warren County, in particular, is loaded with great hiking trails that showcase some beautiful views of the turning foliage, and farms where folks can pick their own apples and pumpkins. While its natural beauty has surely inspired many great paintings and photographs, for whatever reason, Warren County hasn’t been known as a vibrant arts community like neighboring Hunterdon and Morris counties. That may soon be changing, though, thanks to the efforts of people like Sam Matthews, who recently opened the art space Propagate Studio.
Located in the small, rural town of Stewartsville, which splits the distance (almost to the mile) between Washington and Phillipsburg on Route 57, Propagate Studio opened in March of ’22 and is an oasis for those looking to create and express themselves via art.
Once home to a motorcycle repair shop, the now repurposed garage that houses Propagate has undergone a significant aesthetic transformation. Every inch of space has been considered and filled with intriguing wares, colorful installments, cleverly arranged supplies, all sorts of visual art manifestations… and a microbus named “Flo,” adorned with floral wreaths and decorative lights. A delightfully stimulating confluence of shop, hang-out, maker-space and exhibit, this studio is unlike any we’ve experienced thus far in NJ and it begged the question: why is this… here?
A native of the Phillipsburg/Washington area, Matthews hadn’t always planned to return home and build a career in an area that was such a far cry from what she had been exposed to while at college in Massachusetts or during her time abroad. Yet, she ran with the opportunity to start multiple businesses and help grow a community/place for artists in the relatively underserved area (for the arts) that she grew up in. To date, it’s proved a rewarding, albeit challenging, undertaking.
This week I got to visit with Matthews at the art space and learn all about her vision for the studio and how Propagate is the product of years of dreaming, hard work, both good and bad breaks and, perhaps, providence.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration behind Propagate Studio?
I went to school just north of Boston; it was a liberal arts college, but I was a Fine Arts major. I loved being around other artists and I loved the art homework that we had, even though we were up to all hours of the night. But just being surrounded by other creatives was the best. It made [all the hard work] worth it; we had so much fun.
I didn’t really have a community of friends here [in Stewartsville] when I moved back home. All of my friends [from college] were from all over the place, so, I didn’t have a group to hang out with anymore. All this time, though, I’ve been trying to connect with people and I’ve been building a community.
My original business, Art Across Borders, that’s what the bus is from. So, that business still exists, but that was mobile and I was connecting with people where they were—going to festivals, doing private parties, weddings, photo booths, a little bit everything. I love that portion of my life and I’m passionate about it, but I wanted a place for people to come to. I love hosting things. I love procuring spaces and I love installation work. So [Propagate] came out of that and the desire to support people, like myself, who need a space to express themselves, to sell their work, to come and be creative in whatever capacity.
Where do you feel like you are as far as establishing this community? Do you feel like you have a network now?
Yeah, I definitely do. I don’t know, it’s multifaceted. I have many branches of community now: through my business I have my patrons that support me as an artist and then some of them come out to the workshops I host because I do multiple things.
I feel like having this space now, though, I’ve found that it’s growing us into a consistent community of people [from the immediate area] that come out for events. I have a neighbor right behind us here. She’s come to seven or eight workshops already since we’ve opened, which was only back in March. I’ve always downplayed myself, so, I feel like [the community is] still in its infancy, but I’ve been building it since 2016 through my original business and connecting with people and my social media following. I’ve worked hard to grow and I know that [the community] is there. I mean, I guess this place is proof that it exists because when I started the studio, I actually reached out to my network through Art Across Borders and everyone else that I knew and asked for help financially, and I did a fundraiser. [You’ll see that] people’s names are on different installations here—that was what they could pay to be a part of and support me. The paint chip, the mural and then there’s a paintbrush installation… I was able to raise $5,000 before I opened from January to March.
You said you officially opened in March of this year but, how long had Propagate been in the works?
Well, truly since art school. I always wanted to have a space, but it was such a far-off dream. Starting my original business, getting a bus, that was the bulk of my focus. But then in fall of last year, around this time actually, “Flo” [the microbus] broke down on the way to an event. She’s broken down many times but this was like the breakdown of breakdowns. It was so scary actually because my original family bus caught on fire while my stepdad was driving it and it burned to the ground. Everyone was OK besides the bus. So, engine fires were always a fear and Flo was smoking from the back and I was out on the highway thinking, “This is it, it’s all gone now!”
Nothing caught fire, thankfully, but I just didn’t know what I was going to do because the engine needed to be replaced. I’m a big manifestor, I really believe in your energy and putting out into the universe what you want. So, I’d been thinking about [having my own space] for years, but was always so focused on growing Art Across Borders. Then, when the bus broke down and a bunch of other crazy things happened all at once, that’s when [Propagate] really started to kind of come together.
Literally three days after the bus broke down, I saw the “for rent” sign for this space—and I was only just starting to look for spaces actually. Then, around that exact same time, my friend showed me a picture of another Volkswagen bus, the same exact color, in Linden that was for sale. I ended up buying Frankie [the second bus] and signed the lease for this space in January. So, it was a long time coming, but very short in coming together.
You walked me through some of the sections that you have here and there’s a sizable area where you feature artists. How long are you doing features for? Is it a monthly rotation?
Seasonally, so every three months. They pay rent for the season and then I take a commission. It’s very affordable, really not the bulk of my income but it helps everyone out.
What programs does Propagate offer?
So, I do workshops, parties and private events. I try to book workshops as much as I can where I’m teaching them, but I also have guest artists come in and teach as well. I mainly do workshops for ages 13 and up because of just the space itself: it can be hard to keep younger kids separated from other people’s art that’s featured here. I work with preschoolers once a week as well, and I love kids dearly, but it just, you know, works out that way for parties. I’ve told parents that they can have their kid’s birthday party here as long as I have four capable adults to help corral everyone, haha.
I’m still kind of in the phase of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks; seemingly what runs are just different kinds of classes. For example, our huge thing is needle felting, that’s a really popular class. Then we have a guy coming in now once a month, at least, who teaches in the style of Bob Ross. He’s actually like Bob-Ross-certified to teach, so people are excited about his classes. I’m open to trying anything as long as the other artists help put the word out and try to bring people in.
We had a vintage video game party here where we had different stations with CRT TVs. My boyfriend’s a video game designer, and he curates vintage video game experiences. So, we had an adult party here for that, we had the fire pit going outside and people could kind of come in and out and hang out.
Can you tell me more about the “art bar” area?
I got this bar for free from a friend when I was looking to make a counter space. People can pull up a chair, sit and hang out. It’s like a coffee shop vibe, where you can just sit and get things done and use the materials that I have if you want. There are [materials and supplies] you can purchase to use or just bring your own stuff.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing in this first year?
Trying to get the word out about certain offerings that I have is definitely the hardest part… and how to advertise. For example, you can only advertise your business on Facebook in specific ways, to groups and stuff. It’s working, though.
You mentioned that you grew up in both of the neighboring towns: Phillipsburg and Washington. Were you always planning to return home and open a space here?
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, like you were saying earlier, this isn’t an area for the arts, really. Or not as much as other areas in New Jersey. I actually did a lot of traveling overseas in college and I really thought I would be overseas but when I realized my life would be stateside for now, that’s when I started the mobile business. I didn’t know where I was gonna land.
I moved to Blairstown right at the beginning of the pandemic with my boyfriend. When the pandemic hit we were like, “Oh, this is living-together bootcamp.” And, we did so well that we bought a house, haha. We were lucky enough to be blessed with a little, amazing house that no one else bid on… and it’s around the corner from a house I lived in in high school.
I think a lot of my friends growing up, we always had this unsettled feeling and we love traveling and it was always like, “Oh, you don’t wanna live where you grew up on purpose.” But it just happened this way. There was a time when I wanted to move down to Nashville… but I’d already started my other business and I would have had to rebuild everything—not that I don’t think I could do that, but I felt like I needed to focus on what I have here. And I always wanted to live close to my work… I can get here in six minutes if I catch all the lights.
What are some of your immediate goals for Propagate, for the next year or so?
Short-term, I would love to host more private events. That’s kind of our bread and butter, I really need those to survive. That’s why I have so many different packages: it could be a creative event, it could be a movie night, it could be a video game party, it could be a vintage package. I’m open to whatever, even people just renting this space like, whatever, just come and do something here. And use the art bar more, that’s what I really want to grow.
So our lease is five years and my original goal or vision included working artist space. So, I don’t know if you have been down to the Banana Factory in Bethlehem or there’s a place called GoggleWorks in Reading, Pennsylvania; but, there are these huge warehouses that have artists’ studios in them. [Artists] rent the studio space, a lot of cities have them now. That’s my ultimate goal is to have a space that can accommodate artists like that. I think someday—if we grow enough—I would turn the upstairs here into working artist studio spaces. But, until then, we’ll just dream.