Artist Spotlight: Nico Dery
by Hunter Styles
North Adams artist Nico Dery is a jewelry-maker, performance artist, space maker, arts administrator, and a member of the Common Folk Artist Collective who is both a spirited traveler and a Western Mass local. Her journey around the country taught her much about herself—including that she was meant to come back.
Dery grew up in northern Berkshire county and spent an idyllic childhood playing in the woods with her friends. “It was back when your parents would send you out the door and say, ‘come back at dusk,’” she says. But by high school, Dery began to feel the limitations of the area. “Would I be able to find a job if I continued living here?” she says. “MASS MoCA didn't exist yet. Hanging out at the mall was the most exciting thing to do.” So, Dery went to college, and didn't move back for 20 years.
Here is part of the answer to how an artist returns: by first growing and changing, and finding home elsewhere.
“Psychologically, it was the hardest class I'd ever taken. At the end, I had an amazing portfolio.”
Dery moved to Washington, DC to study political science, but quickly grew disillusioned by the city’s political culture. However, in DC she attended her first art class since middle school. “I loved it, and I knew,” she says, “that this was what I wanted to do.”
Soon after, Dery was accepted to New York University and moved to Manhattan. She quickly found a home with the studio art program. Her work in a class taught by artist, critic, and educator Lawrence Chua called “The Naked City” had a powerful impact on her. “He challenged a lot of my preconceptions,” she explains. “Psychologically, it was the hardest class I'd ever taken. At the end, I had an amazing portfolio.”
Dery graduated with a degree in studio art, but she wasn’t done searching for home. Visiting a college friend in northern California, she felt a special pull. So she moved to the Bay Area, where she lived for 15 years working among art collectives and in coffee shops, an arts school, the hospitality industry, a bakery, restaurant groups, and a punk rock urban bike store—all while enjoying the colorful bustle of making art among collectives.
Through it all, she developed an acumen for business development. As an employee at the Oakland-based company Blue Bottle Coffee, she witnessed a business transform from a small-batch roaster into a corporatized juggernaut. “I experienced mom-and-pop businesses growing from one shop or a few farmers markets into huge multinational corporations,” she says. “That gave me a lot of experience in not only what it means to be successful, but what the growing pains can be when a business succeeds.”
“I thought, if North Adams keeps growing without me there, I'll feel some serious FOMO"
Dery thought she might spend the rest of her life in the Bay Area. She wanted to buy a house, but “I didn’t have a million dollars.” At times she would think of her sister in Western Mass, and about the growing entrepreneurial energy in this area’s towns and cities. “I thought, if North Adams keeps growing without me there, I'll feel some serious FOMO [fear of missing out]," she says. “So I put an offer on a house in North Adams.”
Since 2017, that is where Dery has lived. When a job opened up at the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, she jumped at the opportunity to apply. She now works as Business Development Coordinator for the Chamber, where she consults with small business owners across the northern Berkshires—from the well-established to the aspiring—on their plans, goals, and needs. Some services Dery suggests during these meetings are free of charge, and others—like MASS MoCA’s Assets for Artists program—connect entrepreneurs with opportunities for grant funding to start their business. “This summer, we saw an influx of people moving into the area,” she says, “who were inspired by this place and contemplating starting a new business.”
So, this is another secret to journeying back around to where you started: it helps if the place you lost, then found, has done some growing of its own. But there may be a third and final piece to this puzzle: it helps if some things have stayed the same.
While working a corporate job at Blue Bottle Coffee, Dery felt that her art had taken an unplanned hiatus. In response, she started making jewelry—a medium that echoed her art school interest in large steel sculpture, but which scaled better to her 350-square-foot studio apartment in Oakland. “Jewelry making, to me, feels like making sculpture in miniature,” she says. “I love the back-and-forth of working with the metal. It helps balance me out.”
Dery now sells her pieces under the company name Sequoia Oro. That work is “like therapy,” she says. “It soothes an inner need to create. Someone once said to me: you know that you're an artist when you have to make art in order to stop thinking about it.”
“...you know that you're an artist when you have to make art in order to stop thinking about it.”
But the collective and community work, she says, is where her deepest passions lie. Which leads to the project that Dery, now 42, may be best known for locally: Art Vending North Adams. Recently included in a feature in The New York Times, the project is a vending machine that sells locally-made art on the campus of MASS MoCA. The machine launched in May 2021 thanks to state, city, and local funding, and is now financially self-sustaining (although Dery, who stocks and maintains the machine, is still working to determine whether it will run in its outdoor kiosk for all 12 months of the year).
“I wanted to build a sense of wonder and curiosity as you look at the pieces, and I think that’s been successful,” Dery says of the machine, which is located in Courtyard A toward the front of the MASS MoCA complex. “Initially I had a long waitlist of artists who wanted to participate, and a lot of them have now had their work sold in the machine. Artists can make decent money selling work out of it.” Art Vending North Adams accepts rolling submissions from artists through its website.
Dery says that some pieces don’t sell as quickly, “but I love them”—and adds that these are often the pieces that visitors discuss the most. She tries to visit the machine at least once a day. “I can track how sales are doing online, but my favorite part is seeing how people are really responding,” she says. “The most important thing for me is that the machine makes for a good conversation when you stumble across it.”
"I think this can make people rethink the value of handmade objects, and the time and effort that people put into it."
“Some of the price points can feel high,” she adds, “because when people see a vending machine, they expect low prices. But I think this can make people rethink the value of handmade objects, and the time and effort that people put into it. And you get to experience the art of North Adams—of the people in this community!”
Over the next five or ten years, Dery says she hopes to see more support for local artists, more shared making-spaces, and an increase in affordable art studio spaces in Western Mass—perhaps using empty storefronts. As someone further afield once put it: If you build it, they will come.
“I just had two friends move here from Oakland who I never thought in a million years would move here,” she says. “They came out to visit and fell in love. They saw opportunity here.