There was a time when Island printmaker Althea Freeman-Miller tried all she could to not be an artist. As the child of professional artists – her mother, Leslie Freeman, owned a beloved Vineyard Haven children’s clothing store featuring her own hand-printed designs and is now a potter and jeweler, and her father, Laurie Miller, was well-known as a sign-maker, designer and oil painter until his death last fall – the life of an artist was pretty much the only life Althea had ever known. And during high school, like most teenagers, she was interested in discovering for herself what else was out there.

When it came time to head to college and choose a major, Althea decided to pursue a degree in education instead of following in her parents' footsteps. “But then we needed a concentration in the education track, so of course I chose art,” she laughed.

After about a decade of living in Vermont, where she focused on other passions and vocations, she found herself drawn back to what now seems the inevitable path of making art as a profession.

Althea mounts her colorful block prints on wood. Ray Ewing

A Burlington coffee shop hung some of Althea’s early print work and then commissioned her for a gallery show. By that point, she had returned home to the Vineyard and was living with her mother. “My mom let me take over her sunroom,” Althea said, recalling a difficult patch after a relationship had ended. “She knew I needed space to do my thing, and she encouraged me to keep making my art.”

Daunted by the prospect of creating so much work for a show, Althea developed what would become her trademark style somewhat by accident. “I needed to find a way to get them on the wall,” she said of her colorful block prints. “I wanted them to be folksy and fun and I also didn’t have the money to frame them all in glass. That’s how I figured out I could mount them on wood.”

A stint at The Workshop, a shared studio space in Vineyard Haven, led to setting up her own shop, Althea Designs, nearby on Beach Road. This season, Althea welcomed artist Craig Miner and the Miner Family Gallery into the space, which the artists share as both workspace and a gallery.

The call to create has always been more than a solitary endeavor for Althea. After her time in Vermont, she was grateful to return to the vibrant Island community of artists and the established network of markets, art shows and festivals she could plug into right away. “We’re so lucky to have the amazing venues for selling art that we have here on the Island,” she said. “It was great to go off-Island and come back and realize that.” But there was a sense of fun and community she’d found in Vermont, she said, that she wanted to bring with her as she developed her craft and grew her business back home.

In addition to operating her design studio and shop on Beach Road, Althea sets up a booth at First Fridays. Ray Ewing

After moving her studio into town, Althea was eager to get involved in the community of local makers and businesses. She began offering workshops, sharing her skills in small groups and in one-on-one creative coaching sessions. And in 2017, she connected with the Vineyard Haven Business Association at a time when business owners were looking to bring a renewed sense of energy to the town.

“I had just come back from a music festival in Vermont. My friends put it together and I was so proud of them,” she remembered. Around that same time she’d been hearing about First Friday festivals – community events showcasing local art, food, and music together in one location on the first Friday of each month – happening all over the country. “The business association was looking for something special, so I said, what about a First Friday event?”

First Friday kicked off in June in Owen Park. Ray Ewing

Althea and the VHBA got to work, planning the first season’s lineup. “That was the summer of pop-ups,” she said, recalling a time when many artists and craftspeople were experimenting with “popping up” at brick and mortar shops across the Island. “We started by pairing local businesses with artists. It was great but it didn’t really feel like enough of an event.”

Over time, the festivals have evolved, shifting focus and locations. “We decided to grow it slowly and get together in a more central location. And it kept growing.”

When organizers felt like they’d gathered enough vendors, they experimented with closing Main street, but that still felt like too much of a sprawl. This summer’s June event was contained to Owen Park, with food trucks in the parking lot, vendors on the lawn and live music and the Pathways-sponsored Silent Disco in the bandstand. Althea says that later in the season visitors can expect a return of the Tisbury Fire Department’s bonfires, which drew crowds last summer for late night fun on the beach.

While the pandemic cancelled the 2020 events, the summer of 2021 surprised Althea as being a busy one for First Fridays. “Last year there was this feeling of being one island, and figuring out things together. And because it was an outdoor event, we could manage things,” she said.

Althea shows off the spread at First Friday — food trucks included. Ray Ewing

Music coordinator Andy Herr and the town worked together to temporarily park musicians on a barge offshore. “That’s where the music on the barge came from,” Althea laughed. “We were like, ‘How do we keep people away from the musicians? Put some water between them!'”

Thinking creatively and responding to community input has been a theme of the evolution of First Friday events. “I want to have as many experiences as possible,” Althea said, noting that she and other organizers are always up for hearing ideas from community members. “If someone has something they want to do, some kind of project to share, the town is so capable of making space for that.”

When she’s not busy building community, you can find Althea back in her studio, where she and Craig keep business hours that are regular but characteristically laid back. “We like to say we’re open by appointment or by chance…but there’s a pretty good chance.”

Alexandra Bullen Coutts is a writer living in West Tisbury and the editor of The Oyster.