Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Artists For Humanity
6 min readJan 18, 2024

Edition 46— Michaela Flatley

Creating Community

Flatley at the opening of her shop, The Local Hand

At fourteen, Michaela Flatley felt stuck. She had outgrown summer camp, and all her job-seeking efforts had resulted in dead ends because of her age. Though she wanted to work, she struggled to find a productive way to fill her summer.

“I remember feeling frustrated at that age, that there was nothing for me to do in the summer…and I desperately wanted something to do”

Fortunately, her search would not last long. Through a city youth employment program, her parents discovered Artists For Humanity–a dream employer for a creative teen like Flatley. “I was a very artsy kid…It felt too good to be true,” she shares, remembering her first reaction to being hired by AFH. The prospect of learning new technical skills and expressing herself artistically was appealing enough–the fact that it would be her summer job was practically unbelievable.

“Stitch drawing” on fabric created by Flatley as an adult

Growing up in Melrose, Massachusetts, Flatley moved to Charlestown at eleven years old. She attended school in a suburban area, which provided her with access to a strong arts department, but sometimes left her feeling disconnected from the city she lived in. The offer to join AFH promised not only payment for her creative work, but an opportunity to meet and collaborate with other teens from the city.

Though she spent her first summer with AFH in the Photography Studio–learning how to capture photos and develop film–Flatley holds a special place in her heart for her second summer, which she spent in a fashion design program. Taking trips to the fabric store and familiarizing herself with a sewing machine, Flatley developed close relationships with the cohort of teens she worked with and learned alongside.

Work created by Flatley as an adult

Remembering her proudest moment at AFH, she recalls the end of her second summer, which culminated in a fashion show featuring work created by the teens. Thinking of the dress that she designed for the show, she shares that it was not the final product that she was particularly proud of, but the process of developing the piece. Using what she had learned throughout the program, she completed every step on her own–selecting the fabric, measuring, cutting, sewing, and modeling her creation.

The freedom Flatley had to pursue her own vision for the project was refreshing, leaving her with a sense of self-sufficiency that was often encouraged during her time at AFH. Beyond the work she completed, she looks back fondly on the new responsibilities the organization introduced to her life as a teenager.

Work created by Flatley as an adult

Smiling, she recalls her favorite memory at AFH not as a specific moment, but as a general feeling. Getting off the T at Broadway Station every day and heading by herself to the EpiCenter, Flatley felt independent. Taking public transportation on her own, making her own money for the first time in her life, she couldn’t help but be thrilled by the fact that she was being trusted with such changes.

“Walking in and being like, ‘I’m here to make work’–and having them value my work so much …It felt so good, and it was so rewarding.”

Between her experience building technical skills at AFH and her artistic exploration outside the organization, Flatley knew that art was meant to play a leading role in her life. After graduating from high school in 2009, she attended Fordham University in New York City, obtaining her BFA in Painting and Drawing.

Flatley with her family at her undergraduate thesis show

Post-graduation, she worked for Preservation of Affordable Housing–a Boston non-profit which provided her with a solid nine to five in analytics, with her role in the organization expanding over time. Though the job was not art related, it gave her some time to explore the future of her creative career, as well as the financial means to afford a studio space in Somerville. Between her studio work and starting a freelance graphic design business, Flatley was able to pursue her artistic interests, though she still felt something was missing.

Work created by Flatley as an adult

In 2017, Flatley returned to school, graduating with a MFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. Talking about how she wanted to solidify the serious role of art in her life, the experience allowed her to devote more attention to her practice and rethink the future of her creative career. After graduating, Flatley decided to return to Boston, moving to Dorchester with her husband and daughter. Continuing her work as a graphic design freelancer, she began to feel isolated, missing the sort of collaborative environment cultivated at AFH and the co-working style of her non-profit job.

Flatley in her studio at MICA

Deciding it was time to start a new chapter, Flatley began one of her largest projects to date–a community centered art gallery, workshop space, and store selling local work. The plan–which she describes as an “abstract dream” that “became real very fast” when she found a location available in her neighborhood–was an opportunity for Flatley to reconnect with the Boston art scene.

The Local Hand, Flatley’s shop in Dorchester, had been open for just two months at the time of our interview last summer. “It’s really exciting…I want to spend all my time there,” she shares, “even the things that are hard are really fun.” The new endeavor highlights and sells the work of local creatives and craftspeople–ceramics, jewelry, prints, and more–with the objective of representing the diversity of Boston artists. Listening to Flatley talk about her entrepreneurial journey, , I can tell she is incredibly grateful for the people she has met along the way. While she still freelances independently, it is clear that she finds the greatest fulfillment in collaborating with and helping fellow artists.

Flatley at the opening of her shop, The Local Hand

In opening her shop, Flatley has also maintained her commitment to the idea that “art should be valued, and artists should be paid, no matter what,” an important principle she realized during her time at AFH. Learning at 14 that she could create work she enjoyed and was proud of–and be compensated for it–encouraged Flatley to take her love of art seriously.

“It helped my confidence, it helped everything in my artistic practice since then. Feeling like, ‘I belong here…and they’re not taking advantage of me.’”

Though Flatley only spent two summers at AFH, she expresses gratitude for everything the organization provided her–from a sense of independence at a young age, to a respect for the arts that has persisted into adulthood. Now, pursuing a new dream, Flatley hopes to give back to the creative community she was raised in, sharing her love for art and artists with everyone she meets.

Written by Eliza Whalen.

To learn more about The Local Hand visit thelocalhand.shop and follow on Instagram @thelocalhand_shop. To see Michaela Flatley’s work, visit www.michaelaflatley.com.

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