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“Indiana,” one of the pastel paintings in the 50-state series by Rodrica Tilley.

The Arts

The secret is out

New ground-floor gallery space has energized River Gallery School

BRATTLEBORO—It is a propitious time at the River Gallery School.

After looking at the storefront space downstairs from their quarters in the Wilder Building two years ago and finding they weren’t ready to expand, the pieces have finally fallen into place.

Before they found renters elsewhere, Windsor & Windham Housing Trust, owners of the building, called the school, knowing of their previous interest. An “angel,” in the form of Doune Trust Fund stepped forward to help make it happen. The school is currently engaged in raising matching funds for the grant.

“The opportunity to expand the printmaking operation, and ease some of the scheduling challenges upstairs, we wanted the space to increase accessibility and visibility,” says Lydia Thomson, artistic director at the school.

“In the 40 years since RGS was founded [in 1976], the studios have always been on the second floor. This contributed to the ‘well-kept secret’ quality of the school. We wanted to bring the programs more into the public eye, invite the community in, and begin some drop-in programming.”

Thomson adds having the downstairs space gives the school more room to spread out upstairs and allows for a “quiet room” that both children and adult students appreciate.

Main Street Studio has already begun to be used for printmaking classes, overseen by Kim Colligan, who is also in charge of the downstairs space overall.

The space will also feature weekly watercolor, bookbinding, and Ability Arts (for individuals with developmental disabilities) classes. Plans for drop-in weekend art-making activities are in the works.

* * *

The school’s street level includes a light-filled gallery space, Gallery 34 (the name comes from its Main Street address).

This new art venue can be rented monthly by individual artists and small groups. Both the gallery and the studio will be open weekday afternoons and during RGS classes and workshops.

Gallery 34 is already rented through August, so there is clearly a need for this pristine, bright space. With its wrap-around storefront windows, the work on display is readily visible from the street.

In October, Marty Spencer, who studied with Colligan, had a show of abstract monoprints in vivid hues. They pulled you in with their joyful colors and playfulness, all but calling to passersby to come experience the delights of art-making.

November’s show at Gallery 34 features pastel landscapes by Rodrica Tilley.

The artist, a fairly recent arrival in southern Vermont, traveled the United States with the purpose of making a plein air pastel painting in each state. It took six years, but the project is now complete. This show is comprised of 21 of the 50 paintings.

Each pastel scene is labeled with the state and specific town where she created it. The artist’s statement says, “This project is all about light.” And indeed that is a strong suit here.

You will nowhere find these images in books about “the 50 states.” There is nothing iconic in them, no easily recognizable tourist landmark. Instead, they portray the everyday environment of the common citizen across our country.

Among my favorites are: “Louisiana” (Grand Isle), with a dramatic dark sky hovering over simple wooden houses built on stilts; “South Carolina” (Cherry Grove Beach), with a mauve sky, periwinkle blue shadows in dunes against green-ochre grasses; and “Idaho” (Ashton), a painting of tanker cars and grain elevators in early-morning light.

* * *

A tradition at River Gallery School each holiday season is the day-long workshop, “Angels, Shepherds, Kings and Beasts.”

Started some 25 years ago by RGS founders Barbara and Ric Campman, the workshop is an opportunity to create holiday figures of one’s own imagining from material provided by the school.

Says Barbara, “It’s a pure process of creativity. It’s the true spirit of our school.”

The Green Mountain Spinnery of Putney donates yarn and unspun wool. Fabric, all kinds of paper, and found objects get donated throughout the year.

“You start putting stuff together,” Thomson says. “You might not know where you’re going, but you make discoveries as you make your figure. Its personality starts to come through.”

The figures might be taken home or given to the school for a holiday display. This year, the one-day workshop will take place on Saturday, Nov. 28 from 1 to 4 p.m. Call the school or visit the website for more details.

A free mini version of this workshop will take place during December’s Gallery Walk. Art-loving strollers are invited to stop in and celebrate the newly expanded exhibition and studio space, and make a figure to put on your Christmas tree or add to the school’s display.

River Gallery School is wrapping up its annual Postcard Project fundraiser. The whole school gets into the act from adults down to the youngest student, and the public is invited to stop by and make cards.

There are a few days left to make a card, with all art materials supplied by the school. At the end of the month, the handmade cards will then be moved from the hallways and downstairs window to RGS’s upstairs office, where they can be purchased any time during office hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and, of course, during December’s Gallery Walk.

* * *

Looking ahead to school vacation, on Monday, Dec. 28, Jan Ham will lead children’s one-day class, “Design a House, Design a Story.”

Ham says on her website: “Writers share their ideas about houses through words; illustrators share their ideas through drawings; and architects share their ideas through sketches, floor plans and models. This program welcomes all creative children, and is especially valuable for children who have ever wondered, ‘What’s it like to be an architect?’”

Beginning with familiar characters and houses from the world of children’s literature, this hands-on design/build program engages children in the equally enjoyable processes of designing and storytelling.

All in all, this is a joyous and busy time at one of Brattleboro’s best-kept secrets — one that is committed to remaining a secret no more.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #333 (Wednesday, November 25, 2015). This story appeared on page C1.

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