Safe haven

A former student remembers Gary Blomgren and his classroom, a place of creativity and trust

BRATTLEBORO — If you were lucky, you had at least one teacher who opened your eyes, pulled you out of your shell, or saw something in you that no one, perhaps not even yourself, had recognized.

I was fortunate enough to have five. Any of these teachers would tell you that I was far from the best student and, while I didn't always have academic success, each one of them channeled my energy, fostered my creativity, and turned me in directions I might otherwise never had considered.

These teachers gave me confidence in my ideas, and they gave me the tools to use my abilities effectively.

Much more than advisers and mentors, they became colleagues and friends.

* * *

The passing of Gary Blomgren has given me pause for reflection and has conjured a number of stories I'd forgotten. There are no doubt hundreds - and, more likely, thousands - of his students with stories similar to the one I'm about to tell, but this one is mine.

I met Gary during my freshman year at Brattleboro Union High School. I was one of many promising young artists that he recruited to work on what was at the time a radical project: paint walls in the hallway.

I had done plenty of unsanctioned artwork on school walls before, so I appreciated the idea of being let loose with a paintbrush. We replicated the works of the masters - from ancient hieroglyphics through the Renaissance and classical eras right up to contemporary pop art - creating a timeline of the history of art that remained on the walls for years after we were gone.

Through this project, Gary and I developed a relationship that would transform and transcend the classroom.

He saw that I worked best alone and provided me with the space to work in solitude and ability to come and go freely. I worked independently, while he played more of an adviser role.

When I stayed late to work on a project, he would leave me with his keys to lock up his room and open it in the morning before he arrived.

When I skipped a class in high school, which was quite often, everyone knew where to find me. I would either be in a practice room in the music department or in the auditorium working on the latest theater project.

Or, more often than not, I'd be in a discreet corner of Gary Blomgren's art classroom, which had became a safe haven and refuge for a small band of social outcasts, oddball artists, and otherwise unconventional kids.

We congregated for lunch and at random times throughout the day, sometimes to escape the judgments of our peers and the pressures of daily school life or just to be in a place where we knew we could express ourselves openly.

It was a place where long-lasting friendships were created. Whether you were an artist, whether you had any classes with him, his room was open and inviting.

* * *

During my sophomore year first semester studio art class, I found myself stuck, unable to come up with a suitable project.

Gary's answer was sending me to the auditorium to assist Terry Sylvester in painting the set for the musical production of Gypsy. Large canvases of plywood and muslin and seemingly limitless paint were at my disposal. And best of all, my work would be showcased to the public during the performances.

I continued to work on every theater project that BUHS produced, working on set design, lighting design, rigging, and all other aspects of stagecraft.

And so began a love affair that has led to more than 20 years involvement in community and regional theater.

Well after I was gone from BUHS, I would return to visit Gary often, sometimes to seek advice on a project or sometimes just to see the progress of the walls and check in with him. He was always gracious and welcoming when he saw his former students.

I returned after the walls had been painted over and his department had moved. He expressed regret that we didn't get a chance for an artist reunion but also excitement about his new facilities as he eagerly led me on a personal tour.

When I would work on theater sets at the Dummerston Grange, I would often stroll over to his house (usually just in time for lunch or dinner). Our friendship continued in this manner for years.

* * *

Gary did what many teachers dream of doing: He inspired his students.

Whether you were a serious artist or a student simply trying to receive an art credit, it was difficult not to be excited and motivated when you were in his classroom.

He made it a point to get to know his students and saw that they got the direction they needed.

He was an effective teacher, but also a compassionate listener and confidant.

Those who had Gary Blomgren as a teacher know this very well. To those who won't have the chance, I can only hope that you meet the teacher who can move you and turn education into an exciting and creative journey, rather than a dull compulsory bog.

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