BRATTLEBORO — For more than 45 years, the River Gallery School (RGS) has been a welcoming haven for artists young and old, of any type and experience, from green and curious to accomplished.
As it creates its way toward the half-century mark, the engaging little walk-up school looks forward to the future while it celebrates past leadership.
After nearly 30 years, artist Lydia Thomson will step down from RGS administration as its artistic director, while Donna Hawes, executive director since 2014, assumes the position of director of creative connections.
In that capacity, Hawes is now chief development and community relations officer for RGS; she's focused on expanding the non-profit's network of supporters and exploring/implementing new avenues of partnership and collaboration.
And as chief ingenuity officer, Mary Lou Forward will oversee operations, planning, budget, and programming.
Forward, according the RGS release, has run international and online education organizations, most recently as director of the Center for Collaborative Online International Learning at the State University of New York. She has been involved with the school as a student and board member.
A place to explore creative impulses
With its Gallery at 32 Main St., the school upstairs is a place to explore creative impulses with the coaching of a faculty some 15 strong, a group that represents drawing, printmaking, encaustics, and all types of painting.
Pre-pandemic, RGS was seeing some 800 registrations - repeaters among them - each year for workshops, classes, and less-typical arts experiences offered in the school's studios, online, and in regional offsite venues.
River Gallery School's mission springs from the fundamental belief of its founders, Barbara Campman and the late Ric Campman, in the essential creativity of all people. Given opportunity, unobtrusive guidance, skilled instruction, space, and materials, the artist in each of us can feel free to emerge and express.
Thus the school, founded in 1976, strives to nurture creativity among a range of participants and to bring people together through creative expression. “Making art,” the RGS vision states, “builds community and fosters essential life skills such as self-confidence, innovative thinking, problem solving.”
'This was the right place'
Lydia Thomson recently reflected on RGS and its past. She first encountered the school when her daughter was 7.
“I walked into this place; Ric was there while I signed Eliza up for classes,” she said. Although she hadn't planned on it, she, taken by Campman's presence, signed herself up, too.
Thomson alluded to the special character that has drawn explorers to RGS for years.
“I smelled it. I felt it. This was the right place - funky, welcoming,” she recalled. “I felt at home immediately.”
When studying art in college, Thomson “had a dream about what I wanted to do in art and it was making art in a community setting. For about 20 years, I did none of it. I was away from art making until I walked into RGS.”
“In short order, I joined the board, then the administration, and, finally, faculty,” she said.
Her husband, Rob, first encouraged Thomson's involvement, and RGS soon became like a part of her family.
“I was lucky enough to work closely with Ric for many years; we worked on keeping the school afloat through thick and thin,” she said. “It was fun to work with a wonderful teacher, a good person, a good friend. And it was challenging.”
Thomson said that “there were lots of comings and goings in the administrative realm,” but the RGS mission and vision endured.
“The work to keep that alive, to keep our programs available to the public, is all back-room stuff - fundraising, planning, budgeting, operations management,” she observed.
Less fun, but invaluable and essential.
When Campman, who died in 2006, fell ill some 20 years ago, Thomson said that she started teaching, “and that's the part I'll stick with to whatever extent possible as we go forward.”
“Ric and Barbara's approach was based on the inherent creativity of all humans, and that vision has remained front and center,” Thomson said.
“We've tried hard to make it available to all who want to come here,” she added, noting that RGS nurtures highly qualified teaching artists who support anyone who wants to dig in. ”It's been a wild ride, wonderful and interesting.”
The best part, Thomson says, are the students - the people who gather daily - live or virtually - to try their hand at self-expression.
Donna Hawes echoes that sentiment.
“The people are what make it all worth showing up for,” she said. “I feel so privileged getting to witness students' process. There is such a depth in each person who comes through. I learn so much about people through their painting, through observing their showing up for themselves as they stand before blank canvas.”
“It's a process that keeps them coming back,” she said.
Praise for the RGS experience
Hawes has been in the area since 1987. With a BFA from Auburn University, she'd plied her art primarily in the commercial realm, doing graphics for newspapers and magazines, as well as jewelry design and advertising.
After she was hired to run the River Gallery School Benefit Auction for two years in a row, the director position at RGS became available.
“I thought it'd be interesting to experience an arts school,” she said.
Now, after 18 years of co-leading with Thomson, Hawes says that “it's been a beautiful experience combining community and art.” Of Thomson, Hawes says, “she has been such an integral part of the school in terms of its growth and direction.”
Now, with all parties including the board on the same page, the RGS is in reset mode.
As the gallery and school move onward with Hawes and Forward, they're exploring “lots of exciting ideas,” Hawes notes, including “public school involvement and other outreach opportunities that'll bring the school to others.”
As RGS continues to grow, so does the commitment to the Campmans' ideology.
“That legacy is unique,” Hawes explains. “The Campmans began the school with the common vision of creating an intensive art experience for youth. Forty-five years later, those first students' children are now in our classes. And many RGS alumni are in art as adults - either in it for a living or on the side.
“To have their kids involved is endearing and it speaks to Ric and Barbara's mission to provide art-making for all. River Gallery School has always been about community. We strive to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone through our programming and our interactions.”
The RGS experience has been a life changer for many, including Lori Schreiner, a mental health program manager with Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, who started taking classes at the RGS since she came to Brattleboro in 1988.
Fresh out of New York City, where she'd studied at the Art Students League, she was perusing Brattleboro, knowing she'd be moving here.
“I walked up to the studio and Ric was there teaching,” Shreiner recalled. “He said, 'Well, why don't you sit here and be part of this class now?'”
Schreiner did just that and thus began a decades-long friendship with the Campmans and mentoring relationship with the RGS. At 67, she sees no end in sight to that relationship.
“The RGS is my spiritual home, as well as my place of community,” she said. “The center of my creative life is there.”
Schreiner, whose work has been seen in many shows at RGS, at the Art Students League and well beyond, welcomes both the peace of working alone and the chance to create among others. Moreover, with her social work core, she embraces the social justice foundation on which the Campmans built RGS.
Regardless of who has the reins, Schreiner says, that foundation and the school's camaraderie and collective spirit will prevail.
Student Molly Farwell, 16, a junior at Brattleboro Union High School, studied at the RGS from age 3 to 5, left it then, and returned in seventh grade, primarily to study painting and drawing. Over the years as her art has grown, she has valued the blend of instruction and freedom in any given class.
Of her current instructor, Ross Smart, she praised his unobtrusive coaching. Noting that one can enroll in a theme-based class or in an open studio, “I just keep coming here; I'll keep painting for the rest of my life,” she said.
Of the RGS environment, Farwell said, “It's relaxing. I have free time to make art here; I don't have to think about school or anything else.”
As she looks ahead, she said, “I want to be successful at a job - perhaps in environmental science. I want to learn trees and use art to express that knowledge.”
For 11 years, artists with different abilities have benefitted from the work of Robin Weisel, originator/leader of the RGS Ability Arts program for artists with disabilities.
Attending regular classes on an inclusion model, these students of all ages use different media tailored to their needs to explore their creativity.
Weisel's work began when she walked into Thomson's work space and articulated her vision, she said, praising Thomson for replying with the can-do philosophy that marks RGS.
Who would have thought?
“Who would have thought that the little family-run art school [...] would still be such an important part of the life of our community 45 years later?” exclaimed Bill Penniman, president of the River Gallery School board of trustees, as quoted in the news release.
“A significant reason for its continued success has been the tireless work of Lydia Thomson over the last three decades,” he said.
“Her efforts, along with the tremendous community support for the school, have positioned us to transition to a new era with exciting new programs, staff, and leadership,” Penniman continued.
He said that those at RGS are “looking forward to what comes next and hope the community will continue to take full advantage of this Brattleboro treasure.”