Kimberly Carmody is the next executive director of the River Gallery School in Brattleboro.
Courtesy photo
Kimberly Carmody is the next executive director of the River Gallery School in Brattleboro.

Coming full circle

Kimberly Carmody, one of the art school’s first students in 1976, becomes River Gallery School’s new executive director

BRATTLEBORO — Kimberly Carmody became the new executive director of the River Gallery School on Sept. 1, carrying on a nearly half-century legacy of community art and creativity.

Board President Judith Darrow Freed called Carmody "a grand choice for our school. We count ourselves lucky to include her. Her thoughtful and caring energies are indeed inspirational and valuable for the school's vision and mission."

Nearly 48 years ago, teaching artists Ric Campman and Barbara Merfeld Campman founded the school, offering after-school classes at a site on Putney Road. They envisioned a space where, according to the RGS website, "people could connect to their innate creativity and express themselves through art making."

With Ric Campman's passing in 2006, Lydia Thomson took the reins in various roles. Carmody succeeds Donna Hawes, who has retired as interim executive director and whom Thomson described as having "held the reins of the administration at RGS for many years, during which time the school grew, flourished, made new connections, and held its center through many challenges."

Carmody grew up in Brattleboro, where her father, John, was a surgeon engaged in the community. She started taking classes at RGS at age 7, the first year the School opened.

In an open letter of introduction on the RGS website, Carmody writes: "I walked up the stairs into the River Gallery and met Ric and Barbara for the first time in 1976 [...] With Pachelbel's Canon playing in the background and a vibrant bouquet of freshly picked flowers waiting to be painted, I felt seen as an artist for the very first time."

Over the decades, the school expanded both its offerings and its footprint - always maintaining its vision, though, of "a world where creativity and its expression are important parts of one's life, and where societies value the arts and the diversity of cultures and experiences they represent," as the website says.

Carmody recalls her experiences at the school as both a student and a teacher.

"[I] have traversed the Putney Road and two Main Street locations, witnessed and embraced Sequencing painting [a technique developed by Ric Campman] as an incredibly useful approach to making, and seen the school survive and thrive over the past four decades," she writes.

Carmody studied at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, then moved to New York City to attend the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village.

"That's where I studied drawing, painting, and sculpture," she says - "old-school style," from real-life models.

"I did that for many years, then I thought I was going to be a studio artist," Carmody continues. "I got myself a studio in Long Island City. I went out there, and I was all alone and didn't know what was going on."

Having been a teaching assistant at the Studio School and working and teaching in an art program for men in a city homeless shelter who were recovering from drug dependency, Carmody said that she "realized teaching is something I really loved."

She began working as an elementary arts school teacher and enrolled at Columbia University Teachers College, where she earned a master's degree in art education.

Carmody conducted research for her master's thesis on the role of art and art education in post-apartheid South Africa while volunteering at Imbali Visual Literacy Project in Johannesburg, guiding students in making a mural representing their township.

Back in New York, she was struck by the inaccessibility of art in underserved areas of New York City and soon thereafter founded Urban River Arts, a community based nonprofit, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

In her letter, Carmody writes: "Through individual and group activities, in partnership with museums and cultural organizations all over NYC, our curriculum engaged people of all ages from diverse backgrounds and was primarily centered around facilitating large-scale, interactive art installations inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas."

There, she "did rounds of teaching, administrating, making," she says. Her career has found her running arts entities and teaching visual art to students of all ages in host of settings from New York City to the Hudson River Valley, and in Brattleboro, where Carmody had returned for various stints over the years, primarily to both take and lead classes at RGS.

Carmody revels in the "alignment of stars" that made "all this to come together for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to really come back home and be the director at River Gallery."

"Who I am as an artist and as an educator has been truly shaped by Ric and Barbara," she says, so joining RGS in her new capacity is "coming full circle for me."

Connecting to the creative process

Carmody tells The Commons that she is "from that same cloth [as the Campmans] - fiercely believing that creativity is a birthright and that it's crucial to provide opportunities for everyone to have access" to modes of self expression.

"That's what sets RGS apart," she says. "We are not product oriented. Of course, there are products. The product is an essential and important part of process, but the pursuit at RGS is an internal one: to really provide people, sometimes through simplest means, all these different ways to be able to shut the brain off a little bit - and judgment and expectations - and to ground ourselves in other senses, to experience visceral connectedness to the creative process."

Carmody is looking forward to being with the people of RGS.

Whenever she has come back to the area to visit friends and family, "the visit almost always involves RGS," she says. She has always been drawn to "so many people making the choice to live their lives with art at the center" - no matter what art - "and really figuring out how to make that work. RGS is at center of that. I'm so excited."

Carmody hopes "to be able to further that and be part of the community that already has such a strong foundation built on people valuing those creative parts of themselves."

No big changes in the offing

RGS offers a wide range of classes for all ages and abilities. Core classes include adult, child, and teen studios, as well as painting, drawing, printmaking, encaustics, ink, pastels, sculpture, plein air painting, portraiture, and watercolor.

Upcoming technique-specific workshops include "Abstracting the Landscape," "Build an Italian Long-Stitch Mini-Journal," "Painting Many Shades of Grey on Yupo Paper," and "Making and Painting with Walnut Ink."

A Sequencing painting workshop, using techniques developed by Ric Campman, will also be offered this fall.

Carmody envisions no big changes in RGS programming for the immediate future.

"River Gallery is committed to providing rich programming that reaches and inspires people and that's affordable," she says, describing the school as "still in a rebuilding stage post-pandemic."

"I think RGS offers a solid foundation of being able to support local teaching artists as we continue to offer programs for all ages - and specialized classes using specific materials, genres, and the like," Carmody says.

River Gallery School is at 32 Main St., Brattleboro. Classes, taught by some 30 artists of note, are open to all; tuition assistance is available. For a full course catalogue and to register, visit Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (limited during vacation weeks and between semesters). Its Gallery 34, which boasts a new exhibit every month, is open during monthly Brattleboro Gallery Walks or by checking in at the office during regular business hours. A few of Carmody's works are in the current faculty show there. The school is wheelchair accessible by elevator.

This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.