Jaime Alvarez, left, and Jenevieve Penk are seated in the former church sanctuary that is now the main space of Arthouse in downtown Wilmington, which celebrates its grand opening on Jan. 13.
Annie Landenberger/The Commons
Jaime Alvarez, left, and Jenevieve Penk are seated in the former church sanctuary that is now the main space of Arthouse in downtown Wilmington, which celebrates its grand opening on Jan. 13.

A house for all arts

Arthouse, a ‘welcoming and immersive’ new venue in Wilmington, hosts a grand opening this Saturday

The Deerfield Valley is well-known for craft brews, nice shops, some good eateries, and handsome architecture. It's known for access to beautiful Harriman Reservoir for water-bound recreation and, of course, Mount Snow for winter sports.

Wilmington burbles with foot traffic on season but gets a little sleepy in muddy months. While Bennington and Brattleboro, which flank the town along Route 9, have robust arts scenes, though, Wilmington's is less so.

With a vision to ameliorate that deficiency, Jenevieve Penk and Vinnie Yeo are opening Arthouse, a studio, gallery, and lounge, at 12 South Main St.

In 2022, Penk and Yeo purchased the Bissell Parish House, built in 1835, which originally served as a Universalist Church, in the town's historic district.

They have been working on it since to create what Penk calls "a welcoming, immersive space for all to enjoy various mediums of art, including visual and performance, to explore one's own creativity in a relaxed, non-judgmental environment, and to explore and expand ideas of what constitutes art."

The goal, Penk says, is to support artists "by creating a community space for collaboration and a place to showcase their work."

A tall order, but Penk and Arthouse Curator and Director of Operations Jaime Alvarez have been busy at it.

After it was a church, the building then, in turn, became a day care center, a gift shop, and a gallery before it became the Valley Town Church for about a decade.

When the building fell into disrepair, clearly wanting attention, Penk said she saw an opportunity - and felt the positive energy and spirit in the space.

"It was like a diamond in the rough," she says.

She walked in and saw the stained glass windows, and, "even though they were all covered in black, they were just telling me 'Please come and love this building,'" she adds.

Penk, a graduate of New York University's Tisch School, is a producer, performer, and arts entrepreneur who had run a business fabricating major arts installations for companies in New York City until it was slammed by Covid. She and Yeo moved to the area three years ago to finally work on a passion project: renovating an old cabin.

"After being here for most of two years," she explains, "we didn't want to leave."

But she soon noted the limited arts opportunities in the Deerfield Valley and said she drives her daughter to Brattleboro two times a week for dance, music, and circus classes.

Penk is active member of the parents club at Dover Elementary School, which her older child attends.

The school is resurrecting its dormant theater program, and Penk is engaged there now in producing and directing a spring school production of Peter Pan. While the school can help boost arts offerings for area children, as well as area adults and visitors, so will Arthouse, Penk and Alvarez hold.

Penk and Yeo, a boat captain turned contractor, have spent months converting the needy structure into an arts and entertainment facility with a downstairs gallery, a workshop/classroom, and an upstairs gallery with windows to the hall below.

In the main hall, the walls are now a Victorian olive green, the stained glass windows sparkle with stories, and a newly constructed bar - for serving wine and beer and simple, light fare - anchors the west side of the capacious event space.

This Saturday, Jan. 14, from 5 to 11 p.m., Arthouse will celebrates all that work with a splash of an opening.

Attendees can check out "Let Your Yoga Dance" at 7 p.m., a workshop taught by Sarah Lavigne, a "paint and sip" class taught by Kristen Williams, and a short film by Hugh Joudry, Winter Carvings, documenting the sculptor's creative process.

Visitors can wander the gallery spaces to take in Arthouse's inaugural exhibit. Up through March, "Generations" will features works by Robert Burch, Ann Coleman, Kate Follett, Richard Foye, Judy Hawkins, Hugh Joudry, Jeanne Joudry, Patrice Schneider, T. Breeze Verdant, and Ray Warren in displays of pottery, sculpture, paintings, blown glass, burl wood furniture, and intricate wooden inlay jewelry.

From 8 to 10 p.m., the floor opens for enjoying the music of the Jacksonville Blues Band, the first in a winter-long series of weekend concerts by area solo musicians and bands.

Attaining sustainability will be a challenge, explains Alvarez, a former teacher and an artist who has lived in the area for 11 years. She says the intent is to be open year-round offering a host of programs.

There will be workshops in painting, drumming, and yoga, for example; programs for kids; music, dance, and circus events; and monthly artists meetings to generate dialogue around issues of concerns as Arthouse works to create a collaborative space for artists of all ages and mediums.

The space is for rent, too, to artists who wish to create and hold their own workshops.

"We want to bring artists together and say, "This is your space, too," says Alvarez.

"This space is malleable enough and open enough to showcase different art forms together," Penk adds.

For more information on the Arthouse opening celebration, the music lineup, and other offerings, visit arthousevt.com.

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

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