Thursday December 27, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Should we feel sorry for 2012?

Coming in the aftermath of 2011, it was inevitable that the two years were going to be linked. In the wake of the sadly momentous events on 2011 -- the Brooks House fire, the Co-op shooting, Tropical Storm Irene -- we looked forward to 2012, but only because it offered a little peace and quiet, a chance to move on, an opportunity to turn the page.

We had acquitted ourselves quite well in response to turbulent 2011. Last year at this time, we were looking back with justifiable pride at the ways in which we all had handled those terrible events. The arts community, as part of its larger communities, was a key player in the response, organizing itself into benefit events, helping its neighbors, nourishing our wounded souls and offering clear proof of the unquenchable impulses to create and express.

Enter 2012, kid brother to its volatile but heroic predecessor, destined, always, to being unable to measure up, tasked with being a little more seen and a little less heard, thank you. How fair is that?

In truth, the tragic events of 2011 did exert their influence on 2012. That was one of the key stories of the Year in Arts. We are still rebuilding, and there are still unmet needs. The arts community is part of that story.

Witness, the ongoing efforts to get Wilmington, so badly damaged by Irene, back on its feet, which resulted in benefit events all year long -- for Dot's, for Memorial Hall, for the town in general -- including appearances by music legends Jon Poussette-Dart and the Aztec Two-Step. There is a community spirit there that the events of 2011 brought to the surface. Ann Coleman's efforts to rebuild her downtown Wilmington art gallery are not merely the private strivings of a resilient individual but something we all root for.

In Brattleboro, we drew inspiration from similar stories of resilience and rebuilding. At the Whetstone Studios in Williams Street, adversity was transformed into an absolute lovefest between building owner David Parker, his tenants and the community in general, which celebrated a monumental rebuilding job after the swollen Whetstone Brook took a bite out of the building during Irene. Parker was a beacon of positive energy, proud of the way he and his crew were able to restore the building, prouder still of the warm feelings and support that had come to his tenants and to him.

"The building, with the people in it, is a reason to breathe. It (shows) the power of creativity. The power of this community," said Parker.

Whetstone Studios celebrated its rebirth with three days of fun, food, music and love beginning during Gallery Walk on Sept. 7, the same night as Flat Street Rising, a similar upbeat event honoring all the businesses and arts organizations on that street that came from back from the flood to serve the community, particularly its young people.

The Latchis Theatre, damaged by Irene and closed for six weeks, also stood strong. Reopening in 2011 just in time for a busy Brattleboro Literary Festival weekend, the Latchis spent 2012 continuing to be a great host for some of the community's biggest events, and also celebrated the return of its marquee -- damaged when a truck hit it in 2011 -- and launched a $550,000 campaign to restore its ceiling and fix its seats.

The same resilient spirit was in evidence in the Rock River area -- South Newfane, Williamsville and Dover -- one of the epicenters of Irene's destruction. There, we found photographer Christine Triebert, whose home and studio were in the crosshairs of floodwaters, dealing damage and altering in surreal ways the once idyllic landscape around her home. There, in spring, amid sticks, sand, silt and other Irene detritus, as she prepared for an exhibit of her "Shadowgraphs" at the Vermont Center for Photographer, Triebert was a source of hope, not bitterness.

"There is a sense of connection to neighbors that is stronger than anything that existed before, and I don't think that's going to change," said Triebert, who also found Irene exerting influence on her art. She began using the unwelcome materials the storm had deposited on her doorstep in her art-making and later in July, during the Rock River Artist Tour, invited visitors to her studio to do the same - to make something beautiful out of silt, rocks, debris and broken trees.

"I don't think you live through an experience like (Irene) and not shift the way you make art," she said.

Much of that altered creative output is still to be seen from area artists, but Triebert's comment reveals one of the reasons why 2012 can come out from the shadows of its tempestuous big brother. More than just being "the year after," 2012 marked a new beginning. It is the first year of our "new normal." We experienced a lot in 2011, but the lessons learned and the spirits stirred then, began to bear fruit in 2012.

It certainly did at Surry Cottage Press of Keene, N.H., which published two books about the events of 2011 -- "Good Night Irene" and "Embattled Brattleboro." Well-researched, valuable histories of what happened, the books are also testament to the spirit which will enable people to put those events behind them.

"There has always been a community spirit and that really came out after the events of 2011," said Dave Eisenstadter, author of "Embattled Brattleboro." "It really brought home how much of the Vermont spirit was present. Vermonters are known for their independence, but when their neighbor is in trouble, they reach out a hand and help."

Community was a big theme of 2012. Many of the significant artistic moments held "community" at their cores. And even if the seeds of those events and creations had been planted before 2011, the events of that year have deepened our appreciation of what it is to be part of a community. Community thrums through our lives with more powerful vibration than it ever has before. Quite simply, we care more.

Hugh Keelan was a powerful source of this community-mindfulness in 2012. Continuing to redefine the very nature of what a concert is, Keelan, at the helm of the Windham Orchestra, led a program called "Our Community," which combined standard orchestra fare, including a star turn by teen Concerto Competition winner Dorian Elgers-Lo, with unique opportunities for audience participation in a composition titled "Music for Windham" by Jacob Mashak. In addition, the concert featured debut of the musical park bench, the creation of local artisans Garry Jones and Erik Newquist. The concert also featured a piped-in live organ connection to the First Baptist Church and an invitation to contemplate the contributions the area's homeless make to our community -- the church serves as the site of the Winter Overflow Shelter.

"The goal I have is to redescribe what a concert is. It becomes a locus of community interest and concern," Keelan said.

He continued that pursuit, in collaboration with Mark Burke, with the debut of The Event in a Tent in June. Conceived, again, to combine seamlessly opportunities for hands-on engagement in creativity for all with a performance that embraced the audience, an orchestra, performers from the New England Center for Circus Arts, and, once again, the musical park bench, all under a large tent on Famolare Field, the organizers hope the event will become a moveable feast that can be held in other communities in the coming years.

Sandglass Theater was another strong player in embracing community. Always interested in artistry of the highest caliber, which also provokes deep regard of what it means to be part of this human community, Sandglass did this particularly well in 2012, not only through its Voices of Community Series, which had chapters in April, October and December, but also through its biennial Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival. At the festival, Sandglass unveiled "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," a compelling new piece based on stories the folks at Sandglass collected in a beautiful collaboration with local dementia patients. Earlier in the year, Sandglass also celebrated the completion of its accessibility campaign, continuing to widen its inclusive embrace.

Inclusive embrace are pretty good words to describe what happened this summer when the Vermont Performance Lab brought choreographer Victoria Marks and filmmaker Ann Kaneko to the area for "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls," a unique collaboration between 10 young women and older mentors aimed at breaking down barriers between segments of the population that ordinarily wouldn't interact. The project was praised not only by the artists and participants but also by community leaders, who hailed it as an important step in bringing people together.

Community was also a central theme of Jay Craven's latest film project, "Northern Borders," the latest of his works based on the writing of Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher. To make a go of it in an ever-challenging world of filmmaking, Craven helped create a partnership between Marlboro College, a consortium of 12 other colleges and 15 industry professionals to combine production of the film with classroom study. Filming at sites in Guilford, Marlboro and Chester, the movie, which stars Academy Award-nominees Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold, became a study in what can happen when the film industry and Yankee ingenuity work together. Apparently, it takes a village to raise a film, but Craven took great pleasure in what he had created.

"I've never made a film that involved so many close connections to families and community," he said at an April 3 fundraiser at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center which netted $10,000 of the $500,000 he will need. At it, Craven praised the Brattleboro area for support which far trumped what he had found anywhere else in the state.

And we've heard that one before. We rock, and when are people from elsewhere going to pay attention?

Well, they did in 2012.

In December, the eyes of the arts world fell on Brattleboro for a night of firsts when the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts was presented, for the first time, outside of Montpelier and to four people, all of whom happened to be Windham County artists -- Karen Hesse, Archer Mayor, Sharon Robinson and Stephen Stearns.

Gov. Peter Shumlin presented the awards and took time to tout his home county.

"They finally figured out in the rest of Vermont that the center of culture, the center of taste, the center of virtue and the center of creativity is right here in Windham County," Shumlin said.

The ceremony, which was put together to honor four deserving individuals, evolved into a larger celebration for our whole area, as the four honorees and other presenters spoke love letters to their hometown and its creative, welcoming culture.

"The arts, in case anybody didn't notice, have really arrived. ... I often find myself with people who are mired in the belief that the arts are a luxury ... that they are something to do when you've run out of other things to do. ... Instead, the arts are frequently the cause of what works in a community, of how you get people talking to each other," said Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council.

Bolstering that case were some important pieces of evidence and support.

In July, news came that Brattleboro was the recipient of a $50,000 Arts Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Written collaborative by Zon Eastes of the Arts Council of Windham County, Kate Anderson of the Town Arts Committee and Rod Francis, Brattleboro planning director, the grant will help Brattleboro assess its arts assets, plan to make better use of them and create a public installation or an event. More than that, it's to help Brattleboro's arts community become a bellwether for those throughout the state.

In September, the Arts Council of Windham County released a study titled "Art and Prosperity in Windham County," presented through Americans for the Arts. The report showed that the arts community generates $11 million a year in direct spending, which creates 330 full-time jobs and accounts for more than $800,000 in tax revenues.

"The main point is that arts and culture are not a black hole," said Zon Eastes.

For years, the arts community has been trying to make the case for itself as a central player in the health and wealth of the larger community. Perhaps 2012 will go down as the year in which we turned the corner.

Youth is served

One of the things this area does well is provide arts opportunities for its young people. In 2012, we saw considerable achievements from our young people.

March, once again, was Student Art Month, featuring exhibits of work by high school artists in two venues and celebrating, in general, our students and their teachers. In addition, BUHS students Kasey Kidder and Lizzie Benton won Scholastic Gold Key Awards, and Putney School student Robert Baskett won a Silver Key Award. BUHS student Dominic Italia won First Percussion Chair at the New England Music Festival, a significant accomplishment for any drummer, even more significant because Italia did it two weeks after breaking his elbow snowboarding. BUHS alumna Kayla Rice, now a photojournalism and anthropology major at Syracuse University, was chosen as a finalist in the "Long Live Imagination" photo contest. Current BUHS students dazzled in many ways, from the appearance of their singing groups at the High School A Cappella Showcase to a sassy, stellar production of "Chicago." The Snaz took top honors in Youth Services' Battle of the Bands. And every month Sam's Set & Shed provides a venue for veteran musicians and their students to play music together, honoring the mentor-student relationship.

And then there's the New England Youth Theatre, which continues to cement its place as a leader in our community and a leading example of places which help young people find a voice.

In addition to a slate of stellar productions, including the courageous "Almost, Maine," "Godspell," "Annie," a searingly bloody "Titus Andronicus" and a compelling "Romeo & Juliet," NEYT also launched its AcTour company, a touring ensemble which created "Rock Your Boat," a play to help young people deal with bullying. In our communities, young performers don't just star, they lead.

"We're like the ambassadors, and we'd like the next generation to be better than us," said AcTour trouper Aja Selbach.

Credit also to the Theatre Adventure Program, which continues to help people of all abilities express themselves through adapted works and original productions, including "Stagestruck."

Another youth organization that had a big year in 2012 was In-Sight Photography Project, which celebrated its 20th anniversary as a place where youth ages 11-18 can develop outlets for creativity, regardless of their ability to pay. In the spring, In-Sight found out it had been nominated for the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation's highest honor for non-school arts programs. The acclaim buoyed In-Sight in its work of serving 250 local students this year and send another group to the Pine Ridge Reservation as part of its important collaborative Exposures program.

Farewell

The successes of these young people -- and countless more -- owe a lot to our great wealth of arts teachers in our communities. Sadly, this year, we lost some of our best.

David Wells, cellist and co-founder with his wife Janet of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, died Aug. 7 at age 85, just after Yellow Barn had completed its 443rd summer season.

A gentle giant of a man, Wells was remembered for his kindness and his extraordinary passion for music, for his students' development, for food, for life.

Some 200 people gathered on Aug. 13 to remember him in words and most of all in music, including music of Faure and Messiaen which held special significance for Wells.

On his death, a letter Wells wrote to all those he touched, was put up on the Yellow Barn website. "I hope I helped you mature as musicians, but did you know that you in turn were my inspiration? You helped me develop, not only as a musician, but also as a fuller human being. How fortunate I was to know people like you, so full of life," Wells wrote.

On April 13, artist and longtime Marlboro College professor Frank Stout, eliciting a flood of kind words from arts colleagues and former students, who remembered his talent, his humor, his courage, his sweetness, his down-to-earth nature.

Gary Blomgren, longtime arts teacher and department chairman at Brattleboro Union High School, died at age 60. Remembered as a teacher first, and artist after, "he loved to work with his students and show them how to see. He wanted to teach them how to see nature and life with an artist's eye," said his wife, Patti.

Others in the arts community who left us in 2012 include George Becker, a long-time supporter of the arts, co-founder of the Windham Art Gallery, trustee of the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center, consultant for Yellow Barn and Vermont Arts Council Friend of the Arts honoree, died Dec. 21 at age 106.

Stacy Morse died on Jan. 1, at age 59. A fixture on the local arts scene for more than three decades, Morse was involved in local theater productions and art exhibits, and her talent found national recognition in work for the New York City Ballet, the Macy's Parade and retail stores. Her larger-than-life papier maché celebrity heads, as well as other art work of hers, were on display in September when the Whetstone Studios celebrates its rebirth.

Julie Waters, local musician, writer and music event organizer died April 8 at age 44.

New arrivals

In 2012, we witnessed the debut of some new players on the arts scene.

The Brattleboro Film Festival held its inaugural edition Nov. 1-3, featuring 12 films selected with an eye toward the unique character of Brattleboro audiences.

The festival was born out of a disagreement between the Women's Freedom Center and the volunteer organizers of the popular annual Women's Film Festival over the films that should be selected. When the Women's Freedom Center, the beneficiary of the festival, held out for a slate which in the future should consist exclusively of films by, as well as about, women, the volunteers chose to move, preferring to keep the festival's more inclusive standards.

Having films "mostly by but always about women became something that set this festival apart from other women's film festivals, gave us something unique, with a powerful inclusive message," write festival volunteers Arlene Distler and Merry Elder in an April 17 letter to the editor.

So, they and other volunteers launched the Brattleboro Film Festival a mere six months. It was a promising debut, with "Chasing Ice" selected as the festival favorite.

Other debuts included Event in a Tent; the Take a Chance and Dance weekend held in downtown in Brattleboro in July with the hope that it might evolve into an annual dance festival; the Unity Hill Arts Center, which musicians Victoria Eisen and Joseph Swenson founded in Townshend and immediately held concerts of top-notch classical music to benefit Irene-relief efforts; Vermont Public Radio announced plans to open a new studio in Brattleboro and generally increase its presence and its signal down here; Penelope Wurr moved her studio and shop from downtown Putney to downtown Brattleboro; the River Valley Artisan Tour celebrated the art being made in Westmoreland, N.H.; Jacob Roberts and Jessica Weston opened Equilibrium, a space to nurture creativity, health and positive lifestyles, at 14 Elm St. in Brattleboro.

Happy returns

Some events which had their start in 2011 or had left the scene momentarily, made happy returns in 2012.

The New England Center for Circus Arts' fundraising Circus Spectacular returned for a second year, expanding to two performances of world-class international talent at the Latchis Theatre; Brattleboro Community Radio, WVEW-FM 107.7, silenced by the Brooks House Fire, returned to the air on May 5; popular broadcasts of "The Met: Live in HD" returned to the Latchis Theatre; the Blanche Moyse Chorale presented its second annual Memorial Concert in tribute of its founder, performing an all-Bach program to a packed house at Marlboro College's Persons Auditorium and a week later performing the same program in New York City; the Windham Ballroom, silent for years, hosted music again in Bellows Falls, starting with Kristen Hersh on Oct. 11; Childsplay, the fiddle collective honoring the work of instrument-maker Bob Childs, returned after a hiatus of a couple of years, this time with Brattleboro musician Lissa Schneckenburger as lead singer; So Percussion returned, brings its "Where (we) Live" project to its many friends in the area, courtesy of the Vermont Performance Lab; a 1950s Estey Organ returned to its birthplace in Brattleboro, sent from a collector in Washington, with help in transporting it courtesy of Fibermark in a unique and very positive collaboration of business and the arts; Firekeeper Productions brought its multi-media "Mabel Story" to life again; legendary folk musician John McCutcheon; and musician Crag Eastman, known for his improvisation and work in film, returned to NEYT.

Changing hands

The torch was passed in some meaningful ways in 2012. In October, Kathleen Keller, founder of the Brattleboro School of Dance, sold the school to Jennifer Moyse, seeking the greener pastures of retirement after 36 years or nurturing dancers, careers and most of all, good people.

In January, Windham County Reads handed the keys to the Windham County Bookmobile over the Windham Childcare Association.

In July, Christian Glines became the new owner of Maple Leaf Music, expressing optimism in a town where good things are happening. "Every few years, Brattleboro reinvents itself, and it feels like that is going on right now," Glines said.

Milestones

A number of artists and organizations marked 2012 by celebrating significant milestones.

Friends of Music at Guilford celebrated the 40th anniversary of its annual Christmas program with a night of song and story at Christ Church, highlighting a year in which Friends of Music also presented a concert honoring women composers, its 42nd Messiah Sing, its 47th season overall and programs to bring music to area schools.

Circus Smirkus marked its 25th anniversary season by doing what it usually does -- presenting a fabulous touring youth circus under the big top, with a stop again in Brattleboro -- as well as publishing a coffee table book about its history and mission.

The Rock River Studio Tour enjoyed its 20th year of having many of the great working artists in South Newfane, Williamsville and Dover open their studios. There was much to celebrate: this was an area hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene, and traces of the storm's ravages were still in evidence, as were the smiling faces of the welcoming artists, glad to still be there and working.

Putney's Twilight on the Tavern Lawn Music Series turned 10 years old this summer, as did Acting on Impulse, a plucky collective of passionate actors and directors who combine devotion to the theater with a mission to help others.

The Brattleboro Music Center's Northern Roots Traditional Music Festival celebrated its fifth anniversary, as did the Pliny Park Music Series in Brattleboro and Cherry Street Artisans' annual open house and café. Free is Art, a program to match teachers and students of all ages in free art and music lessons, celebrated its first anniversary.

Individual milestones included local writer Diana Lischer-Goodband winning the Ralph Nading Hill Award, and former NECCA student Thom Wall captured the silver medal at the International Jugglers Association Festival.

Organizations in action

Much of 2012's art activity simply involved organizations doing what they do and doing it well. Here are some highlights.

* The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center presented an exhibit cycle centered on trees called "Bridging Earth and Sky"; another cycle which featured "Making is Knowing," a tribute to local artist, teacher and River Gallery School co-founder Ric Campman, an exhibit of work by stellar current artist Stephen Hannock and works from the Heller Family collection; and the New England Biennial. In addition, the museum continued its outreach efforts with its BEAN Microgrant Dinners, Lego contest, domino toppling display, film screenings, lectures and more. In the spring, it offered a glimpse of arts tourism possibilities, when a group of students from Burlington High School took the Amtrak train to Brattleboro to spend a day at the museum and downtown.

* The Brattleboro Music Center held its place in the center of the musical universe with fine programs by the Windham Orchestra, the Blanche Moyse Chorale and the Brattleboro Concert Choir, which in January presented what was believed to be the American premiere of Bob Chilcott's Vespers. The BMC continues to pursue plans to convert the C.F. Church Building on Flat Street into a new, state-of-the-art school and performance space.

* The 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival was bigger than ever with more than 50 writers and presenters in 40 readings and events, including Brattleboro's first ever Literary Death Match.

* Also in its 11th year, the Strolling of the Heifers continued its strong affiliation with local artists, including David Scribner's play "Invasive Species," a growing Farm Art exhibit and a complimentary photographic salute to cows at the Vermont Center for Photography titled "Say Cheese."

* Good things continue to happen at Next Stage in Putney, whose busy year included the smart move of hiring Julian McBrowne as program manager and Barry Stockwell as venue manager, and a slate of successful events including appearances by Taylor Mali, Jonathan Edwards, John Gorka, SNL's Beehive Queen Christine Ohlmann, Rob Mermin, Sierra Hull, Claire Lynch, Cheryl Wheeler and an intriguing program with Will Ackerman, Scott Ainslie and David Surette titled "Three Guitarists Meet Their Maker."

* The venerable Marlboro Music Festival returned for its 62nd summer of music-making and exploration at the highest level in a unique family-centered community. "The family that doesn't exist any longer in the 21st century exists here for seven weeks," said longtime Marlboro Administrator Frank Salomon.

* The Vermont Jazz Center held its 37th summer workshop and presented a ton of engaging and exciting concerts, including one with a group led by former Beyoncé saxophonist Tia Fuller and a concert honoring NEA Jazz Master and long-time VJC friend and teacher Sheila Jordan.

* The Vermont Theatre Company kept things lively with productions of absurdist plays, "Doubt," "Henry V" for Shakespeare in the Park and the hilarious "Moon Over Buffalo."

* On the Actors Theatre Playhouse stage, highlights includes "Camping with Henry and Tom," the popular 10 Minute Play Festival and the intriguing philatelic caper "Mauritius," starring Emily Seymour in one of the year's finest acting performances. Theater fans also relished the "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" at Main Street Arts.

Great music could also be found at Headroom Stages, a gem of downtown Brattleboro, and the Open Music Collective, an important performance and education venue in the Cotton Mill.

* Bellows Falls also continued as a hotbed of music, with great shows at the Opera House, including Mark Erelli, Bow Thayer, Natalie MacMaster and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, not to mention comedian Paula Poundstone. The 13th annual Roots on the River Festival drew record crowds.

* The annual Collegiate A Cappella Show once again sold out the Latchis Theatre, featuring several of the top collegiate singing groups, including the Tufts Beelzebubs and the Dartmouth Aires, this year's runners-up on NBC's now-canceled a cappella show "The Sing-Off." This year's 10th anniversary show promises big things as well. Stay tuned and by all means get your tickets now.

* The River Gallery School continued to education hundreds of children and adults at its downtown Brattleboro studio and also re-released Ric Campman's book "Making is Knowing" in conjunction with the exhibit of Campman's work at BMAC.

* The Putney Craft Tour celebrated its 34th year of welcoming visitors to their studios over Thanksgiving Weekend. It is believed to be the oldest event of its kind.

* Local authors were busy at their keyboards this year. Here is a sampling of their output: Elayne Clift's debut novel "Hester's Daughters"; Chard deNiord fascinating look at mid-20th century poets "Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs"; Castle Freeman's "Round Mountain," with proceeds going to Irene relief; a biography of Madame Sherri by Eric Stanway; Jesse Haas' new history of Westminster; Karl Decker's "The People of Townshend"; Karen Hesse's "Safekeeping"; Archer Mayor's "Paradise City"; Henry Homeyer's "Wobar"; Verandah Porche's "Sudden Eden."

Other highlights

Other highlights of 2012 include:

* Scot Borofsky's new public art work, which he worked on for several blazing weeks under the summer sun at the Cultural Intrigue Building on Frost Street. The completion of the large-scale painting coincided with news that his work would be featured along with that of pal Ken Hiratsuka at Dorian Grey Gallery in New York City.

* Bluebird Theater's wildly ambitious "The Green Gold Tree," in which Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf combined puppets, built sets, magic lantern slides, music, video, murals, recorded voices and more in an imaginative retelling of Goethe's "Faust."

* The beautiful and moving collaborative concert by the Hallowell Hospice Chorus and singer-songwriter Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem.

* The unique and imaginative collaborative program by Write Action and LuminzStudio combining words and movement in a program titled "Trees."

Jon Potter can be reached at jpotter@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.