BRATTLEBORO -- This should come as a surprise to exactly no one, but our whole technology-driven, internet age isn't going anywhere.

In fact, most of us love our phones, tablets, iPods, laptops and various other gadgets, and we'd probably all be shocked to find out how much time we really spend on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and the like. Yes, this is an age where we are all, increasingly, left to our own devices.

And this begs some interesting questions. Is where we're headed good or bad? Is it liberating us or locking us down? Are we more connected or less? What are the consequences of engaging the world more and more through screens, and what can we do to change that or at least come to terms with it?

In 2013, the ways in which our area's arts community grappled with some of these questions emerged as one of the most interesting themes. Pushing back against the ways in which technology dehumanizes and isolates us, while embracing the ways in which it helps us to further unleash our creative souls was one of the prevailing conversations. Can we still "go local" if we're all busy going viral? There were few clear answers, but the conversation played itself out in interesting ways.

Case in point: "One Thousand Love Letters," a public, participatory community art project launched by local artist Dalia Shevin. From Feb. 1-15, Shevin rented the former Sanel Building on Flat Street and provided a space and materials for people to write love letters to anyone, or any thing. Her goal was to gather 1,000 of them, many of which were displayed to be read by all. The fact that the project surpassed that number is testament to how the project touched a chord. For Shevin, it was proof that there's something missing in our texting, Tweeting world.

"As a culture, we're getting more disembodied. I'm interested in getting us using our whole hands to write our loved ones, not just our thumbs," said Shevin.

Here's the ironic part: Shevin was able to do the project thanks to a Kickstarter web-based crowd-sourced funding campaign. Small contributions flooded in and allowed her to pass her $4,000 goal in a very short time, indicating that the project had some resonance. But it still couldn't have happened without the internet and social media. Food for thought.

A similar dynamic played out in September with Meg Donahue's Watching Angels Public Art Show, which also used a Kickstarter campaign to raise more than $8,000 and entice artists from the community and from all over the world to take part in placing angels and messages of hope, love, inspiration and gratitude all over town. A success, Watching Angels offered something personal and participatory in our isolated times.

This interesting cost-benefit interplay between technology and reactions to it also came to light during the debut presentations of The Hatch, which twice brought top-notch storytellers to the Latchis Theatre as fundraisers for worthy arts-related causes. Propelled by podcasts like The Moth, storytelling is experiencing a renaissance, and that, in itself, captures the ironies of our digital days - the most ancient art form re-energized by the most modern technology. The organizers of The Hatch appreciate these ironies.

"It's a reaction to the atomization of our lives. We're connected, but we're not. It's the personal connection, the face-to-face we need. It is in our DNA," said The Hatch's Tom Bodett.

The costs of technology also came up in the context of "Dates for Coffee," an independent film by Brattleboro native Kiera Lewis. Intended to convey to Americans an appreciation of the importance of folklore and story in the culture of Oman, it is also a cautionary note to her friends there, who are facing pressures to modernize and globalize. "Leaving behind your folklore for Facebook is not going to help your culture," she said.

Other artists are looking at technology in other ways, perhaps even as a way to save their art forms.

One such artist is Kyla Ernst-Alper, a Brattleboro native who's been a dancer in New York City for 15 years. Looking for ways to find new audiences for dance and more hope that dancers can make a living at their art, she created underonedances.com, a website where dancers can showcase themselves and attract fans and followers by providing videos and personal information. "We're working our butts off, we're not making any money to live on, and nobody's watching, so why are we doing this?" she asked. Hopefully underonedances. com can help answer that.

Full-on embraces of technology happened in other ways. The Vermont Center for Photography hosted an exhibit of cellphone photography in August. Maestro Hugh Keelan and a merry band of musicians and technology experts announced the formation of Pan Opera, a group which would present fullscale operas at which audience members could engage interactively with their smart phones and devices, in essence, creating their own experience and helping Pan Opera create their art.

Clearly, technology itself, is not the enemy, but it's a challenging friend. Nonetheless, there's scarcely an artist or organization in town that doesn't derive some benefit from technology, whether it's information, outreach, audience development, enrollment, fundraising or reaching new customers or clients.

A big year for film

Perhaps the art form benefiting most clearly from our technological times is film, and not surprisingly, 2013 was a banner year for local films, video and digital media.

In early September, film crew members, industry insiders and actors David Koechner ("The Office" and "Anchorman") and Paula Pell ("Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock") rolled into Brattleboro to help send a house on Spruce Street and another on Putney Road back to the 1970s for the filming of "110 Llandaff," an autobiographical film written by New England Youth Theatre faculty member Jane Baker. The cast featured 18 actors from NEYT, who were all selected by New York casting agents. Several, including Cassie Dunn, were in starring roles. The whole project happened thanks to a successful $40,000 indiegogo crowdsourced campaign.

In April, filmmaker and Marlboro College professor Jay Craven premiered his latest piece, "Northern Borders" to a full and enthusiastic house at the Latchis Theatre. Filmed in 2012 in the Brattleboro area and outlying towns, with major work done at the Franklin Farm in Guilford and the Whetstone Inn in Marlboro, "Northern Borders" was created through a unique partnership between Craven's Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College, using a unique model in which students from a multi-college consortium worked on the film for class credit, playing major off-screen roles and gaining bankable experience.

"We had an opportunity to really develop as a creative community. I believe strongly in this model," said Craven, who is at work on his next film project using this innovative mentor-student model.

The ITV Fest brought top-notch independent film and video to the Dover area from Sept. 26-28. With the hope of both entertaining audiences and connecting industry bigwigs with independent filmmakers, the festival spent its first year in Vermont after seven in Los Angeles and appears to have found a home. Though the inaugural Vermont edition fell short of its attendance goal, director Philip Gilpin Jr. said the festival would be back in Dover. Attendees liked it there, and area businesses reported a surge in customers.

Another significant event happening around a film, occurred April 25 when the Putney School hosted Gathering of the Vibe, a concert and film screening of "For the Love of the Music," a documentary about the legendary Club 47, a '60s folk hot spot in Cambridge, Mass. Many of the interviews had been filmed at the Putney School the year before. The concert featured David Amram, Tim Eriksen, Hayley Reardon, the Diamond Doves and others.

Other film highlights include: the 22nd annual Women's Film Festival in March; new initiatives by the Center for Digital Art to bring more people into its events, including hosting Power Animal Systems by Jason Martin, a former co-conspirator of Lady Gaga's, and Matt Ostrowski; the successful indie work of Newfane's Robert Fritz, whose films "Twice" (filmed at Brattleboro's Twice Upon a Time) and "AKT 2" each garnered awards; local screenings of work by NEYT alumni Emily Seymour ( "Only Daughter") and Isaiah Palmeri ("Second Thought"); Brattleboro native Angela Snow's "World Circus" getting a local showing at the New England Center for Circus Arts; a second chance in the spotlight for Westminster filmmaker David Koff's 1981 documentary "Occupied Palestine," which found new audiences and continued relevance thanks to a showing at a film festival in London; and the work at the Greenwood School by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, who was in Putney to film the students there working on the Gettysburg Address.

Finally, but certainly not least in a busy year in film was the return of the Brattleboro Film Festival. Organizers kept their promise after the festival's debut in 2012 by making this year's festival bigger and better. Spanning more than two weeks, the festival featured more than 30 films, in a dizzying variety of genres, styles and subjects. "Short Term 12" was selected as audience favorite, but the centerpiece of the festival was the Southeastern Vermont premiere of "Freedom & Unity: The Vermont Movie," Nora Jacobson's massive undertaking involving 50 filmmakers in an effort to convey something of what makes Vermont what it is. While the issues are complex, and Vermont's history is rich and contradictory, some themes emerged.

"If there is a message it's that Vermont, because of its scale, because of its size, can be kind of a laboratory for trying to get back to doing things on a local level," Jacobson said.

Contemplating community

Carrying Jacobson's thought to the local level, the arts community here spent some time focusing on its relationship, role and potential for leadership in the community at large.

A chief source of this conversation was the Brattleboro Core-Arts Project, a two-year initiative funded by an NEA Our Town Grant to explore the ways in which the arts shape Brattleboro's sense of place and community, CoreArts' busy year included the creation of a Cultural Assets Map, with the assistance of students from the Conway School of Design, and holding a series of panel discussions, interviews and conversations around the arts in Brattleboro.

With a year still to go, the Core-Arts Project has asked some tough and probing questions about Brattleboro's arts community, aimed at discovering something new. We all know it's there, but how does it function and what does it mean?

"It's true the Smithsonian thinks we're great, but they probably never asked the questions we think to ask," said CoreArts Project team member Zon Eastes.

For its support of CoreArts, as well as for the inclusion of a strong vision for the arts in its Town Plan and other efforts, the Town of Brattleboro was chosen to receive the Friend of the Arts Award from the Arts Council of Windham County. "Over the past years, the municipal government of the Town of Brattleboro has shown vision, leadership and commitment to significantly improve the environment for artists and arts organizations within its borders thus serving as a model for other communities of engaged and proactive civil leadership," the Arts Council wrote.

Another important contemplation of our community came as part of the Strolling of the Heifers, which hosted "Plowing Old Ground," an exhibit of photographs by John Nopper and text by Susan Harlow of Vermont's organic farming pioneers. The exhibit served as an important reminder of the significant contributions of these hard-working innovators "Organic is here, and it wasn't always here," said Nopper. "It didn't just happen. It took entrepreneurs. It took thoughtful people."

Debuts The relationship between the arts and its community was an important aspect to one of the events that made its debut in 2013.

The Southern Vermont Dance Festival brought dance teachers, performers and students into town for four days of classes, workshops, concerts, free music and more. Aimed at promoting dance in general and the wealth of dance Brattleboro can offer, the festival also had, from the get-go, a mission to support the business community.

"We have a focus on promoting dance in Southern Vermont and the dance community all over the area and an equal focus on promoting downtown business," said Director and Founder Brenda Siegel. "Between Hurricane Irene and the Brooks House fire, Brattleboro's having a hard time coming back."

The event made a promising debut, and plans are afoot to bring it back in 2014.

Other debuts in this year in arts include:

-- The opening in March of the Landmark College Fine Arts Gallery with an exhibit of work by Tim Segar and Craig Stockwell, followed in April by "Reading the Landmark College Community" and others since then;

-- The launch in April and then in November of Putney Vaudeville at Next Stage Arts;

-- The inaugural Death Café hosted by Brattleboro Area Hospice in June, offered people a chance to come together around tables and talk about aspects of death;

-- The first publication in October by Green Writers Press, a Brattleboro-based publishing company founded by Dede Cummings with a mission to give voice to writers and artists who will make the world a better place. Pledging proceeds to 350.org and local environmental organizations, Green Writers Press has created a unique publishing model which values art, earth and responsible business practices. It has already proven popular with authors and artists, and more releases are due in 2014;

-- The Immanuel Retreat Center, affiliated with Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bellows Falls and proved to be a popular place for summer artist retreats, particular ones led by cellist extraordinaire Eugene Friesen;

-- Sandglass Theater launched its New Visions series in the fall, giving a performance platform to some of the best new and original voices in puppet theater;

-- Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College collaborated to begin the Windham County Performance Series, which brought top-notch performers like Arlo Guthrie, Stile Antico, Gordon Clapp and Natalie MacMaster to venues throughout the county. More are on tap in 2014;

-- The Wistaria Chamber Music Society, well established in the Pioneer Valley, made inroads in Vermont with performances at Centre Congregational Church;

-- Southern Vermont Lyric Theater, packing a catchy acronym - SVeLT - presented "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in December as its first prodiction;

-- Offering a new model of Vermont craft retail with an experiential twist, Vermont Woods opened its new showroom in Huckle Hill in Vernon.

Happy returns

A number of arts events and organizations which had already made their area debuts returned in 2013, some welcomed back after absences.

Apron Theater Company returned after a hiatus of several years, and established itself very quickly as a force to be reckoned with. Newly minted as Next Stage Arts' resident theater company, Apron presented three strong productions and plans to do four in 2014. Apron opened with "Wit" in July. Starring Keely Eastley, this powerful production gets my vote as the single most moving arts experience I had all year. Apron followed that up with "The Cripple of Inishmaan" and then "Death of a Salesman" in October. Welcome back!

"The Nutcracker" also made a comeback. Brattleboro School of Dance presented the first full production of the beloved holiday ballet in the area in seven years, a fitting celebration not only of the season but also of Jennifer Moyse's first year at the helm of the school, after taking over from founder Kathleen Keller in 2012.

The Pikes Falls Chamber Festival brought concerts, open rehearsals, community art-making and special events back to Jamaica in August for a second year.

In Wilmington, the Mo Jazz Remix series, featuring pianist Chris Bakriges, brought jazz back to the area, harking back to the old days when Mo Jazz was a regular fixture in Wilmington.

On the topic of comebacks, the entire Wilmington area, continued to work to rebound from the devastation wrought in 2011 by Tropical Storm Irene. Ann Coleman Gallery and Memorial Hall continue to advance plans to rebuild, while Grammy Awardwinning musician Joan Osborne performed a benefit concert in the area.

In the hard-hit Rock River Valley, artisans continued to do their work and assimilate their experience of going through Tropical Storm Irene into their lives as artists in Vermont. A perfect example was Christine Triebert, who turned the debris, silt and sand washed onto her land by the flooding into new art works she called "Geomorphs."

"I think it's part of making order out of chaos," Triebert said. "It doesn't feel like debris and all this silt that was in the way. I feel like they're part of my art."

The comeback from Tropical Storm Irene continues.

Milestones

A number of arts-related milestones were celebrated in 2013.

Leading the way with the cake with the most candles is the Latchis Theatre, which celebrated its 75th birthday with a year of high art and high significance. In addition to hosting many events, concerts by Rosanne Cash and Arlo Guthrie, an Oscar night Red Carpet Gala and more, the main Latchis theatre also closed for more than two months so work could take place on its ambitious and much-needed $550,000 project to replace the old seats and restore the legendary zodiac ceiling. It reopened in October with an event featuring filmmaker Ken Burns, debuting some of his upcoming documentary on the Roosevelts. Later in the year, Gail Nunziata, managing director, announced that she would be stepping down in June 2014, leaving very big shoes to fill.

The Yankee Male Chorus, an amiable band of brothers in song which tours every summer, turned 60 years old in 2013.

The venerable Putney Craft Tour, the artist open studio tour which started them all, celebrated its 35th anniversary with a successful year, and plenty of tributes to Margot Torrey, the determined woman who insisted these Putney artists keep the tour going in its early years.

Main Street Arts in Saxtons River celebrated its 25th anniversary with its usual fine assortment of classes and programs, a production of "Kiss Me Kate" and an ambitious building renovation and expansion project.

The River Singers, one of the area's special families of song, directed by Mary Cay Brass, also turned 25.

Brattleboro's uber-popular Collegiate A Cappella Show, a fundraiser for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, turned 10. Beginning as an event nobody was quite sure would attract a crowd, it is now a powerhouse that has raised more than $100,000 for the museum, spawned a fundraising High School A Cappella Show, spurred interest in a cappella singing in town and caught a national wave that has seen a cappella become part of popular culture through "Glee," "Pitch Perfect" and "The Sing-Off!" Got your ticket for the 2014 show, yet? It's coming on Feb. 1.

The Empty Bowls dinner also celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Brattleboro-West Arts' annual Open Studio Tour turned five years old in September.

Awards, honors and achievements As in every year, the work of our local artists earned recognition on state, national and wider stages.

It was a banner year for Kurn Hattin. In March, its Select Choir won the favor of fans as the first Vermont vocal ensemble to perform in WGBY's "Together in Song" choral contest with 37 groups in the region. Later in the year, came the exciting news that music teacher Lisa Bianconi was being considered for the firstever Grammy Award for Music Educators. Initially one of 30,000 nominees, Bianconi is now among the 10 finalists. The winner will be announced in January. "I am just humbled with a capital 'H,'" Bianconi said.

In June, Laura Lawson Tucker accepted an award for New England Youth Theatre's Theatre Adventure Program given by the Turret Fund of the Vermont Children's Trust Foundation. Gov. Peter Shumlin and leaders in child care work were on hand to honor this inclusive program which fosters creative expression in people of all abilities. The program had a busy year besides, with performances and Putting On Our Finery fashion exhibitions.

Olivia Howe, 13, of Brattleboro, was awarded a Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her novel, "The Battle of Darkness: Arrival." Howe was one of just 12 Silver Medalists in the country, and the youngest selected.

In August, the Marlboro Music Festival, which celebrated its 63rd season of the highest caliber chamber music-making, honored Luis Batlle for decades of service which began in 1956. During his time with the festival, Batlle performed in 399 concerts, more than any other artist in Marlboro history.

Westminster West author Jessie Haas was chosen to write the books for the American Girl Doll of the Year, Saige.

The Paradise City Arts Festival honored three artists with local ties. Sculpture James Kitchen won a People's Choice Award for his 20-foot, three-ton sculpture "Day's End," which he created in Vernon with the help of Valley Crane and Renaud Bros. Garry Jones and Erik Newquist were also honored for their musical park benches.

Passages and farewells

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to several artists who died in 2013.

On April 1, photographer Roger Katz, whose personal style captured images of people depicted in their natural environments. He was 65.

The area's jazz scene, and musicians farther afield, mourned the death on Oct. 17 of cornetist and teacher Howard Brofsky. A longtime leader of the Vermont Jazz Center, Brofsky was remembered by local friends and renowned musicians for his humility, kindness and human touch that made everyone feel valued. Earlier the year, in August, he added to his legacy and made new friends at the 38th Vermont Jazz Center Summer Workshop. There will be more plans to honor his legacy in the coming months.

Fred F. Scherer, the painter whose work had been seen by more people than any other local artist, died Nov, 25 at age 98. Scherer spent the bulk of his professional life painting the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Less than two weeks later, Scherer's wife, Cicely Aikman Scherer, a fine painter in her own right, died.

Less tragic but still a little sad for us were two passages that will have an impact on the local arts scene.

Meris Morrison, the librarian at the Moore Free Library in Newfane, retired in September. Fortunately, Louis Sirois arrived to take her place.

And in a move that left Roots on the River fans stunned and saddened, Fred Eaglesmith, the rootsy pied piper at the heart of the annual Bellows Falls Americana festival announced that the 2013 festival would be his last.

"I sort of really have this thing about going on too long. There's a lot of clinging, especially in the arts," Eaglesmith said.

Doing what we do

All these honors, milestones, accolades and new initiatives are nice, but we can't forget that a lot of what makes our arts community the thriving, thrumming hub it is are the activities and efforts that take place all the time, every day.

It's hard to mark the moments in classes students of all ages take at our many art schools and organizations, but somewhere, every day, whether it's at the River Gallery School, New England Center for Circus Arts, Open Music Collective, Brattleboro Music School, New England Youth Theatre, Main Street Arts, dance studios, art studios, rehearsal halls or are many area public and private schools, lives are being transformed every day. A wonderful thing to think about.

The Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center had another year to be proud of, showcasing important and relevant exhibits of contemporary Chinese art, the pop art legend Red Grooms and its second VT Kids Design Glass exhibit, among others. The museum also welcomed visitors to many special events, film screenings domino toppling, lego building, concerts and other happenings, and managed to expand the hours it's open to the public by 30 percent. Well done.

It was a big year at Next Stage Arts in Putney, which hired its first executive director, Maria Basescu, and in December, expanded its board by three people. In between it continued to provide amazing programming, including performances by Tony Trischkia, the Wiyos, Claire Lynch, Arn Chorn-Pond and Taylor Mali, and formed new partnerships, including the one with Apron Theater Company and with the Putney Craft Tour. On one weekend in the fall, it hosted author Archer Mayor, Putney Vaudeville and the band Fishtank Ensemble. Nuf said.

New England Youth Theatre heads into 2014, its 15th year, with the momentum of a 2013 that included important productions like "Ferdinand the Bull" (in which students examined nonviolence and learned Spanish), "Scapin," "Hairspray," "Blood Wedding," and "Oliver!" It also received EPA grant money to address contamination and help it continue to develop its property.

Theater fans enjoyed NEYT's offerings, the addition of Apron Theater and a rich local scene that includes the Vermont Theatre Company ("Woman in Black," "Death Trap," "Twelfth Night" and "The Maids"), Actors Theatre Playhouse ("Private Eyes," "Circle Mirror Transformation," 10-Minute Play Festival), Young Shakespeare Players ("Macbeth"), and local schools ("Gypsy" at BUHS, "Guys and Dolls" at Leland & Gray with Broadway choreographer Terrie Robinson, to name a couple). At the Weston Theatre, local actors Isaac Freitas-Egan and Andrew Foster got to star alongside professional actors from Broadway in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Sandglass Theater marked 2013 by launching its New Visions series, welcoming Lenelle Moise for its Voices of Community Series, hosting Puppets in Paradise and by getting an $80,000 National Theater Project Grant to make improvements to its piece "D-Generation" and take it on tour.

The Vermont Performance Lab continued to be an important force in the creation of new work around themes of community, diaspora, displacement, assimilation, history, identity and more.

New England Center for Circus Arts not only continued to provide audiences with fine performances by students and professional friends, highlighted by the March Circus Spectacular, it also marked a milestone in its search for a permanent home with the announcement in the fall of the purchase of land off Town Crier Drive In the musical world, the Brattleboro Music Center remains a diamond with many shining facets. The Concert Choir offered powerful performances of Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna," Chilcott's Requiem and the Faure Requiem. The Blanche Moyse Chorale performed J.S. Bach's monumental Mass in B Minor in the spring and Bach's Christmas Oratorio for the third annual Blanche Moyse Memorial Concert in the fall. The Windham Orchestra continued to make the case for itself as a vital part of the town's infrastructure with concert offerings that emphasized collaborations with other individuals and organizations, including work with singers from four local high schools in Stravinsky, student composers and dances first written in 1844 by Brattleboro dentist and character Dr. Frederic Palmer.

Yellow Barn had a strong year, its 44th but first without founder David Wells. Its Artist Residency Program was a wellspring of adventurous efforts, including the development of "Cuatro Corridos," an opera about human trafficking; a collaboration with Tuesday's Children (families of people lost in the attacks on 9/11); and "One Red Rose," a piece commissioned of Steven Mackey and presented in a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The program was premiered in Putney and later presented in Dallas at the Sixth Floor Museum.

Friends of Music at Guilford hosted a program of women composers, music enrichment programs in schools, its annual Labor Day Weekend concert, 43rd Messiah Sing and 41st Christmas at Christ Church program.

In the world of books and the printed word, the Brattleboro Literary Festival celebrated its 12th edition with a slate of 50 authors. Just after that, the Kipling Society held its first meeting ever at Kipling's Dummerston home, Naulakha.

In the realm of visual arts, exhibits of note included "Two Roads Diverged," featuring work by women who found or rediscovered their muses later in life. It ran at the Dianich Gallery in March. In July, the Crowell Gallery at the Moore Free Library in Newfane hosted an important exhibit of the Impressionist Arthur Gibbes Burton. In December, a rare photograph of reclusive author J.D. Salinger came home to Brattleboro. Taken by Brattleboro native and former Reformer photographer Michael McDermott, the image, in a limited edition photogravure, was on view and for sale at Vermont Artisan Designs.