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Middlebury arts studio revitalized in new space

MIDDLEBURY — Seven years after vacating downtown Middlebury’s Frog Hollow district, the Middlebury Studio School has purchased its new headquarters at 2377 Route 7 South and is now looking to expand that building to keep pace with the growing popularity of its art and pottery classes.
“Our goal is to be a community art center,” board member Barbara Z. Nelson said of the school’s great potential as a future site for lectures, children’s summer camps, painting workshops, panel discussions and even maybe an artist in residence.
The Middlebury Studio School has already established itself as a county hub for art instruction. A combined total of 1,076 adults and children were enrolled in the school’s dozens of art programs and workshops last year. Featured offerings include a variety of pottery, drawing, oil painting, mixed media, jewelry making, and knitting programs, to name but a few.
Naef Robinson has for the past decade made weekly trips from her Huntington home to the studio school to take pottery classes. She praised pottery instructor Kathy Clarke — who also serves as school manager — for her artistic ability and her excellent rapport with students, young and old alike.
“She invites people into the creative process,” said Robinson, who was accompanied on this day by her tiny pup. The studio school building — located south of Foster Motors and north of East Middlebury, is devoid of pretense; its basic décor invites students to roll up their sleeves and make something. Teachers and fellow students don’t pass judgment; they encourage.
“It’s a congenial place,” Robinson said.
Seddon Beaty travels an hour each way to Middlebury from her home in Hague, N.Y., in order to work in clay under the tutelage of studio school teachers. She often comes with friends who like to take painting classes at the school.
“This is the only clay (school location) other than Shelburne, Albany and Glens Falls,” Beaty said.
She added she keeps coming back because of “the people, the fact there is a gas kiln, and the creativity of the instructor.”
The Middlebury Studio School has come a long way — both physically and programmatically — since it split off from the Vermont State Craft Center eight years ago. The craft center since the 1970s ran a variety of arts programs at its 1 Mill St. headquarters. But the center fell on tough financial times and was ultimately forced to liquidate its Middlebury assets, including the building at 1 Mill St. The structure is still ensconced in art as the home to the Edgewater Gallery.
The school then led somewhat of a nomadic existence until early 2015, when it received town permission to relocate to a 2,340-square-foot building at 2377 Route 7 South, which had previously hosted such businesses as the Grapevine Grille and Na’s Thai Kitchen. The one-acre property also includes a 1,320-square-foot garage, which now hosts a propane kiln. Middlebury Studio School officials initially paid rent at the location before purchasing it last month for $232,500. Remarkably, a longtime studio school booster — who wants to remain anonymous — paid the entire purchase price.
“We expected some donations, but we didn’t expect a giant donation like this,” Middlebury Studio School Executive Director Barbara A. Nelson said of the generous gift.
The school headquarters includes two distinct work areas — one equipped with a potter’s wheel, the other for painting and making pottery using free-form techniques.
“What we need is a third space,” board President Llyn Rice said. “The clay does have a certain amount of grit to it and dustiness, and it really would pay to have a (clay-free) space for art.”
With that in mind, school officials are considering a 1,050-square-foot addition on the north side of the current building for fine arts activities. The design and cost of the addition are still being planned, though officials believe the project could cost $300,000 to $500,000. The higher figure would include some endowment funds for the school, Rice noted. The school will launch a fundraising campaign to underwrite the addition. Anyone interested in contributing and/or learning about the non-profit school can log onto the school website at middleburystudioschool.org. The Vermont Community Foundation also maintains a fund benefitting the studio school.
An expansion would give the school more space for on-site programming. Some of the school’s 30 part-time instructors also teach classes at public schools and other locations. The school receives grant money from the Vermont Arts Council and other sources to help subsidize tuition for those who can’t afford it. The studio school is in the second year of a Walter Cerf Foundation grant that provides tuition assistance to clients of the Counseling Service of Addison County, the Addison County Parent-Child Center, Mary Johnson Children’s Center and Community Associates who want to take art and pottery classes.
The studio school is thriving at its new location, which has given the school more visibility than it enjoyed in Frog Hollow.
And the new site provides another advantage that can’t be underestimated.
“(Students) often comment on how they love the parking,” Clarke said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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