Middlebury Studio School settles in on Route 7

MIDDLEBURY — When you walk into the Middlebury Studio School (MSS) you’d never guess that they only moved into their new space on Route 7 south just over two years ago. A large center table welcomes you with paint-splattered stools, shelves surround the four rooms packed high and deep with pottery, and finished pieces from students and instructors nestle into every nook and cranny. People flow through the school as if it were their own living room — at ease with the clay-dust and happy to share space, stories and snacks.
It has a messy-creative vibe; similar to their previous space on Mill Street where they operated as Frog Hollow (Vermont State Craft Center) for nearly 40 years.
In 2009, the Vermont State Craft Center sold their property to Cornwall resident and businessman George Dorsey, and Edgewater Gallery moved in. When Frog Hollow closed in Middlebury (now their main store is on Church Street in Burlington), they left behind all the students and instructors interested in local art classes. So, a group of former Frog Hollow instructors got together to form MSS and continue offering arts classes to the community.
Kathy Clarke, Mary McKay Lower and Barbara Nelson helped lead the new business venture.
Clarke, a potter from Salisbury has more than 30 years of experience with clay. “The potter workshops that Frog Hollow used to hold were really top notch,” she remembered. “They taught me pretty much all I know.” Now, Clarke passes on her knowledge to children and adults in her classes. “I always give them a demo, and then I tell them they can do anything they want… I love watching their ideas come!”
“Kathy is our visionary,” said Nelson, who lives on Lake Dunmore. “She is like the hostess of creativity. She has lots of ideas! I try to figure out if her ideas can become a reality.”
Nelson, a jeweler for more than 30 years, does all the number-stuff. As the education director of MSS she handles the organization and the business. “She’s art oriented, but also extremely detail oriented,” Clarke said.
Nelson grew up just outside New York City, but always wanted to live in New Hampshire or Vermont. Lucky for us, she found her house in Leicester on Lake Dunmore in 1973 and moved here to stay. “The first class I took at Frog Hollow was taught by Bruce Baker,” she said. Turned out Baker lived just down the road from Nelson and the two started a jewelry business, Fern Rock Farm, together in the ’70s.  By 1978 she was on her own and has been selling jewelry (sometimes nature inspired and sometimes not) since.
“Somehow these guys grabbed me,” Nelson said, nodding to Clarke and Lower, “and I couldn’t stop… I think everybody should have as many art classes as they want.” Plus, she added, “I like employing artists; there are a lot of artists who like to teach to fill in the gaps and make a little extra money.”
Lower moved from her hometown in Louisiana to New York City at the age of 21. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” she said. After receiving a BS in Studio art, an MA in Art Education and teaching art at private schools in New York, Lower moved to Vermont with her husband Fred Lower (also a painter, with a show currently on exhibit at the Jackson Gallery in the lower level of the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury).
When they came to Middlebury in 1997, Lower started teaching painting, drawing and kids classes at Frog Hollow. She was also education director for a year (’98-’99) and a board member. “I was on the board at Frog Hollow when it was going down,” Lower said. “We felt like we could do this on our own, and so we did!” She is currently the vice president of the MSS board of directors.
Clarke, Nelson and Lower were well supported by other instructors, students and the community as they scrambled to put together their own business. “It made us flexible,” said Nelson. “You learn who’s going to help you… and all the little bits help.”
For the first five years, Dorsey rented the lower half of the building to MSS. “He gave us a real good start,” said Lower. But that changed when the gallery grew and needed the space.
That’s when MSS found the property on Route 7. “We rented it for a year to see if people would come,” said Clarke, who manages the MSS studio. “And they did!”
And so, not so slowly, they grew into the new space. Eight pottery wheels sit in one room, a small clay prep and clean-up station in another and a third room is dedicated to pottery waiting for glazing and kiln-time. The main space transforms depending on what type of class is being taught.
MSS offers many types of art classes for all ages, including pottery, jewelry making, painting, drawing, mixed media and pastels, to name a few. They also offer afterschool programs during the school year and art camps for kids in the summer, which are held at the Patricia Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. And they hold regular open studio hours.
As you might imagine, space at MSS gets tight. That’s why $500,000 is on their wish list (along with paper bags and newspapers). “We have big plans for the future,” said Clarke, alluding to a fine arts wing they hope to build. “We just need money, that’s all.”
The school has had incredibly generous donations in the past, like the anonymous supporter who donated $232,500, which allowed MSS to purchase their property. So, who knows when construction will start.
The end goal: “We want to be an arts center,” Nelson said. “Yeah, a hub,” Clarke agreed. “We want Middlebury to be more synonymous with the arts,” Lower added.
To find out more visit middleburystudioschool.org or email [email protected].
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