“A Real-Life Advent Calendar” at AVA’s Holiday Open House

Your first sign that something unusual—possibly wonderful—was going on around Lebanon’s Colburn Park on Saturday, December 1 might have been the one that said: “Caution: Horses.”

Horse-drawn carriage rides, which were one part of the city’s holiday celebration, also featured visits with Santa and the park’s official tree lighting. Not far from the bundled crowds, far cozier and just as bright, AVA Gallery hosted its annual Holiday Exhibition and Open House, offering a relaxing, art-filled opportunity to welcome the season.

Right as you walked in, peace greeted you. Yes, a wall with handwritten messages of peace, all hung from twine, encouraged visitors to leave a message of their own or to take one as they went. And exploring AVA further, a sense of peace followed you, through every room on every floor, where chance after chance to engage with local art and artists seemed to be waiting.

Overheard at one point in the long first-floor hall: “AVA is like a real-life Advent calendar today.” Each doorway opened to some new delight.

Entering the main gallery you found a beautiful showroom and marketplace with an inspiring variety of artworks by staff and member artists, from painted canvases and sculptures to handmade ornaments and fine jewelry, all available for purchase—a sale that continues seven days a week through December 24, guaranteed to be the most pleasant holiday shopping experience anywhere in the Upper Valley.

A steady stream of visitors wove in and out of artist studios on the second and third floors, welcomed in by the artists displaying works-in-progress up close as well as finished pieces for purchase. A piano recital in the Library sent music throughout the second floor, and venturing to the top floor, you might have discovered the small exhibit of artwork created by children in Allison Zito’s weekly after-school workshop.

In the classroom studios, festive art waited to be made, whether collage ornaments or handmade cards. For the slightly more courageous, in the warmly lit North Studio, AVA faculty artist Karl Neubauer offered to sketch your portrait—that is, if you could sit very still for 20 minutes.

Heading next door into the Bente Sculptural Studies Building was like stumbling upon Santa’s Little Village, where children and grown-ups alike tinkered and toyed with everything from lumps of clay to hot metal.

Santa’s little elves were everywhere. Roger Goldenberg and his trusty apprentice, AVA’s marketing manager Alicia Bergeron, showed off a metal-manipulation process called hot forging and steel inflation. Nearby, Dudley Whitney and Chris McGrody gave a hands-on tour of woodworking implements. Stone-carvers Sandra Silverang and Heather Ritchie shared their workshop, and David Ernster and Karen Earls invited visitors to sink their fingers into clay.

All day and into evening, the holiday spirit gathered and swelled throughout AVA, as outside the horse-drawn carriage made its loop around town. Gathering coats and mittens and purchased art before departing, many paused once more at the wall of peace, to breathe, to read new messages that had been added, to take a little peace with them as they went.

To Be There and Be Square at AVA’s 10×10 Celebration

By Tom Haushalter

Little treasures were too many to count at the closing party for AVA Gallery’s 2nd Annual 10×10 Exhibition and Fundraiser. In every corner, it seemed, there was something going on: food trucks, a photo booth, a live DJ, and dancing. And that’s all before you got to where the art was happening.

The event’s namesake showcase of art of was its own endless array of treasure. More than 140 works—all made using the same 10-inch by 10-inch wooden panel—created and contributed by 103 area artists covered the walls of the Members’ Gallery. On Friday, after two weeks on display at AVA, the art works were finally available for purchase at $100 a piece.

Partygoers and potential buyers might have looked like kids in a candy store—and some actually were kids—as they moved from panel to panel, admiring each one for its own colorful, often whimsical, and bite-sized take on the challenge to create something inside less than one square foot.

Mila Pinigin, AVA’s Exhibition Manager and organizer of the event, was truly impressed with the talent and range on display in the 10×10 exhibit, featuring works by professional artists and community members alike, although they were shown anonymously, encouraging partygoers to see each piece for its own sake.

Pinigin learned that some artists used the 10×10 opportunity to rekindle old techniques, such as oil painting, or to experiment with new. “One artist wanted to buy his own piece back because it’s taken him on a whole new trajectory,” she said.

And you could call the general mood in the gallery gleeful, with so many people either itching to snag the little piece of art they’d had their eye on for days or completely unable to decide which one they liked most. Some were purchasing art for the first time. Some, of course, went home with more than one.

Inside the lobby, a pop-up portrait studio gave buyers the chance to pose with their exciting new purchase—a token of gratitude for their support of AVA’s mission to make art happen in the community, through classes and workshops, exhibitions and scholarships, for people of all ages and abilities.

The fervor of the occasion held steady, even as panel after 10×10 panel came down from the wall, heading for its new home. Delicious flavors from the VT Munchies and Taco’s Tacos food trucks outside mingled with DJ Melissa’s thumping rhythms well into the evening, and it wouldn’t have been odd to catch someone dancing their way out of AVA, with a piece of art tucked beneath their arm.

If you participated in our complimentary photo booth, click here to download your portrait! (If prompted, use the password AVA10x10)

Little treasures can still be found in our Members’ Gallery–each for only $100!

Portraits by Sarah Farkas
Event Photos by Michael Seamans 

A Soaring Assymetry: 4 Questions for Bruce Blanchette

Most of the pieces in Bruce Blanchette’s exhibition now at AVA are wall-mounted, yet you feel you’re looking downward on them. And you may waver between calling it collage or painting or sculpture.

Blanchette, one of AVA’s 2017 Juried Award Winners and whose work is up in the The Clifford B. West Gallery until August 24, renders the experience of an aerial view—of what could be cityscapes or cracked earth—in three-dimensional depth, forcing us out of conventional ways of interacting not just with art but with the world.

We asked Blanchette to let us into his process and singular point of view.

Tell us about aerial landscapes in your work. Whether it appears we’re looking down from great heights upon wending rivers or ancient symmetrical cities or cracked earth, where does this fascination come from?

Bruce Blanchette: We live today with technology that pervades every aspect of how we see the world. What was once unknowable, like viewing our planet from satellite photos, even the moon, has exposed us to the reality of the living earthly spaceship which provides us with everything we need to survive the hostile environment of the universe. Unfortunately, we have not treated Mother Earth very well in the past couple of centuries and are beginning to see the result of our careless disregard for the environment.

I first became influenced by the photos of David Maisel, which were aerial views of landscapes being ruined by industrial pollution and selfish greed. My 2008 low reliefs were a response to Maisel’s sightings from an airplane, which struck a chord with me. These works were my imaginings that incorporated wallboard compound, sand, adhesives and traditional painting materials to manipulate color and surface. Later, my continued fascination with images taken from space used laser technology to form an accurate topographic mapping of the earth by scientists and archeologists searching for ancient ruins—in the jungles of Central America, in Egypt, and other parts of the world. These new 3-D computer-generated images gave me much to think about.


And I pick up a tension in the fractured symmetry of these pieces. Even in the Glacial series, there’s a tendency toward balance in the riven surface. An even breakage. How do you understand this unusual symmetry—in nature and in your work?  

BB: This is not so much a desire for balance as it is a function of cropping my composition. I look at them as small sections of landscape that I have excised from the surrounding area of photographs, then converted to drawings in ink on panels. It is also my biggest struggle, because I feel some, like the Glacial Series, are too “perfect” and, perhaps, sterile as expressions. Attempting to eliminate the square and rectangular framed format is what I have moved toward in recent modular pieces. It bothered me, probably more than viewers, that my reliefs could so easily be mistaken for paintings… a little too “precious” for my current awareness of possibilities beyond the frame! My task, as I see it lately, is to use more asymmetry as a factor in my conceptual aesthetic.

You’ve said that your process begins with the material in hand, before any idea or concept has taken hold. What aspects of a chosen material do you consider, to give it the potential to be reshaped?

BB: Typically, I choose support materials first, and usually have something in mind beforehand that I want to add to it. I have a lot of experience working with wood or materials adaptable to woodworking techniques and tools. For a number of years, I have found hollow core doors to be a very lightweight and rigid substrate upon which all kinds of media can be applied. Formerly, I used MDF board for this purpose, but it is extremely heavy. Beyond that, almost anything that I can glue, screw, nail, or otherwise affix to the backing opens up creative possibilities for wall hung reliefs.


Your work seems to reside at the intersection of sculpture and canvas, and even slides between two- and three-dimensionality, depending on one’s angle of perspective. Is this a tension you feel yourself negotiating as you create?

BB: Absolutely! The best example of this is the fully three-dimensional “Ground Zero-Altar of the True Path,” which in its original form was a wall hanging maze, and devoid of context. It took me a couple of years, after putting it aside, to realize that it needed to be horizontal, not vertical, after which the concept grew into the piece that resides in the show. However, I am not adverse to reworking any artwork that has, in my mind, unresolved issues which this piece did; engendering a third revision this past year to correct a surface problem that didn’t satisfy me. In this case, the tension was aesthetic rather than structural.


Explore Bruce Blanchette’s exhibit, along with work by fellow Juried Award Winners Helen Shulman and Susan Wilson, at AVA Gallery until August 24.

Student “Art Detectives” Investigate the Masterpieces

By Tom Haushalter

In a class on the art of the tropical rainforest, it makes sense to want to work with a lush, aqueous medium like tempera. What you may not expect a group of fifth-graders to grapple with are notions of perspective and realism in a painting—or the lack thereof.

But Susan Davis Shimko, creator of one of AVA’s newest community outreach programs, called Art Detectives, has kids looking at rainforests—and art in general—in a whole new way.

Drawing on her own experience as an educator and her love of art history, Shimko developed Art Detectives to forge stronger connections between the grade-school curriculum and ideas in art. She schedules special visits to Upper Valley elementary classrooms and discusses with each teacher beforehand what subjects the students are learning. “Then we decide on a subject that lends itself to doing something enriching with art,” she says, “and I look for an artist and a piece of their work to integrate into their learning.”

Those fifth-graders were studying the environment when Shimko arrived one day with a print of Henri Rousseau’s “The Equatorial Jungle.” A lively discussion of rainforests and their importance led to observations about Rousseau’s painting and how it was made. “The class was very interested to learn that Rousseau had never actually been to a rainforest,” she says, “but had drawn his tropical plants from sketches made at the Paris botanical gardens!”

And they learned that Rousseau had such high regard for his raw, natural talent that he never took art lessons—which shows in his paintings’ overall lack of perspective and sophistication. Then out came the tempera paints, and Shimko asked the students to create their own rainforest paintings, following Rousseau’s style.

In another class studying the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Shimko introduced a piece by painter Jacob Lawrence, known for his vivid depictions of African American life.
For another she came with Picasso’s rooster, while the students had been hatching chickens in the classroom. “To be able to connect Picasso with actual chickens makes Picasso that much more engaging.”
Shimko is just as amazed by what the children say about these works of art. “You don’t expect a first-grader to look at a painting and say, ‘This shading makes me feel sad, and I think the artist was feeling like he wanted to show sadness.’”

Adds Shimko, “I tell them that there aren’t right or wrong ways to talk about art. It’s all about their exposure and experience of it, and I hope they begin to look at museums and AVA as places they aren’t afraid to visit.”

On Friday, June 1st, they’ll get their chance to visit AVA—and to find their own art on display. Culminating Shimko’s work with 19 classrooms in five different Upper Valley schools over the past year, the Art Detectives Art Show will feature an astonishing 298 pieces of student art. Visitors can explore the work exhibited throughout the hallways of AVA Gallery.

“It’s amazing that this program has had this level of success,” says Shimko, reflecting on the past year of Art Detectives. “And I’m excited to see how much further it can blossom.”

The Opening Reception is Friday, June 1, 4-6pm. The show is on view until June 9.

Parents and caregivers who are interested in Art Detectives should contact their teachers, and interested teachers should email ArtDetectives@avagallery.org.

Their Powerful Grace: Alysa Bennett’s ‘A Change of Horse’ at AVA Gallery

By Tom Haushalter

This spring, one section of AVA’s main gallery has transcended, you could say, into a paddock, and in it the majestic and meticulous representations of artist Alysa Bennett’s horses.

In sculptures formed of shimmering feathers, in chaotic charcoal drawings, and in photographs against the backdrop of Bennett’s father’s ranch in Arizona—the horses on display seem to belie their innate power by their very grace.

But that, Bennett assures us, is the point. To straddle a horse is to perceive both its exquisite contours and marvelous strength, and she finds in that spectrum virtually endless room to roam.

Bennett spoke to us about the versatility of her favorite creatures and their core influence on her work in A Change of Horse, her exhibition that runs at AVA through May 25.

What is it about horses—in your life, in your artist’s eye—that makes them an inexhaustible source of inspiration?

Bennett: Horses got under my skin early. As a kid, summers at my dad’s California cattle ranch, I could ride all day alone or with him. I would crawl all over my old paint mare, put tassels on her bridle, pretend she was some elegant Arabian. And I rode bareback often, where you feel the warmth of the skin and the muscles moving under you. I would run my hands over her, moving with the direction of her hair, smelling her all the while. It stays with you for your life.

I studied and then chose to be a figurative artist, but after a while I needed a subject that I had a passion for—and horses came back to me when Dad bought a ranch in Arizona. I spent much time there, and horses were abundant and close. I watched them as they played and interacted with each other, and I drew them all the time.

Horses have the ability to convey all the same emotions that people have, with their body language and the look in their eyes. That is what keeps them such a compelling subject for me. I try to make that come through by being true to both their large and small gestures. The possibilities are endless!

Let us into the process of creating the horse sculptures, and how it differs whether you’re working with feathers or straw.

Bennett: I first started making the straw sculptures then moved to feathers. For both I make a simple wire armature, fill it out with batting or rags, bend it until the gesture is right, and then wrap it in plaster to make it rigid. THEN I add the feathers ONE at a time.

Making the straw sculptures (though none of these are included in my AVA show), I would soak the straw in a medium by the handfuls and then mold them to follow the direction of the muscles. They were tied down and left to set in place and then refined with scissors. (Like a day at the beauty salon.) Both the feather and the straw sculptures have the delicate stick legs that I forage for in the backyard. They have to have the right turns and angles to represent the hock, knee, or just the angle of the leg.

In your drawings, as in the sculpture, I see a kinetic and formidable creature that is also quite delicate. Is this an equine duality you’re negotiating through your work?

Bennett: So you nailed the duality issue. It has been a major mover for me. Just the fragile legs on such a huge, heavy animal really captures it. In life, their legs are always the first part to get hurt and the hardest to heal. Also, their ability to use their strength at will, being a powerhouse under you one minute and then a gentle giant for a child the next—part of that duality and always one of the more intriguing aspects of life.

The kinetics of the horse I address a little more in the drawings. I started by using the chaos of the straw on the studio floor as an inspiration. Just as I tried to create form from chaos in the sculptures, I did the same with the drawings. Starting with a random stroke, then another, then seeing the horse and coaxing it out of the chaos of line. And, of course, going for the gesture. That really is the “overriding” challenge. If I can get that right then I feel I have satisfied my deep connection with horses and humans alike.

At AVA’s Silent Auction Party, A Community Loudly In Support

April 12, 2018
By Tom Haushalter

You could hear violins and the hum of the gathered crowd even before you entered AVA Gallery and Art Center last Saturday, April 7, for its annual Silent Auction Party.

Not much was silent about this year’s auction, nor was enthusiasm in any way subdued among attendees—who included AVA members and volunteers, local artists, and community supporters—plucking hors-d’oeuvres from passing trays and sipping wine while they artfully outbid one another on a range of donated artworks that filled the gallery space. AVA Gallery Silent Auction

Violinists Betty Kim and Katie Wee provided the elegant soundtrack to an event that helps to sustain and extend AVA’s mission for the arts in the Upper Valley. Paintings, mixed media works, sculpture, jewelry, and much more went home to the highest bidders, and resulted in over $40,000 raised for AVA.

Those whose walls at home are already full could choose to “Fund A Need” from a wish list of AVA opportunities and initiatives, including sending a kid to camp, hand tools for the new Bente Building, and computers for AVA’s Digital Arts Media Lab. And many needs were funded.

Measured in part by competing bids, the community’s support for AVA seemed only to grow as the night went on. And auction-goers grew less silent about what this arts organization means to them and their experience living in the Upper Valley.

AVA Gallery Silent Auction

Deborah Sherwood, a ceramic artist in Hartland, VT, is glad to have connected with AVA since she moved to the area two years ago. “This seems to be the place that has the most significant art to offer the area, so I’m very excited about it.”

Casey Villard of Etna, NH, who has taken a handful of art and poetry classes, remembered when he worked next door and could count on a mindful midday visit to AVA to rescue him from a bad day. “I’d come over here and my spirits would be lifted. I’d feel more expansive, the weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Kathy Rines, also of Etna, NH, and a longtime supporter who has participated in AVA silent auctions, she says, “eternally,” reflected on AVA’s place in a community quietly bursting with arts. “I think Lebanon is one of the great undiscovered spots. We have AVA for the visual arts, and for music there’s the wonderful Upper Valley Music Center. We have Opera North in the summers. It’s become an amazing cultural center.”

Roger Goldenberg, an AVA faculty artist who has been integral to the development of the new sculptural studies program, said he moved here from Portsmouth, NH, two years ago because of AVA. “A lot of people will try to tell you that Portsmouth is the arts mecca of New Hampshire,” he says, “but I think it’s the Upper Valley. And I think AVA’s the hub.”AVA Gallery Silent Auction

Photos by Michael Seamans