Old school building gets new life as arts center
By Suzanne Carlson
VERNON — In a building long neglected, artists are coming together to share their work with the world.
Situated on the corner of Center Road and Hartford Turnpike, the prominent white clapboard building constructed in 1927 as a school for poor and homeless youth in Tolland County is now officially home to the Vernon Community Arts Center.
Referred to by locals as the kindergarten building because of its use as such after it was acquired by the town in the 1950s, the arts center project has come to fruition after years of planning and often painfully slow progress.
“It’s really long past due,” acting Director and Vernon resident Lori Robeau, 40, said Friday. “It’s a positive thing. … Lots of communities have changed their economies because of the arts.”
The Board of Education had used the structure for storage in recent years and it was in consideration as the location for the new ambulance building until February 2004, when pediatric cardiologist and former Mayor Ellen Marmer convened a special committee to pursue turning the building into an arts center.
That group since has evolved into the Vernon Community Arts Center, a nonprofit headed by Board of Directors Chairman Paul Shimer that operates independently of the Vernon Arts Commission.
“It was kind of her vision and she got it initiated,” and Marmer continues to provide much needed financial support, Robeau said. “It’s finally happening now, it’s really a crowning moment for her.”
Renovations on the building were completed recently through the help of state grants and private and business donations, and the Town Council has granted a 10-year lease to the group.
The center’s operating budget is around $12,000, so “it’s very bare bones,” Robeau said, and she and others are working on writing grants applications to obtain additional funds.
Artists themselves, Robeau and acting Assistant Director Melissa Ralston-Jones, 42, who operated Gallery 46 on Union Street in the Rockville section of town until she gave up the pressures of private gallery ownership to have her fourth child, are both volunteers.
Robeau also has a master’s degree in art and used to co-direct the Blackstone River Gallery in Woonsocket, R.I.
She said fellow local artists have been “coming out of the woodwork” to help and “we’re astounded by the response,” which included 40 people who showed up to the first volunteer meeting.
Robeau and Ralston-Jones got involved about a year ago and have been tasked by the board of directors, which was incorporated in 2008, with devising programming, funding, and virtually all aspects of organization.
“They’re supportive,” Ralston-Jones said, adding that she and Robeau are grateful to the board for its trust in the vision for the center they’re pursuing.
While the center’s grand opening is not until June 9 and its website is still a work in progress, much has been done to set up the first juried show of artwork and there are ambitious plans.
Envisioned as a “full-scale arts center” accepting installation, video art, sculpture, photography, and performing art, Robeau said that “we don’t know how it’s going to evolve really, it could become even more.”
In addition to office and gallery space, the center includes classrooms, a kiln room, a large flat-screen monitor for digital art displays, and a 60-seat performance space where a play is planned for the end of summer. They also plan to sell handcrafted items in a small gift shop space, Robeau said.
Classes taught by local artists will begin two weeks after the grand opening, and South Windsor resident Joan Shapiro, 76, a retired professor of literature and communications at the University of Hartford, said she’s “very excited” to begin teaching writing courses in poetry, fiction, and memoir.
Shapiro also has several pieces of abstract painting in the first show and said she recently began working on visual art alongside partner Paul St. Onge, 59, a figure painter and abstract sculptural artist.
He is showing an abstract landscape titled, “Urban Community East,” constructed of packing pieces of Styrofoam coated in textured spray paint to give the impression of weight, even though the piece itself is feather-light, while Shapiro is showing three acrylic paintings.
“I never know where I’m going to be when I start working,” Shapiro said. “It’s what makes it really fun, is the freedom.”
Vernon resident Jay Dimick, 55, said he used to make custom furniture and cabinets before his company went out of business. Since then, his work has been a labor of love crafted from hunks of “burl,” a naturally forming growth on trees that creates unique swirls and textures in the wood.
The eye-catching artwork he brought into the center Thursday included a rocking chair in human form carved from willow burl found in Enfield and a 4-foot-high seahorse made from maple burl that Dimick found on West Street in Vernon as he was passing by.
“I just looked at the wood and just followed the grain, as they say,” Dimick said.
St. Onge said the fresh, modern look of the renovated building is “fantastic” and the quality of artwork is “very good. For a first show there’s some very interesting stuff here, a lot of talented people. I think this will be a success.”
The Vernon Community Arts Center, 709 Hartford Turnpike, will hold its grand opening from 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday, June 9. For hours or more information on how to display art, call 860-871-8222, or visit