25 years of helping people make art

Vermont Arts Exchange plans community celebration for July 20


NORTH BENNINGTON — When a small arts organization is able to continue its work for 25 years, it's time for a party.

That's how Matthew Perry, co-founder of the Vermont Arts Exchange, sees it.

To that end, the VAE is planning a community celebration on Saturday, July 20, from noon to 3 p.m., featuring a parade, live music by string band Saints & Liars, a car show, a cookout, free ice cream and pies and a sculpture tour.

Perry said out of all the VAE's work, he's most proud of the organization's longevity since its founding in 1994.

"We've made it 25 years," he said, chuckling. "It's kind of like planting a garden, you know, planting a flower or a crop. At any time you can get hit by bugs and get wiped out."

They last had a celebration like this 15 years ago, when they celebrated their 10th anniversary.

"Twenty-five is also interesting because there were kids that were with us when they were five years old, and now they're 30," Perry said. "They've gone off to art school, or they've done something that's, you know, pretty phenomenal."

In fact, he said, Will Mosheim, of Saints & Liars, was with the VAE when he was 8 years old.

The event will kick off with a parade featuring vintage cars and live music at noon, followed by a cookout by Powers Market.

The parade runs from the VAE campus at 48 Main St. down to Pangaea at 1 Prospect St., around the fountain and back. Participants are asked to get there at 11:30 a.m.

Saints & Liars will play live music during the parade and all afternoon at the VAE.

"It's very lively," Perry said of the music. "Tell people to bring their dancing shoes."

After the parade, which will take about a half-hour to forty-five minutes, the vintage cars will be parked around the North Bennington Post Office and across at the train depot for a car show.

"We have everything from Rolls-Royce to Volkswagens, motorcycles to muscle cars," Perry said.

The cookout and the car show will be at the same time. On offer will be hot dogs, hamburgers veggie burgers and salad for a nominal fee, with beer and drinks provided by Harvest Brewing.

Billy T's Northside Dairy Bar will provide free ice cream, and there will also be free pies.

"It's like birthday cake — you go to a party, you get birthday cake," Perry said. "I'm not a fan of birthday cake. I've always liked pies. I've always had apple pies on my birthday."

The celebration will also include a sculpture tour of the 22nd annual North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show by curator Joe Chirchirillo.

That tour will start "probably closer to 2, maybe 2 o'clock," Perry said.

Except the food at the cookout, everything at the event is free.

The event will also include an interactive story activity throughout the celebration for people to share their stories about the VAE.

Organizers hope to hear these stories with the goal of putting together something like a small book from them, Perry said.

Perry is no stranger to stories of the VAE's impact on people.

"There's just an overwhelming number of people that have been affected by our work," he said. "We often hear the stories of how it's affected someone."

This could be anything from a grandfather at the veterans home who gained new life in the last years of his life through making art, or a person who participated in a VAE summer camp that allowed them to stack rocks in the creek and make sculptures, giving them a memory they could take with them, he said.

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The cornerstone of the VAE's work has been its partnerships with other organizations like the Vermont Veterans Home, United Counseling Service, the Vermont School for Girls and the New England School for Girls.

Through their work, the VAE has engaged the community through creativity, Perry said. "We've brought people together," he said. "We've used the arts as a healing modality."

The organization has sustained itself, employing many teachers, musicians, artists and volunteers, Perry said. Currently, they have a staff of four administrators, including Perry, and four teaching artists. Some of their funding comes through grants and fees, but the organization relies greatly on monetary donations, according to its website.

As extensive as the VAE's community involvement has become, it had humble beginnings in a one-on-one class Perry taught to one student.

"Her mother was the editor of a magazine that I worked for," Perry said. She asked if Perry would teach her daughter.

"I said, `well I don't know, I've never taught before,'" he said. "`But I can give it a try.' And then it just kind of sprung from there."

As the VAE moves forward, the organization is focusing on early art education, Perry said.

"It's important to try to get arts [to] reach the kids, the early learners," he said. "Especially with art budgets being cut in schools. We try to build on what the art teachers are doing in schools."

The VAE is also working with high school students in music production, and students are also making dolls to give to families in crisis, he said.

"We're embarking on different projects, and just trying to reach out and support others," Perry said. "And trying to get the art bus out more."

The VAE's well-known art bus "came out of a need," Perry said.

"I was taking my 1955 GMC everywhere," he recalled. They found it would be good for them to have a bus to transport kids and carry long poles for making sculpture.

Their solution came in the form of a call from a friend of Perry.

"One of our artist friends called me, and said, `there's a bus on the side of the road for sale,'" Perry said. A farmer in New York had bought it to haul hay on his farm. He also used it to bring his friends to the track.

"That was inspiring, in a way," Perry said. "Here's a guy who used it for work and for play."

They bought it for around $1,200 over 10 years ago, and have been using it ever since.

Over the years, at different events, people have decorated the bus, painting it in its distinctive all-over multicolor.

"I think that the arts genuinely tap into people's souls and make them happy, can make them happy," Perry said.

Over the years, the VAE has worked with some people who have very little experience in art, he said.

"So many people stopped making art in high school," he said. "If the school even has art. Some schools don't have art. When I engage with them, 30 years later, in a workshop or something, and they've never done it before, they're petrified and scared. And usually by the end of the class, they've discovered something in them that has always been there."

Perry recalled a woman, the parent of a child who was helping paint the art bus.

"She ended up painting a butterfly on the bus," Perry said of the woman. "She finally put down her pocketbook, and she relaxed, and she spent about an hour painting this butterfly. She just had a wonderful time, and she was so grateful and so thankful."

She acted like the VAE had done something incredible in her life, but they hadn't — they gave her a safe, nurturing environment to create, and be creative, Perry said.

"`I was never an artist,'" Perry said. "See, a lot of people say that. I think everyone is an artist. It's just a matter of allowing yourself a little bit of time, just to be open and be creative, and try new things, and be willing to fail. For four bad drawings, you end up with one good one."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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