Museum awards honors for contributions to art, nature


BENNINGTON — A business owner and musician who has made valuable contributions to the arts community and a group of volunteers who have donated hundreds of hours to caring for the George Aiken Wildflower Trail were honored by the Bennington Museum on Friday.

Greg Van Houten, owner of GVH Studio in Bennington, received the Walloomsac Society Award, given annually since 1991 for "significant contributions to the community in the field of art, history, or education," and the 14 volunteer keepers of the wildflower trail received the General Stark Society Award, established in 1982 to recognize "outstanding service to the museum."

The awards ceremony took place during the museum's fall social.

When Van Houten learned that he would receive an award, "I was flattered, but I don't get a lot of awards, and I don't go to a lot of award things, so I decided I should probably look it up, and really understand what it meant," he said. "And the names that I saw were Polly van der Linde and Mary Geannelis and some other people that mean a lot to me."

He recalled his introduction to the arts community in 1991, when, working on the second shift at a graphics company in North Adams, Massachusetts, he decided that he wanted to take piano lessons. "I was a pretty bad guitar player, and my mother had always drilled into my head that piano is how you learn music," he said. That was how he met van der Linde, the director of the Sonatina Piano Camp in North Bennington.

"I spent an entire winter taking piano lessons, which basically made me a better guitar player and musician overall," Van Houten said.

About a decade later, he met Alexina Jones, currently the museum's acting director for operations. "I had started to perform out, and Alex gave me my first voice lesson ever. She taught me the basics of what I know about singing," he said.

Van Houten dedicated his award to the memory of Geannelis, a community leader who died this spring.

"In 2012, when I was running for select board, [state Sen.] Brian Campion was giving me some advice. One of the things he said is, `You should really talk to my neighbor. She knows Bennington inside-out. She knows everybody.' So I went to meet Mary Geannelis. And she told me — everything," he said.

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Constance F. "Consie" West, chairwoman of the museum's board of trustees, thanked Van Houten for his "tireless advocacy and service to the arts in this region." She highlighted his contributions to Bennington's civic life, including service on the Select Board and the board of the Better Bennington Corp., and as a force behind the new Bennington County cultural plan, "a toolkit for all arts organizations in the area to try to continue to make this region as vibrant as it can be in collaboration with one another."

"We have so much going on here, and if we can just work together, we can be the best that we can be, and Greg knows that," West said.

Jackie Marro, who, with her husband, Tony, established the Aiken Wildflower Trail, accepted the General Stark Society Award on behalf of her fellow volunteers Ray Bolton, Jon Goodrich, Heather Hamilton, Liz Luca, Edd Lyon, Doug Mears, Don Miller, Jane Moriarty, Carolyn Plage, Mary Rogers, Don Trachte and West.

With the removal of some 200 diseased pine trees from the six-acre trail site next to the museum, "this past year has been a particularly important and critical year in the life of the trail," West said in introducing the group. "Those of you who might have seen it in the winter [might have] thought it was a devastation, and wondered what was the museum thinking.

"This spring and summer, over 400 hours have been spent on the trails, for the restoration and maintenance of the trails. These volunteers have been invaluable in getting the natural landscape in order, creating the pathways, continuing to clear the non-native and invasive species, and replanting and nurturing many hundreds of species to make up the sub-base," West said. "If you walk up there, it will be 100 times better than it was, it's going to grow and be beautiful."

Marro presented a history of the trail, noting the contributions of George Hadwen, a publisher and developer who donated the land, and George Aiken, the former governor, U.S. senator, farmer and horticulturalist, who wrote the influential book "Pioneering with Wildflowers" in 1935.

She noted the extensive work done by volunteers over the past 12 years, from the clearing of invasive plants when the trail was established 12 years ago to the addition of the benches, sculptures and signage that make the trail such an enjoyable and educational resource.

"If you haven't walked it, it really is quite special," Marro said. "I think you could say we have a lot to be thankful for."

Though the volunteers are energetic and dedicated, they could always use more help, she told the audience. "When you're done with your session, you can look out and see what you've done - it's instant gratification. And it's fabulous exercise. I try to sell it as exercise with a purpose."


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