Children take part in a drumming class at the Artistree Community Arts Center
Nestled on a green hillside in the small town of Pomfret in central Vermont, the cheerful yellow farmhouse and adjoining red barn that house the Artistree Community Arts Center blend effortlessly into their peaceful surroundings. But inside, the center hums with activity. On a late fall afternoon, a group of school-aged children arrive at the barn for a painting class. A schedule on the wall highlights classes in ceramics, painting, yoga, and memoir-writing. Steps away at the newly renovated Grange Theatre, a team of carpenters and set designers hammer away on components of a stage set.
At Artistree’s center is Executive Director Kathleen Dolan ‘89, whose dual pursuits as an artist and counselor led her to pursue a master’s degree in Expressive Arts Therapy at Lesley in the late 1980s.
“I had both these things that were important to me—psychology and art,” she says. “Art therapy brings them both together.”
Her belief in the power of expressive art to heal and connect people launched her on a journey to create an arts center that has grown deep roots in this small Vermont community.
She began her first foray into community arts shortly after moving to Vermont from Boston in 2003 with Purple Crayon Productions, offering classes in music and art for young children and families. She had spent years doing music and arts therapy programs in daycare and after-school programs, but now as a new mother in a new town, she found herself searching for a community.
“I had a three-month old baby, and I didn't know anybody,” she says. “I was looking for a structured, regular sort of meet-up group so I could get to know people.”
She found a parents’ group pretty quickly, but finding a comfortable place to gather was challenging.
“We’d find a little spot at the library in town and wall off the spot with books and shelves and so our kids couldn't escape. We’d sit in a circle and chat, and everyone brought a toy, but that's all there was around here. It seemed like there was a need for some sort of gathering place for parents and young kids.”
Purple Crayon expanded, adding programs for older children, adults, and people with special needs. In 2007, Kathleen created the Artistree Community Arts Center, offering new performance and studio spaces and a broader range of programming. After getting her counseling degree, Kathleen started a private therapy practice, never losing sight of the connection between artistic expression and emotional wellbeing.
The center thrived and grew, adding more programs and more employees. In 2014, Artistree moved down the road to its current location. The central farmhouse has offices for counseling; the renovated barn holds galleries, art, music, and movement studios, and a lofty performance space with a stage and seating for nearly 80 people.
In 2012, a former basket factory and grange hall next to the center was transformed into the Grange Theatre, creating another connected space that would combine performing arts and community engagement.
“The original Grange Hall was based on agriculture, but it was also a very social place for when people in town needed a spot to come together and celebrate things,” Kathleen explains.
Today, Artistree employs 16 people and offers year-round programming in art, theatre, music, creative wellness, and more. There are concerts, open mic nights, staged readings, and swing dances. There are vacation and after-school programs for kids, expressive arts classes, and workshops in everything from drumming and restorative yoga to mosaic art, ceramics and playwriting. During the summer, outdoor concerts and performances take place on the grassy hillside.
As Artistree has grown, collaborations have developed with numerous community organizations including not only the local library, schools, and town arts council, but also a therapeutic riding center, the Hartford Autism Regional program, and a local senior center. A long-standing partnership brings clay and mixed media classes to Zack’s Place, an enrichment center in nearby Woodstock for people with severe special needs.
“The longer we’ve been in the community, the more opportunities we’ve had to partner with local organizations,” says Kathleen.
Being at the center of a creative hub requires a lot of juggling. She’s recently reduced the number of counseling clients she sees to spend more time focusing on Artistree’s administrative and leadership areas, exploring new directions for the center’s Creative Wellness programming, and working on her own art. But she hopes that Artistree will continue to transform the hamlet of South Pomfret into a regional arts destination and help build a healthy, more connected community.
“In these smaller, more remote communities," she says, "as an individual, you can make more of an impact.”