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A Garden of Artists: The Art Department Fills Reichhold with Life & Color

In “The Secret Garden,” a young girl raised in India finds herself living on her uncle's English estate. Exploring the grounds, she discovers the remnants of a beautiful walled garden locked up and nearly forgotten. She is convinced that it can be cleaned out, replanted, and made to grow again. After enlisting her friend to help rip out and cut away the dead bits, the garden blossoms into a beautiful palette of color and life.

Colby-Sawyer College has its own secret garden of sorts, but it's a secret no longer as the Art Department makes the Reichhold Science Center more and more its own, transplanting one discipline after another into the building so that the hallways now blossom with artwork. The move comes as part of a plan to improve students' classroom and work environments in the short term, and to prepare for a brand-new Fine and Performing Arts building in the long term.

When the Curtis L. Ivey Science Center opened in 2004, the laboratories of Reichhold (built in 1962) were locked up and forgotten in favor of the new facility. Except for a few adjunct faculty offices, and the smart classrooms that were still used, the place was essentially abandoned.

Fine and Performing Arts students, meanwhile, had outgrown their space in the Sawyer Center and were scattered across campus: The photography students could be found printing images in Colgate's basement while painters mixed their oils in the attic. The drawing and printmaking students shared a studio in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center, while the Introduction to Art students occupied Gordon Hall, along with the chorus, acting students, a piano and piles of art supplies. Watercolor, Graphic Design and other classes were scheduled one after another in the same space, making it difficult for students to come back after class and work on their projects.

The need for a new art center has been growing for several years, and the college is now in the planning stages of a campaign to raise the funds for a new facility. Chairman of the Fine and Performing Arts Department Loretta Barnett didn't want to wait until construction was complete to improve students' educational experiences, however, and she set her sights on the empty Reichhold as a temporary home for the arts.

Making Something of Nothing

“They're going to demolish almost all of the Sawyer Center, so we knew we had to go somewhere, and this empty building seemed like the best possibility,” said Professor Barnett. “Last year I asked Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deb Taylor if we could have the space and she said yes, but that we wouldn't have any money to rehab the space. That's OK; artists since the dawn of time have rehabbed neighborhoods.”

“We call this our SoHo, it's south of Hogan. No one else was interested in the space, the labs were just sitting there all dark and scary,” she added. “I think sometimes artists see more possibilities. We've always been willing to do a lot with not much, to make something out of nothing.”

Think of the most furnished, lived-in room in your house. Think about your books and collectibles, the odds and ends, the breakables, the beloved. Then multiply those objects by a hundred and imagine packing everything up and moving into a chemistry lab. That was essentially the task that lay before the Art Department.

Before anything could be moved anywhere, though, lab benches, sinks, gas spigots and other old uglies had to come out of Reichhold. Faculty from the Tilton School had first dibs on anything that could be reused in their labs, and then Professor Barnett and her husband started pulling out lab benches, cabinets, incubators and more. The slate-topped benches and sinks were heavy and hard to move, but once they were sent to a salvage company, the Facilities Department came in to remove the plumbing.

“We started working with Al Lemire and all the crew down there,” said Professor Barnett. “Bob Morse really took on the project, while Dick took out all the electrical wiring and made it safe for us. Anything we couldn't get rid of right off, we moved down to what we're calling Chernobyl. It really is a disaster area of leftovers.”

Can-Do Spirit

Professor Barnett's husband and son got in on the act, putting down linoleum where the lab benches had been, painting walls and hanging pin boards.

Room 204, the first big project, was done in time for last spring semester. Professor Bert Yarborough and other members of the Art Department put all the drawing tables and materials in a college van and drove over to their new home. Professor Barnett estimates that there's up to four times as much space here for the drawing students, and in the back of the studio there's even room for individual students to set up work areas.

“At the present time, Reichhold is terrific, especially for the drawing students,” said Professor Yarborough. “When all the departments get over here, though, it's going to be very crowded and probably a bit difficult. The Sawyer Center is a totally inadequate space, though, so this is a good temporary solution.”

Painting and photography were next to move, this time with the help of a small budget, and the Barnett crew reprised their role as remodelers. For drawing and painting students, the move to Reichhold means that instead of working on a small desk area, they're now able to enjoy the “pedagogical environment” of standing at new easels built by a local welder.

In Room 208, a space filled with natural light from tall windows, senior Chris McClellan worked on the background of a new piece and commented, “I like this place, the light's better. It's not cold like Sawyer was, and it's really close to my residence hall, too, which is great.”

While painting students lost their individual work areas on the fourth floor of Colgate when they moved, Professor Yarborough says the trade-off is that they're now more a part of the larger arts community.

“They really liked working in Colgate, but they were too separate,” he said. “They need to see what everyone else is doing. In Reichhold, we're using the hallways as gallery space so students can see others' work.”

Enlarging their Space

Professor Linda Ost and her photography students are stretching their legs in a freshly painted, newly rehabbed corner of the lower floor. Instead of a small area stuffed with enlargers, studio equipment and other essentials of the art form, Professor Ost now oversees a studio space, a film changing room, a darkroom with 10 enlargers, a computer area with brand-new machines, and an office that Facilities built for her.

“It's nice to have a separate classroom and storage. I love our area, it's so nice and organized,” she enthused, noting that the students are really invested in the new space. “They even hang out here to pass the time, something they never did before.”

Charlie Belvin, a senior graphic design major from Cheshire, Conn., has taken photo classes in both the old and new spaces, and says there's no comparison between the two.

“There's more room here in Reichhold, for sure,” he said. “In Colgate, the main room was smaller than the new one and the dark room was cramped, we could barely get around the table.”

“It's a lot better here, there's a lot more space for equipment. We can actually do digital work and Photoshop stuff now,” he added. “I get more done in class now instead of walking into people; it's easier to get in groups and get it done as a team instead of having to come back later because it was too crowded in class to work.”

Another summer project included outfitting a room for watercolor classes. Here the lab benches with sinks proved an asset and remained in place, as did the electrical outlets at each bench that are now powering hair dryers to dry paintings. Moving into Reichhold 207 means the artists no longer have to worry about expensive watercolor paper dropping into graphic designers' glue in their old shared area, and graphic designers have increased access to their own workspace back in the Sawyer Center.

“We felt we really could improve our students' work environment by coming over here with as many studios as we've fixed up, and the students all love them,” said Professor Barnett. “We've renovated the social environment here as well. It's hopping, there's music playing - it just feels alive. We want all the disciplines together to have that artist culture here, to build ideas.”

While ceramics, printmaking, graphic design and sculpture remain in the Sawyer Center for now, those students are benefiting from the move as well, with a bit more room and relaxed scheduling for the spaces.

Just the Beginning

The goal of uniting all the art disciplines under one roof remains a dream of the college, one that is shaping up to become reality. Colby-Sawyer President Tom Galligan announced in the 2007 Annual Report, a publication distributed to alumni and donors, that a “new arts center is necessary to strengthen and expand our arts programs.”

While the building process will mean big changes – and challenges – for the entire campus, the new building will also benefit every single student, President Galligan asserted, because everyone is required to take a Fine or Performing Arts course as part of the college's Liberal Education Program. About 100 students major in the arts, while many others minor in them.

“A new arts center will transform the entire college," President Galligan wrote. "It will energize and support the spirit of the arts at Colby-Sawyer, elevate student and faculty morale, spark new interest from prospective students and reignite our vibrant connection to the surrounding region."

While the architects continue to fine-tune their drawings, Professor Barnett keeps one eye on the future and the other on Reichhold. As with any garden, there's always more to do, she says, including clearing out “Chernobyl” for the ceramics students.

“It's hard work, but it's good,” she says. “And I think we've shown the rest of the college that Reichhold has possibilities. It was an awful science building that no one wanted to enter, and people thought it would take too much money to rehab. A little community spirit, though – which this college has always had – goes a long way toward making things affordable and doable. The students are better off now than they were, and they'll be even better off in the new building.”

-Kate Dunlop Seamans