Being a parent in the Upper Valley requires me to think outside the typical activities box. There are certainly several places to take my kids on a potentially daily, weekly, or monthly basis, but everyone knows about those places: Billings Farm, VINS, the Montshire Museum, the train exhibit at Quechee Gorge Museum. Those places are packed during school vacation and on the weekends, and are at times expensive to frequent. To truly take full advantage of parenthood in the Upper Valley, I have to use word-of-mouth, social media, read blogs, scour newspapers, and wander off the beaten track to find the hidden gems of children’s activities. One such place, the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, NH, is without question one of my new favorite places to take Jax.
I heard about CAOS (appropriately pronounced "chaos"), AVA’s open studio opportunity for families and children, offered on Saturdays, through a friend. I’ve lived here for three years and I had never even heard about it! For $5 I can bring Jax to the gallery and enjoy two hours of creative expression and play, with the studio’s array of materials at our disposal. It’s not often that I can spend five dollars for a morning of fun, so we happily visited AVA last Saturday.
When we arrived, I was blown away by how beautiful the space was. It is a perfect blend of old and new, from the art to the building renovation itself. We were warmly greeted at the door and Jax was shown to the studio where he was given an apron and shown to his very own child-sized easel.
I was so impressed with the way that he was treated; everyone spoke to him, not to me. I love that. They referred to him as an artist and supplied him with a palette with paint and a paintbrush.
It was the least patronizing, most empowering welcome of his short life. “Oh, Jax! What a wonderful name for an artist!” the director exclaimed when she met him. “Well, Jax, if you’re going to be an artist, you must wear an apron.” For a sometimes shy with strangers two-year-old, Jax was put instantly at ease and was comfortable speaking with the staff and asking for help. I was hugely impressed and instantly comfortable myself.
Sometimes the word "gallery" carries a bit of a stigma of stuffiness and seriousness. I could easily see why visiting AVA frequently could turn Jax into a little art-lover, comfortable in museum settings, which would be thrilling for me.
We didn’t take full advantage of all the materials out that day: pastels, modeling clay, dress-up clothes, scrapbook and sewing materials, all accessible to the children in a bright, airy space. We focused on the paint and Jackson was able to make three paintings.
This one is hanging in his room, and he loves to look at that bright blue squiggle and say, "Look! I made a heart!" and then turn upside down to admire his talent. I love building his sense of self-worth.
The staff spoke to him about color and showed him how to clean his brush. He was more serious and still than I have seen him in months. I think he felt proud and grown-up to be treated this way and to be trusted with these materials. In the end, he was as thrilled as I was with his creations. We left AVA happy and fulfilled, with the certainty that this was time and money well spent. We will without question be back as often as we can to explore the studio and take advantage of one of the most valuable hidden gems in the Upper Valley!