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Bente Torjusen’s Three Decades of Influence on the Arts and the Upper Valley

  • Bente Torjusen, second from right, stands for a picture with her daughters and grandchild, Anna West, left, Vivienne Zayatz West, and Matilda West at her farewell reception at the AVA Gallery, in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday night, December 2, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bente Torjusen, second from right, talks with friends, Stu White, left, Winkie Kelsey, and Pete Kelsey at her farewell reception at the AVA Gallery, in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday night, December 2, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The AVA Gallery's newly constructed facility in Lebanon, N.H. will carry the name of longtime executive director, Bente Torjusen, who is retiring after 30 years of service to the arts community in the Upper Valley. To honor of her, the facility will be named the Bente Torjusen West Sculptural Studies Building. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After thirty of years of service to the Upper Valley arts community, Bente Torjusen is retiring from her position as executive director for the AVA Gallery. Torjusen is proud that AVA has been able to create spaces and programs that are enriching for both artists and members of the community at large. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bente Torjusen, right, looks at a work-in-progress by Carole Travers, of West Lebanon, N.H., during an art class for seniors at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, on Thursday, December 1, 2016. Torjusen, the Executive Director of AVA, is retiring from her position after thirty years of service to the arts community. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2016 10:00:15 PM
Modified: 12/12/2016 4:05:02 PM

About a week before her retirement on Dec. 2, Bente Torjusen, the longtime director of AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, settled a yellow hard hat firmly on her head and left the Carter-Kelsey building on Bank Street to inspect the almost-completed sculptural studio out back, where the construction crew was putting finishing touches on the interior and exterior.

Here, sculptors working in wood, metal or stone will be able to work in a large, energy-efficient space whose numerous windows and high ceilings admit an abundance of natural light.

The building was the last big project of Torjusen’s 30-year tenure as director, which included the considerable task of turning the former H.W. Carter clothing factory into gallery, studio, office and classroom space, with a library.

The sculpture studio, which is tucked into the footprint of a lot that once held an 1890 house, torn down to make way for the studio, will have the official name of the Bente Torjusen West Sculptural Studies building, said Trip Anderson, who officially succeeded Torjusen as AVA’s director this week.

Informally, the building has been dubbed “the Bente building,” Anderson said.

With its low profile, snug fit in the surrounding landscape and colors of gray, blue and red, it has the look of a Norwegian grass-roof house — minus, for the moment, the grass. Torjusen is Norwegian, and grew up near a fjord outside the capital Oslo. The red on the building matches the red found on the staircase railings in the Carter-Kelsey building.

Behind this is a story: when the renovation to the Carter-Kelsey building was almost done in 2007, the prevailing colors were white and gray, including the railings.

This being a building given over to the creation of art in all its colors, Torjusen balked. “I wanted red, I felt like a stubborn child,” she said.

So she called up Stuart White, the lead architect on the building renovation, and he came over with a color chart. Torjusen picked out a beautiful, rich hue — it happened to be called “Lusty Red” — and she got her red railings. The same color is now seen again on the exterior of the sculpture studio, creating a link to the main building.

When Torjusen climbs the stairs to the sculpture studio roof, which will eventually boast grass and a garden, she points to where the railings will be installed. She would like them to be painted yellow. “But the right yellow,” she said emphatically.

Looking over at the main building Torjusen outlined her idea for installing a cafe and bar on its flat roof, and floated a possible name: The Overall View, a nod to both the building’s history and the rooftop’s commanding view of downtown.

“I’m bound and determined to make that happen,” she said.

It’s that perseverance that people remark on when they talk about Torjusen. Her vision of what could be, her ability to bring large projects to fruition and her sense of how to work with people have been hallmarks of her tenure.

“She has a capacity to pay attention to the smallest detail,” said Geri DeLuca, an AVA board member.

What awaited Torjusen that first week after leaving, she didn’t know. Nothing specific came to mind. “A lot is up in the air and that’s OK,” she said.

Torjusen likes the symmetry of numbers and dates, and she knows the power of symbolism, and the accidents of fate.

So she chose as the day of her retirement Dec. 2, the same day that she began work at AVA in 1986. For the party given in her honor at the gallery last Friday she donned the same red Norwegian wool jacket that she wore on her first day at AVA 30 years ago.

She said that a man had come to the party, who had never been to the gallery before, simply because he had seen a sign advertising the celebration. This excited her less on her own behalf, and more because someone who had never been to AVA before had now been inside and, conceivably, might come again.

It’s fair to say that Torjusen, now 72, is so closely identified with AVA’s development as one of the anchors of downtown Lebanon that you don’t think of the gallery and its art programs without thinking about her.

But that hasn’t really been her objective.

More to the point, said Sloane Mayor, chairwoman of the AVA board of trustees, is “how she set AVA up for success, and how AVA has now become an institution in itself. It’s up to all of us as a community to keep it going.”

In 2014, the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce named AVA the Business of the Year. “AVA has really become an anchor of the community in terms of the creative arts and it’s something for Lebanon to be really proud of,” said the chamber’s executive director, Rob Taylor.

“You judge a community not just by its success in business but its success in other realms, which would include the creative arts. (AVA) was an easy choice just given what they were able to do. It’s this incredible juggernaut of success, and Bente is one of the reasons for that,” Taylor added.

Thirty years at the helm was not what Torjusen imagined when she and her late husband the filmmaker and artist Clifford West (who died in 2006, a couple of months into the renovation of the Carter-Kelsey building), and their two young daughters, Matilda and Anna, moved from Italy to the Upper Valley. To say the least, it was a life-altering decision.

“It was a difficult transition. How do you get your feet on the ground and connect with the community?” Torjusen said.

In its early years, AVA (or the Alliance for the Visual Arts) was in various locations in Norwich and then Hanover. Its last stop in Hanover was a small space rented from the Dartmouth Bookstore. Matilda West remembers sleeping under her mother’s desk while she worked.

In 1990, after the bookstore announced that it would expand, AVA had to look elsewhere. The H.W. Carter clothing factory was available — the company had last produced garments there in 1985 — and it struck Torjusen and other then-board members that it had great potential. When they moved in, West rented a studio at around the same time, Torjusen said.

“He so fell in love with the building, and the light,” Torjusen said. West was able to persuade other artists he knew to come look at the building.

Torjusen saw that the building could do more than offer studio space to artists. She envisioned a building that would be completely given over to the making and study of art.

“So if I should give myself a compliment, when I see something that has a lot of promising potential, I display stubborn tenacity,” she said.

In its 26 years in Lebanon, AVA has greatly expanded both the studio and gallery spaces in the building, as well as adding art classes in many media.

In addition to a busy schedule of art classes for all ages, AVA now offers a full complement of community programs, which include: Art Lab, a class for adults with special needs; Art for Kids, a program for chronically ill children; after school art classes; CAOS (Community Arts Open Studio), for children with caregivers; the Senior Art Program, for older people who want to take up or rediscover making art; and The Mudroom, a story-telling program similar to public radio’s The Moth Radio Hour.

At the celebration on Dec. 2, one of the people there was Michael Currier, a 39-year-old who has been coming to Art Lab since 2008. Currier was with his mother Karen Currier and stepfather Gary Shepard, who explained that Art Lab had helped Currier cope with the death of his biological father.

When he began Art Lab, Shepard said, Currier’s paintings were dark and somber, reflecting his grief. As he progressed, Currier’s work became brighter and more colorful.

“It’s really been therapeutic for him,” Shepard said, looking at Currier who sat next to him on a stool, smiling.

Not everyone who takes up art is going or wants to become a professional artist. What the classes at AVA show, Torjusen said, is that art can draw people from a broad socio-economic background and bring them together in an enterprise that is meaningful both to themselves, and the community around them.

“The arts can break down these barriers and it is old hat to think of it in terms of elitism,” Torjusen said.

George Ashton, an art collector who lives in Lebanon, said that he views the gallery and art center as “a huge asset for the community, not just Lebanon. It draws people and artists from within a 50 mile radius.”

Although AVA has received grant money from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, it is largely sustained and supported by the individuals, businesses and foundations of the wider Upper Valley community.

And even though Torjusen is leaving to do other things, Ashton said, the institution will continue on.

AVA’s capital campaign, which targeted $2.5 million in fundraising, is very close to its goal, said Anderson.

That AVA was able to pay off the mortgage on the Carter-Kelsey building in October, and has but a small construction cost outstanding on the sculptural studies building, is a tribute to Torjusen, Anderson said; donors made contributions in her name, he said.

As an institution, it has proven to be a “role model and innovator for the cultural community in the Upper Valley, but its reach is beginning to extend far beyond the Upper Valley,” Anderson added.

Torjusen is a bit weary of the phrase “the creative economy.” It’s used so often that it risks becoming empty jargon.

But there is validity to the idea that institutions such as AVA can contribute indelibly to the life and economic health of a town. And Torjusen expects that AVA will continue to provide community engagement and access for people in Lebanon and the surrounding towns.

“We need to make sure we remain relevant and go deeper and deeper into the community,” she said.

She also would like AVA to offer master classes for artists so they can “constantly stretch and challenge and push forward,” she said.

Now that she will no longer be working at AVA, Torjusen wants to turn her attention back to projects that have been on the back burner.

They include an evaluation and archiving of her late husband’s work, completing an unfinished biography of Edvard Munch, the late-19th century Norwegian painter on whom Torjusen is an expert, and looking at the artistic legacy of West’s first wife, Joy Griffin West.

She will have more time for reading, which she loves, and if she wants to ski or do other winter sports in the middle of the day, she now can.

For now, Torjusen said, she plans to remain in the U.S., because her daughter Anna and her grand daughter live in Lebanon, and Matilda lives in Cambridge, Mass.

She will also make more trips both to her native Norway, where many of her extended family still live, and to Italy, where she and West and their daughters lived from 1976 to 1982.

Norway is particularly lovely in May and June, Torjusen said. And despite its winter cold and darkness, “we don’t have anything in Norway that resembles the horrible mud season,” she said.

In 2013, AVA, as an adjunct to the Smithsonian traveling exhibition “The Way We Worked,” co-produced with CATV in White River Junction and Historic New England the film, Connecting the Threads, about the history of the H.W. Carter factory and its workers. (It was later given a 2013 Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History.)

One of the people interviewed for the film was the daughter of one of the factory’s former owners. She remarked that AVA was functioning, just as H.W. Carter and Sons had for decades, as a social and economic engine in Lebanon.

“I was so pleased by that,” Torjusen said. “She was acknowledging role of the arts in the community.”

After West’s death, Torjusen relocated from their home in Norwich to Lebanon. Oddly enough, she lives in a Greek Revival house dating from around 1840 that used to belong to Stanley Jackson, one of the owners of the H.W. Carter factory, a fact of which she wasn’t aware when she moved in, but later learned.

“It’s like Kismet,” she said.

It’s a short walk from Torjusen’s house to the Carter-Kelsey building, the earliest part of which dates to 1859. With the addition of the new sculpture studio, AVA Gallery and Art Center represents three centuries of commerce and art in Lebanon, and it is likely to endure.

Torjusen is proud of what she and the community have achieved with AVA, but she is not overly sentimental about her role in it.

“Some things should last for ever, but other things shouldn’t,” Torjusen said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.


Preston "Pete" Kelsey attended a farewell reception earlier this month for Bente Torjusen at the AVA Gallery and Art Center. His nickname was incorrect in an earlier caption to this story.

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