Colby-Sawyer Opens New Arts Center

  • Janet Brooks, of West Newbury, Mass., left, talks with Hilary Dana Walrod, associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College on Oct. 10, 2017 in the ceramics studio in the school's new Center for Art + Design in New London, N.H. Brooks was at the school because her son is a perspective student. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Katy Harris and Cody Wilson both Colby-Sawyer College sophomores, work on a personal project in the graphic design studio at the new Center for Art + Design at the school on Oct. 10, 2017 in New London, N.H. Harris was designing a tattoo for herself. Studio arts is one of her majors at the school the other being exercise and sports management. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

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    Bert Yarborough, a professor of painting and drawing and director of the Davidow Gallery, in the Center for Art + Design at Colby -Sawyer College measures before placing names and titles for the "Inner Visions: Selections from the Collection of Beverly Stearns Bernson ’55", on Oct. 10 ,2017 in New London, N.H.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • The Center For Art + Design at Colby-Sawyer College on Oct. 10, 2017 in New London, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • The set of “Sylvia” by A. R. Gurney at the Center of Art + Design - Black Box Theater in New London, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2017 10:00:06 PM
Modified: 10/12/2017 4:23:03 PM

With its pitched metal roof and bold red paint job, Colby-Sawyer College’s new Center for Art + Design could be mistaken for a large and unusually stylish barn, rather than the $7 million, 15,000-square-foot facility that it is.

This resemblance is intentional, said Jon Keenan, professor and chairman of the New London college’s Fine and Performing Arts Department. The design is meant to be “in tune with the nature all around us,” establishing a connection between New Hampshire’s rural heritage and the more forward-looking artistic pursuits that this heritage can foster, he said.

Keenan, along with a team of other Colby-Sawyer faculty, administrators and private donors, has seen the project through some 15 years of planning and development that’s included “countless iterations,” he said. After spending so long on the college’s drawing board, the center opens its doors to the public on Friday, with a free reception from 4 to 7 p.m.

Keenan sees the new building as a major step up from Colby-Sawyer’s existing Sawyer Fine Arts Center, which, he said, has seen better days since it was built around 1960.

“It’s a beautiful, mid-century building … but it’s just tired,” he said. The Center for Arts + Design, behind its traditional facade, boasts solar panels, an outdoor rotating sculpture exhibit, improved facilities that include kilns and a graphic design lab, sweeping views of Mount Kearsarge and the surrounding landscape — and the potential to become an arts hub for New London and surrounding communities, akin to “the AVA Gallery of the Colby-Sawyer area,” Keenan said.

The center was designed by the Connecticut-based S/L/A/M Collaborative, and came in just under budget. The S/L/A/M Collaborative also designed  the 2013 addition to the Ware Student Center and specializes in green, education-oriented architecture.

One of the centerpieces of the space is in the Bill and Sonja Carlson Davidow ’56 Gallery, which at Friday’s reception will open to reveal an exhibition from the private collection of Beverly Bernson, a Colby-Sawyer alum and major collector of self-taught, folk and outsider art. The exhibition incorporates a selection from this latter category and is, curator and gallery director Bert Yarborough said, “an extremely important collection.”

The term “outsider art” — coined in 1972 by the British art critic Roger Cardinal as an alternative translation of art brut, or raw art — reflects its tendency to spill out of the orthodox. But, Yarborough said, the name also reflects the lives of artists who were often outsiders themselves, living at the margins of society: in poverty, in mental institutions, in slavery. The intersection of creativity and oppression is what makes outsider art so powerful, said Yarborough, who is also a professor in Colby-Sawyer’s fine and performing arts department.

“Outsider art is often lumped in with folk art. But outsider artists often feel compelled to create art for reasons outside of economics or fame,” he said. “They are often moved, spiritually or psychically … Oftentimes there’s something visionary, but also something obsessive and compulsive, about works of outsider art.”

The collection includes work by such major outsider artists as Martin Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant who was placed in a catatonic schizophrenia and spent the rest of his days in a mental institution; James Castle, born premature and deaf; and Charlie Willeto, a Navajo sheep herder and medicine man.

Understanding what drives the creation of outsider art, Yarborough said, is especially important at a time when there is widespread anxiety over the future of the arts, and the future of marginalized groups of people in the U.S.

Even Colby-Sawyer, which Keenan said prides itself on the strength of its arts programs compared with other institutions of its size, is feeling this pinch: Last year, as part of significant budget cuts meant to make up for enrollment-related operating losses, Colby-Sawyer laid off several arts professors.

“Yeah, that was really unfortunate,” Keenan said. He’s heartened, though, that the Center for Arts + Design was paid for entirely by private donors who believed in the project enough to contribute to it; one even donated her Steinway piano because, Keenan said, “she wasn’t using it.”

Another highlight of the new arts center is its black box theater. This was of particular interest to Mike Lovell, who is an associate professor in Colby-Sawyer’s Fine and Performing Arts Department and the technical director of the Sawyer Fine Arts Center Theatre.

“I just wanted a clean, intimate, versatile space, and four black walls is all we need for that,” he said during an interview in the theater, which is equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and sound technology. He said the relatively small size of the space only increases its possibilities.

“You can do 10 times more with this,” he said, than with the 600-seat facility across campus in the Sawyer Center. In such a large space, “you tend to have to do these crazy, giant shows that everybody already knows, and if only 80 people show up … it’s just awkward. The whole energy is off.”

On the other hand, in the black box theater, 80 people means a full house. And “you can do 10 times more things with it,” he said, adding that the department has plans to hold music concerts, storytelling events and “some electric, avant-garde musicky stuff.”

Following the reception on Friday, student actors will stage a performance of Sylvia, the 1995 off-Broadway comedy by A.R. Gurney. The titular character is a dog — played in the first scene by Lovell’s own wavy-haired, black retriever, Lulu, and by a student actor thereafter — and the man who takes her home.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the man’s wife sees Sylvia as a young woman, and is jealous when she becomes the apple of her husband’s eye. Eventually the man starts to see the dog as a young woman, too, and becomes jealous that other dogs seem to excite her more than he does.

“(T)he dog pretty much destroys their relationship … but it’s funny, I swear,” Lovell said. “There’s not really a deeper message to it other than that I really like dogs. So the message is ‘dogs equal awesome.’ And cats are the villains.”

Keenan hopes that, by providing an arts venue that incorporates elements of both modernity and tradition, Colby-Sawyer can help to feed “this real hunger that people have for experiencing the arts … without having to go all the way to (the Dartmouth area),” he said.

“Just don’t pass the big red barn, or you’ve gone too far.”

Colby-Sawyer College will celebrate the grand opening of its new Center for Art + Design with a public reception on Friday, from 4 to 7 p.m. Guests will have an opportunity to explore the facility, view an exhibition of outsider art and stay for a student performance of the off-Broadway comedySylviain the black box theater. The event is free and open to the public.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at or 603-727-3216.


The S/L/A/M Collaborative designed Colby-Sawyer’s Center for Arts + Design and the 2013 addition to the Ware Student Center. Banwell Architects, of Lebanon, designed the college’s Windy Hill School. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the architects behind the Windy Hill School.

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