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Art center marks 75 years with student art exhibit

  •  Robert Eshoo, former director of the Currier Art Center, teaches a class in the 1970s.

    Robert Eshoo, former director of the Currier Art Center, teaches a class in the 1970s.

  • Current Currier Arts Center director Bruce McColl supervises his class.

    Current Currier Arts Center director Bruce McColl supervises his class.

  •  Robert Eshoo, former director of the Currier Art Center, teaches a class in the 1970s.
  • Current Currier Arts Center director Bruce McColl supervises his class.

Art is more than busy work for kids at the Currier Art Center, and what they produce is more than something sweet to hang on the fridge.

Robert Eshoo, former director of the center, said the 75th anniversary exhibit now on display there “shows is what can be done with children.”

The kids “get excited when the teacher comes out with a new idea they’ve never seen before or heard before and they execute it. . . . They just express themselves, and that’s the whole idea, rather than having them sit down and copy something out of a book or color a coloring book. They are inventing and executing thoughts from their own minds,” Eshoo said.

The life and times of the Currier Art Center will be showcased through March 9 in the exhibit “Transforming Lives Through Art: 75 Years at the Currier Art Center.” The exhibit includes artwork by children, preteens, teens and adults from the museum’s in-house and outreach classes. There will also be space available for guests to create their own works of art.

“The show has two primary focuses: one is on student artwork produced over the fall semester, and the other purpose is to show the impact the Currier as an institution has had on individuals and families over the past 75 years,” said Bruce McColl, director of the Currier Art Center. “When you see the show, you can’t help but be kind of overwhelmed by sort of the joy of the show. Because it’s a very spirited show, in the way that only a community arts school can do.”

It all started in 1939 when Maud Briggs Knowlton, director of the Currier Gallery of Art at the time, established a studio program called the “Children’s Annex,” armed with the knowledge that in-studio experiences enhance art appreciation. The studio space for the program was inside the Kennard House, a two-story residence north of the Currier. The Kennard House was eventually moved to the intersection of Beech and Orange streets in 2005, and housed the Art Center programs from 1939 to 1996.

In spring 1958, artist and educator Eshoo came on board as director of what was then the children’s art program.

“When I came in, we had a faculty of four people and had roughly maybe 90 students,” Eshoo said. “And over the years, it just kept growing.”

Eshoo was passionate about expanding the possibilities when it came to arts education for children and teens and wound up establishing some of the best-known programs at the center.

“Most of my faculty came from the Concord area,” Eshoo said. “We taught the children the fundamentals in working with clay and paper and wood and all other materials for sculptural objects, but also paint, like poster paints and watercolors. And for teens we had an oil-painting class, and that expanded to all kinds of other media like egg tempera and gold leaf.”

The main goal of the art center was to foster a love of art, to teach kids what they needed to know and to give them the skills they needed to pursue art in a serious way as adults if that’s what they chose. And many did. Art center alumni include nationally known artists such as sculptor and furniture-maker Jon Brooks and painters Katherine Paras and George Woodman. Past art center instructors include former New Hampshire artist laureate and ceramicist Gerry Williams and Joseph Trippetti.

Linn Krikorian, current program manager at the museum, was also a student around this time.

“I actually came to the Currier as a teenager,” Krikorian said of her first classes, which she took in 1967. “I actually felt at the age of 15 that I wanted to do something with art and go to art school.”

She said her mother connected her with Eshoo, who looked at her work, suggested classes for her to take and quickly became her mentor.

“He was just absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “There was kind of like nothing that he couldn’t do or teach.”

Krikorian did go on to study art and worked in Philadelphia and New York for years before deciding she wanted to come back home to Manchester and the Currier. Eshoo offered her a job teaching, and despite initial trepidation, Krikorian took to it and has been there ever since.

“I think it made such an impression on me because the art center was such a welcoming place and the people at the museum were always extremely welcoming of the students and encouraging,” she said. “It really set the stage for a lifelong love of art.”

In addition to the impact on the lives of individual students, Eshoo said just getting kids and their parents into the museum to see the kids’ exhibits had an immediate effect on the community.

“You’d have people, some of them had never been to a museum before, coming in to see their child’s work and then lo and behold they’d start to come back to see other exhibits,” Eshoo said.

Eshoo retired from the museum in October 1995 and was replaced as director by one of his instructors, Phyllis Randall. In her time at the museum, the Art Center moved from Kennard House to its current location in the Pearl Manor building at 180 Pearl St. In 2005, Bruce McColl was hired as director of the newly named Currier Museum Art Center. McColl’s first order of business was to expand outreach and create new offerings for children, teens and adults, as well as classes with living artists represented in the Currier collection. The center now employs 35 instructors and teachers 1,500 students per year.

It’s in this same spirit that McColl curated the anniversary exhibit. As he was curating the show, he took three objects from each decade of the museum’s existence that represented that decade. He then challenged the teachers to develop curriculum inspired by those objects and the students to create unique works inspired by those pieces.

“One of the greatest assets that the Currier has is obviously this very strong collection, joined with this very strong and vibrant community visual arts school,” McColl said. “And the two very unique assets of the Currier play out very beautifully in this show.”

The Currier Museum of Art is at 150 Ash St. in Manchester and is open every day except Tuesday. For information, visit currier.org or call 669-6144, ext. 108. Tours of the museum are offered at 1 p.m. on the days the museum is open.

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