Local centers showcase art, performance and more

March 8, 2012 12:00 am
  • A portraiture class at The Associated Artists of Butler County Art Center in Butler.
    A portraiture class at The Associated Artists of Butler County Art Center in Butler.
  • Mary Kay Richardson prepares for a show at The Associated Artists of Butler County Art Center.
    Mary Kay Richardson prepares for a show at The Associated Artists of Butler County Art Center.
  • Lynn Lynch, left, 49, of Latrobe, and Kathy Hochard, 56 of Homer City, share a laugh while taking painting class at Latrobe Art Center.
    Lynn Lynch, left, 49, of Latrobe, and Kathy Hochard, 56 of Homer City, share a laugh while taking painting class at Latrobe Art Center.
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The Benedum Center and Carnegie Museum of Art are well-known as two of the region's major cultural destinations. But the community art centers that dot Western Pennsylvania often are undiscovered treasures that showcase local talent and offer a chance for all to enjoy performance, exhibitions, classes and more close to home.

While such venues vary in size, offerings, audience and hours, they have in common a welcoming quality that extends to anyone who walks through the door.

Here, we highlight a few of them as a part of an occasional series on arts in the suburbs.

'Uncle Mike' in Butler

Mike Rehm is an example of someone who became involved through happenstance and is now central to The Associated Artists of Butler County Art Center, a sprawling former furniture store across from the post office on the town's Main Street. He arrived via AmeriCorps in 2004-05 and has returned as art education director.

"I refer to myself as Uncle Mike," he said. "I have 20 nieces and nephews, and I discovered I'm really good at entertaining them."

Mr. Rehm, 45, studied studio arts at Carnegie Mellon University, with the goal of becoming a "gallery artist." After a break to reassess, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh. A Butler native who moved back to help his mother, he is manager of Butler New Dimension Comics as well as a freelance designer.

He has been a driving force behind the renovation of the art center, which included removing hazardous display platforms from exhibition spaces, updating the kitchen and bathrooms, expanding the clay studio and organizing class and storage areas.

His inventiveness and affection for the center's smallest charges may be seen in the Kid's Art Center, a cheerful children's gallery where ceramic tiles painted by children and fired by Mr. Rehm have been used in bench seats and decorative trim.

The renovation was funded by a $15,000 community and economic development grant and achieved by two years of mostly member volunteer labor, said Paul Scanlon, author of "A Pictorial History of The Associated Artists of Butler County: 1934-2009" and organization president. He is an architectural engineer who also teaches at Slippery Rock University and finds avocational aesthetic expression in photography.

He applauded "sweat equity" for the recent accomplishments, including the removal of "10 Dumpsters full of junk that had accumulated over the years" to open up gallery space on the lower level.

Mr. Scanlon credited the replacement of paid staff with volunteers for the survival of the center, which has a $50,000 budget. "That's how we've stayed afloat."

Two AmeriCorps workers are full time, and Mr. Rehm, who works 10-15 hours weekly, receives a stipend. Funding comes from public and private grants, dues from the approximately 200 members, exhibition entry fees, donations and class fees.

The center holds class fees to $5 an hour for members and $7 for nonmembers, Mr. Rehm said, and he'd like to make them free. A couple of years ago, the center held its first free class day and then the area got hammered with 36 inches of snow.

"I figured no one was going to come but went in to work on the building," Mr. Rehm said. "Fifteen people showed up -- on the snowiest day of the year."

The center is "the only place in the city that does under-21 music," Mr. Rehm said. "It's a safe haven. We have live local bands almost monthly," with names like "Eat the Government" and "Overdose on Vitamins."

He'd also like to restart the weekly Spirit Cafe.

"If someone would want to organize it, book bands, oversee an open mic -- if we could get a core group to do it, we have the space. I think this could be a date night destination."

Mr. Scanlon is particularly pleased with an outreach program the center carried out last year to provide artwork for the bare walls of the new wing for dementia patients at Sunnyview Home in Butler County. Members were asked to submit art of a certain size that addressed Butler area history to provide cheerfulness as well as to trigger patients' memories. About 20 artworks were selected for permanent display there, and each artist received $350 from a donation pool.

While many established local artists exhibit at the center throughout the year, the annual high school and Slippery Rock University student exhibitions draw the largest opening night crowds.

"Those nights you can hardly move in here," Mr. Scanlon said.

Future plans, he said, include taking exhibitions to other local venues and expanding the center's annual invitational exhibition to include West Virginia and Ohio artists.

Art in Latrobe

Director Gabrielle "Gabi" Nastuck became involved with the Latrobe Art Center a little more than a year after its 2002 opening by teaching Saturday drawing classes for children, then doing website development. A Vandergrift native who lives in Latrobe, Ms. Nastuck, 33, earned a bachelor's degree from Saint Vincent College and studied digital design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

"I love my job," she said. "I get to teach, create programs, hang shows, fundraise ..."

That range of responsibility might not appeal to everyone, but it's typical of those working at art nonprofits. And it's typical that people are involved because they are passionate about the work they do.

The center was co-founded by Nancy Rogers Crozier, sister of Fred Rogers, and the late Elizabeth Ogden Hazlett. Ms. Crozier -- who regularly exhibits her watercolor paintings of landscapes, animals and still lifes -- is among more than 90 member artists. Their work, displayed in six exhibitions a year, includes painting, jewelry, fiber, clay, wood and stained glass. All is for sale.

The year-old Coffee Bean Neighborhood Cafe in the center, where the soup is served in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" mugs, is integral to two popular evening programs. The monthly Cafe Nite, which showcases one invited act, will move into the adjacent Fred Rogers Park when the weather warms. Each event has a basket raffle with varying themes.

Weekly Open Mic Nights, which began in October, are equally well attended.

"Anybody can come in and play, anybody can come in and listen, have a coffee, have a dinner, just come and relax. It's been very successful," Ms. Nastuck said.

Some two dozen play weekly, and the audience ranges from high school students to retirees. Performers have included a poet but are mostly musicians.

The center is in the process of adding a lounge area, Ms. Nastuck said. "It will have a warm, comfy atmosphere where people can come and read and hang out."

The center also reaches out to the larger community.

"The Art Among Us" program serves children from preschool and up in two-hour blocks. Children from public and private schools walk to the center, where Ms. Nastuck reads to them.

"We do an art activity, and they're given a free smoothie," she said.

That program served more than 800 children last year, and attendance has grown to 38 for "The Buddy Art Program" for special-needs children.

The center co-sponsors three annual townwide events with the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program: Hot Fun in the Summertime, Autumn Fest and a pre-Christmas Holly Jolly Fest.

More community places

While Butler and Latrobe are broad-reaching, other arts centers vary in activities, specific mission, audience and history.

The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall is mostly a library for residents, but its programming encompasses much more and it contains a Civil War Room that is a gem with national standing, while the Washington Community Arts and Cultural Center focuses on local underserved children and adults. The venerable Greensburg Art Center originated as a twinkle in the eye of artists who began meeting in 1929, while, by comparison, the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks is a relative newcomer, having opened in 2008.

What all of them have in common is an appreciation for the personal and societal rewards of cultural experience and a desire to share with their communities in an inviting, warm environment that just might be transformative.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:13:53

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