The highway stretches into the distance as you drive towards South Pomfret, Vermont. The hills get greener, the roads get more desolate, but somehow, you feel more surrounded — by the earth, wind and the quiet of the land.
Then ArtisTree appears: a big red, welcoming barn coupled with a large farmhouse.
The buildings are bordered by large maple trees, a playground, and green grass — soon to be covered in snow — as far as the eye can see.
Kathleen Dolan ’85, founder and owner of ArtisTree, never expected the art education and therapy haven she founded in 2003 would become the entity it is today. What began out of the recognition that the town needed a place for children and their families to learn and explore has grown to become the heartbeat of her rural Vermont community.
Dolan’s path to ArtisTree — an arts education, therapy and exploration center — was unconventional and filled with twists and turns, but the constant was always Dolan’s interest in education. She started her college career majoring in biology with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian. But, she said, it didn’t feel right. After a year at art school in Rhode Island, she transferred to Fairfield University because she knew the importance of a strong liberal arts background, and quickly fell in love with psychology.
“That’s what really got me to stop changing my mind,” said Dolan. “I was just fascinated by psychology. I had some really strong teachers that I really liked and the classes I took were just great.”
Following her graduation from Fairfield, she received her graduate degree in art therapy and moved to Boston to continue taking art classes. She also learned about the Vermont Studio Center — an artist retreat in northern Vermont where she would go, and fall in love with painting.
“I went there for the next three summers for big chunks of time, and at that point I started working as a specialist for young children,” she said. “I decided I wanted to go back to school. I missed art, so I did the MFA program at Vermont College. After that I felt a lot more confident about pursuing art. It was really ego-building for me. I emerged much stronger about my feelings and about my own potential as an artist.”
Dolan’s life took another turn when her father, Charles F. Dolan, convinced her to move to New York City to work for Cablevision, the family business. There, she developed several art and education television shows, including literacy educational shows and art specials, where she was able to reach children on a larger scale. But Dolan soon became disenchanted with television and felt Vermont pulling at her heartstrings.
“In the back of my mind I always knew that I wanted to come back here,” she said.
She found a large piece of land and built a house that included a studio space and started getting back to her own art. At the same time she had her first child and realized that there were no real gathering places for parents with children like her in the area.
“I always toyed with the idea of how nice it would be to have my own spot for a daycare. And I said, ‘Okay, here’s my opportunity.”
Dolan found a small storefront in downtown Woodstock and opened a daycare and art education hybrid she called Purple Crayon in 2003. She was the only teacher, surrounding young children with art and music. Dolan didn’t know anyone, and no one knew her, but it quickly became evident that she was fulfilling the need of many area parents.
After four years, she realized that Purple Crayon could have a serious future. With the help of her friend, Tayo Skarrow, the business grew to the point that she was renting an entire building to meet the growing demand and success of the business. Purple Crayon had expanded beyond children; classes were being offered to adults; new music and ceramics programs began to flourish; and the community was embracing the newest addition to their town. The business’s name changed from Purple Crayon to ArtisTree, a decision made to define the space as one for exploration and art for all ages, not just young children. Dolan had found her passion and her calling. What was once a series of twists and turns had straightened out.
The big red barn and farmhouse at Artistree has only been on the property for a year — a project that was a labor of love for Dolan. It included a full renovation of both, but each still has the character that is expected of Vermont — large wooden planked floors, original beams and the feeling of comfort and encouragement.
When renovating the barn and property, Dolan received some negative feedback, that people in the community felt a commercial business would disturb the small town feeling of South Pomfret. But that sentiment quickly changed from concern to appreciation.
ArtisTree still houses the Purple Crayon Children’s Center for students five years old and under. But, Dolan says, the adult programs have started to grow larger than the children’s programs — something she wasn’t expecting, but something that has her looking towards a very exciting future. She recently purchased 30 acres adjacent to ArtisTree and a building across the street that she plans to turn into a theater. Her vision is an art campus or village where people of all art backgrounds and skills can flourish.
In the meantime, Dolan practices another of her skills: music. A self-taught musician, she and her boyfriend play around town.
“I don’t have any formal training. I took piano lessons as a kid, but just from having friends who are musicians and love to play music, it just kind of developed. We gig out around here,” she said. “I play the flute now a lot more than I ever used to.”
Another twist. Another turn. Another brush of color on Dolan’s ever-evolving canvas.
Learn more about Artistree at www.artistreevt.org.