Clifton Forge School of the Arts offers wide range of classes

Deep winter causes most of us to retreat indoors, and what better time to practice an old art, or pick up a new one you may never have tried before? The Clifton Forge School of the Arts offers classes in such a range of media, the possibilities are limitless. I spoke with Helen Kostel and Henrietta Crandall, the School’s founders, about how they launched it, and have sustained it for five years. Mrs. Kostel described how in the early days the view was broad, and became more focused as elements like a site and instructors came into play.

“We were the Clifton Forge Company seeking opportunities for better living and the enjoyment of life in this area. That was our initial big view. To make this happen, the president of that organization is a Louise Belmont, and her vision was to create a school in which one would train, one would educate people so they could get jobs, or extend their learning opportunities just for the sake of learning. That was the premise by which we all came together.”

Both agree that just the right mix of community collaboration, talented teachers, enthusiastic volunteers, and serendipity have brought in the students.   While the roster of instructors is about 15 during the winter, it doubles, and so do the class offerings during the rest of the year.

Who did you ask to teach once you had the place to meet?

Henrietta Crandall described the early steps.

“At the very beginning Helen and I went to talk to Chuck Almarez who is the photographer, and Glen Bryant. Those were actually the very first two people who got on board . . .and amazingly, without any hesitation came on board, and so I remember those two particularly.”

Glen Bryant teaches blacksmithing in the Mill behind building on Church Street,, and Chuck Almarez teaches beginning photography through more advanced in the Fire and Light Gallery. Helen Kostel continued,

“Then it was as though some one somewhere got our message. And out of the blue comes Judith Sivonda, and asked if we had any need for a children’s instructor, and art teacher, and she’s been our major force in the children’s department.”

Then along with theses offerings came drawing, painting, music, writing, stained glass, pottery, fiber and needle arts, and woodworking.

Once a contractor was helping complete some work on the somewhat quirky building. On his lunch break he brought in some turned bowls, and a carefully crafted pine bench to show Henrietta and Helen.

“Who is doing all of this? He said, ‘I am.’ We said, and his name is Troy Cotrell, He is a fine wood worker. He does finishing work for contractors who are building homes or rooms. And he’s an engineer as well. He’s helping the Masonic Theater now. But he’s a multiple talented guy and he’s taken us under his wing.”

More and more schools are offering outdoor classrooms, and the one at Clifton Forge School of the Arts should bloom for the third time this spring. Henrietta Crandall explained.

“It’s new, but the possibilities, and potential for additional learning experiences and fun for that garden are endless, because the trees and shrubs are not ordinary, they are really; it’s turned into kind of an arboretum.”

So quite a few grants from the Allegheny foundation and others, constant community support, and the dedication of these two very talented and energetic women make the school a lively hub in downtown Clifton Forge. The second part of this report touches a little more on other individuals and foundations who pitch in, and how they make such a huge range of offerings possible.

“We wanted something. We got then a lead or a gift, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

Story By

Bonnie Ralston

Bonnie Ralston is the Assistant Station Coordinator at WVLS and a Highland County news reporter. She began volunteering at Allegheny Mountain Radio in the fall of 2005. In 2006 she became an AMR employee and worked in Bath County for eight years as the WCHG Station Coordinator and then as the news reporter there. She began working in radio while in college and has stayed connected to radio, in one way or another, for more than thirty years. She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, while spending a lot of time on her family’s farm in Deerfield, Virginia. She enjoys spending time outside, watching old TV shows and movies and tending to her chickens.

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