Catlin Gabel teachers, students making most of new Creative Arts Center

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chad Faber, director of the Palma Scholars Program at Catlin Gabel School, discusses chair design with a class in the school's new Creative Arts Center.Nance Leonhardt wasn’t among the first Catlin Gabel School leaders to dream of a Creative Arts Center for the campus, but the Arts Department chairwoman experienced enough in her seven years on campus to recognize such a facility was long overdue.

“The majority of our programs were in temporary buildings on the periphery of campus,” she says. “The vocal program did all their practices in an old sheep barn — that still had the essence of sheep, if you will. We had no practice room. Students would practice in the cafeteria, in stairwells.

“There was just no physical space to stretch out.”

With a gleaming, 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building greeting students returning to class this month, the era of barn singing, stairwell strumming, scattered classes and cramped quarters at Catlin Gabel reached a decisive end.

Construction on the $6.9 million, Creative Arts Center wrapped up in August, just in time to welcome 750 students to the 60-acre college-like campus at 8825 S.W. Barnes Road for the 2013-14 school year.

Built on a vacant slope on the west side of the private preschool through 12th-grade campus, the two-story facility provides classrooms, studios and practice rooms for drama, choir, visual arts, media arts and music departments for sixth-graders through high school seniors.

A grand opening celebration for students and their families, faculty, donors and alumni is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Angular and modern on the outside, the building’s interior — complemented by light-colored wood and stainless-steel fixtures — is inviting and naturalistic.

Leonhardt, who also serves as a digital media arts instructor, couldn’t be more pleased with the finished product.

“It accomplishes everything we wanted,” she says. “We didn’t want an ostentatious building. We wanted an elegant, beautiful and thoughtful solution to our needs that honors the legacy of the community, and the sense of community we experience in other parts of the campus.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Catlin Gabel Arts Department Chairwoman Nance Leonhardt gives her photography class instructions in the new dedicated classroom space for the arts.

Inside the box

Anchored by a two-story black box theater on the lower level, the center houses classes, activities and practice areas that occupied 6,786 square feet of space scattered among different buildings around campus.

The main campus-level entrance features a gallery with sliding doors that open to a spacious outdoor plaza. Classrooms and spaces of various sizes provide room for a range of creative pursuits.

While the 750-seat Cabell Center — heavily in demand from students and faculty campus-wide — will continue to serve as Catlin Gabel’s largest auditorium space, the 170-capacity black box theater will provide theater students a whole new dimension for learning, rehearsing and performing.

“The Cabell Center is a space where students are trained on how to run a theater space,” Leonhardt says. “(The black box theater) is more of a laboratory for students to learn to control lighting, set design, how to engage the audience and how to set up seats. There are so many layers there that students have access to and can activate to claim the space for themselves.”

For Elizabeth Gibbs, a Catlin Gabel alum and a drama teacher since 2011, the black box theater ushers in a new level of performance possibilities.

“We’re just excited for the new facilities,” she says. “The actors get closer to the audience, and the audience has a more integrated sense of the experience.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Catlin Gabel's Chris Woodard, left, chats with college representative Josh Beckel in the art gallery of the school's new Creative Arts Center that opened in August.

Long time coming

Talk of a Creative Arts Center for Catlin Gabel, which merged in 1957 from the Catlin Hillside School and Gabel Country Day School, started about a quarter-century ago.

“There are many attempts that have ebbed and flowed,” Leonhardt says. “It’s something that’s historically fallen off the plate of the school’s priorities.”

She credits Lark Palma, Catlin Gabel’s head of school, with reactivating the arts center mission after the Great Recession put a crimp on the capital fundraising campaign.

“She’s been a passionate advocate of the role of the arts being something central to any education, particularly the type we offer at Catlin Gabel,” she says. “I think she saw, and was able to communicate to (parents and donors), that students need to be flexible, adaptable, able to think on their feet. It’s no longer acceptable to let the arts be physically marginalized on campus.”

Palma says she believes the facility fulfills the faculty’s vision of students feeling “like they’re entering a creative cathedral.”

“The arts are a core of Catlin Gabel’s philosophy and are key to a well-rounded education,” Palma notes. “In no other discipline do critical thinking, problem-solving, predicting outcomes, analyzing, re-assessing and creativity come together as they do in the arts. The intellectual challenges posed by visual art, music and theater facilitate learning in all other disciplines.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - From left, Becca Dunn, Will Conyers, Vikram Nallakrishnan, Elena Lee, Zulema Young and Mark Nicholson make use of open space provided by Catlin Gabel's new Creative Arts Center.

Student approved

Senior Thomas Newlands has attended Catlin Gabel since seventh grade. He’s duly impressed with the new facility, where he takes media arts, photography and an honors directing and video class.

“It’s gorgeous,” he says. “I’m always finding things that are new and interesting about it.”

Among other enhancements, the center eliminates quirks in antiquated equipment as well as interruptions that resulted from shared classroom space.

“My freshman year, I took the same (photography) class with a projector that used the wrong colors,” Newlands notes. “We used to have to switch between (computer) programming and the media arts class. Now we have our own space to work with. We can stay later to finish up work without having another class come in.”

With outside groups such as Friends of Chamber Music and Toastmasters already on board to use the building during summer and evening downtime, Leonhardt envisions the Creative Arts Center as a jewel for the larger community to enjoy.

“One thing we’re looking at is creating a richer summer program, with classes for kids or a hybrid of kids and adult classes,” she says. “We’re still waiting for the sawdust to settle a bit.”

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