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Hands-On Art Museum makes art accessible to everybody


SHIRLEY — This is the winter that doesn’t want to end. It seems like every time I bundle my kids up to go outside, it starts to rain, sleet or snow. My 5-year-old son, Sam, likes to watch the weather to see if he will ever be able to stop lugging his snow pants and boots to school.

On March 20, Sam knew it was the first day of spring. He came bounding down the stairs that morning dressed in a tank top that was two sizes too small and a Spider-man bathing suit. It was a bummer when he looked outside to see clouds and rain instead of the beaming sunshine he had been anticipating.

During the frigid days of winter, I was often faced by my three children with the question, “What are we going to do today? Where are we going to go?” In order to cut down on what they think is a humdrum existence, I drove over to the Hands-On Art Museum (HOAM) in Shirley, with Lorelei, my youngest, to check it out.

I met with Nancy Prunier, the museum’s manager, and she gave me a tour of the facility that is located at 3 Lancaster Road in the old Shirley Town Hall building. The HOAM was founded 11 years ago as a place to make art accessible to all children. It started out in Littleton, spent a year in Ayer at the Pleasant Street School, and is now in its (hopefully) permanent location in Shirley.

The mission of the museum is to “make art a part of everyday life and to inspire artistic expression.” Lorelei and I were definitely inspired to create as we walked through the various rooms in the vibrantly painted building. There was a hallway with mirrors for kids to sit and draw a self-portrait while looking at their reflection, and a resource bookcase with art books to relax and look at.

The Universal Studio Room allows kids to make puppets and put on a show in their child-sized theater, while the Sculpture Room has a vast array of recyclables available to construct 3D projects. The Texture and Collage Room gives pint-sized artists a choice between gluing together collages with a variety of materials, crafting a cave painting in a darkened nook in the corner of the room, or making a wall rubbing.

The Colors, Shapes and Lines Room has a magnetic rainbow board to teach about the properties of color and visitors can create their own colorful “mural” using the magnetic shapes and colors that affix to the walls. Finally, there is a Paint Room that allows painters of all ages to experiment with using different tools to paint with. There are combs, squeegees, sponges, stamps and brushes to use with the tempera and watercolor paints.

It is this last room that I couldn’t get my daughter out of. She painted for over an hour using every utensil she could find — she even spent a small amount of time finger-painting. As she was painting, she very excitedly said, “I love it here. There is so much fun stuff!” Lorelei became friends with a little guy named Jameson, 3, who was also enjoying his first visit to the museum. “I like the puppets. I made a puppet show,” he said. His mother, Stacey Carroll, was pleased to see her son so excited about creating things. “It is great to have such a fun place so close to home,” said Carroll, who lives in Ayer.

There is truly something for everyone as you travel through the HOAM. Prunier emphasized that people of all ages enjoy and use the museum. “We have toddlers through adults creating here on a regular basis,” she mentioned.

As you navigate the museum, there are “coaches” who lend a hand or an encouraging voice to the young, and old, Picassos who visit. One of those coaches, Debbie King, of Shirley, came into the Paint Room while we were covered in paint and she said, “All true painters always have a little paint on their faces.” If that’s the case, Lorelei’s art should be in the Museum of Fine Arts.

When we left the museum to go pick up my son, Sam, at school, I was afraid that he might be upset that we went and had fun without him. When I told Lorelei that I was worried about Sam’s feelings, she said, “I know, Mom, let’s just not tell him ” We both agreed that we would pick another day though and show her brother and older sister about our “secret” place.

For more information on the Hands-On Art Museum or their special programs like sleep-overs, pizza and birthday parties or group visits, call (978) 425-6161.