Art All Around Us: Visual Arts Inspire the Community

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By Helena Tavares Kennedy

Prince William County is often applauded for its variety of cultural opportunities for residents, including performing and theatre arts, dance, music, and more. However, some consider Alexandria or other areas in Northern Virginia to be more “artsy” for the visual arts. Luckily, we have more going on in this region than you may think in terms of painting, pottery, photography and other visual arts. We are, in fact, quite artsy!

There are the usual suspects, like the Prince William County Arts Council, ArtBeat Gallery in Historic Manassas, the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory or the Lorton-based Workhouse Art Studio, where you expect to find a variety of visual arts from locals. But you may not realize that art is all around us in this region.

Inspiration in Unexpected Places

While many locals and out-of-town visitors alike attend concerts, theatrical productions and other events at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, they may not realize it’s not just a place for performing arts but also visual arts. On your way to the restroom or while waiting for the show to start, check out the amazing talent of local artists who display paintings and other artwork in the Buchanan Partners Art Gallery inside the Hylton Center. The exhibits rotate every six weeks or so, and the gallery offers receptions and artist talks with wine and light refreshments so that you can get to know the artists personally.

Rick Davis, executive director of the Hylton Center and the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University, said, “One of the great features of our gallery is that it is part of a major performing arts venue, so thousands of people have a chance to see the artwork that might not otherwise be accustomed to seeking out galleries or museum experiences. We like to think we are making lots of ‘accidental converts’ to the visual arts.”

Buchanan Partners Art Gallery gives thousands of people an opportunity to see artwork that they might not see outside of an art museum setting.

One program you may not expect from the Hylton Center is its highly successful and growing Veterans and the Arts Initiative, which features an annual exhibition of veterans’ artwork each November. “The Hylton Center is proud to be the repository of a large curated collection of veterans’ art under the auspices of a program called the Arts and the Military,” Davis said.

So why is art so important to our community? Why should people support the visual arts? Davis offered some great reasons: “Visual arts add meaning, beauty, perspective, and contemplation to our crowded world. Pausing to take in a painting, print, photograph or sculpture, fiber art work, or any other kind of artistic expression allows the viewer to encounter a fellow human being, who has taken the time to distill something he or she feels is worthy of consideration. This is an important counter to the relentless pace of modern life and adds value to the day. One of the great pleasures of my work at the Hylton Center is passing through the gallery each time I go to my office. I almost always stop and enter into a brief inner dialogue with one of the exhibited works.”

It’s not always easy though, as funding and support for the arts is always in limbo and not guaranteed. Davis said, “Teaching young people about making art is so important to their lifelong appreciation of it. We have an excellent show in February—our annual juried exhibition from the students of Prince William County Schools—and the work is literally stunning in its quality and diversity of subject and media. We need to make sure that all students are offered this kind of opportunity to learn the disciplined self-expression that the arts provide.”

Artist Danielle Rush, who owns Occoquan-based Red Art & Design with her daughter Madison, wanted to offer a place for people to create, and she agreed with Davis, “There is value in the creative process itself, the actual art making time,” said Rush. “The experience of art making, no matter the outcome, is good and valuable for all ages. Making art is a skill to be learned, a time to play and an excellent form of self-care. Learning new things is an exciting part of being human.”

As a family business, Rush sells artwork, art supplies and offers instructional art lessons for all ages, including paint nights. “We are passionate about teaching art and offering art to all ages in a fun and educational setting,” Rush said.

When visiting Red Art & Design, you can also buy a variety of art from local artists, who work in diverse materials, including mixed media art, watercolors, oil paintings, acrylics, digital art, illustrations, and more. “When you purchase art from an artist, you are not purchasing ‘a thing’ but a piece of someone’s heart or vision,” said Rush. “That support touches them in a way you cannot imagine. Artists are small business owners, and buying art supports an entrepreneur.”

Rush hopes that area residents will start or expand the practice of art collection: “Artists want to share their art in people’s homes, their workplaces, places of worship and much more. We are here and need you to know it.”

For those that want to start making their own art, Rush understands how difficult it can be to manage your schedule in our area. “Adults make appointments for their art lessons and children have flexible drop-off times for after-school lessons, including portfolio prep for Colgan High School’s advanced visual arts program,” Rush said.

Local artist showcases her painting at Red Art & Design.

Rush points out she isn’t alone in the art scene, however, as Occoquan has many incredible galleries, such as The Loft, Artist Undertaking and Art a la Carte. “Each year we come together as one for Art on the Block to celebrate our accomplishments and to share art with our community,” said Rush. “This event is held annually the day before Mother’s Day, which this year is May 13. Jane and David Ernst (part of Artist Undertaking) are the original creators of the event, while I am the event organizer.”

Another supporter of the arts that you may not know about is Imagine. For its semi-annual art show called “Canned,” the marketing firm, located in Historic Manassas, reaches out to local artists, whose work may be outside of the mainstream, and converts its 3,000 square-foot office space into a gallery for the evening.

What makes Imagine’s show different is its focus on modern and street art that you are less likely to see in area galleries.

“As a graphic design and marketing agency, we feel that it’s important to be involved in the arts in Manassas,” said Imagine President Rebecca Vaughan-King. “As a longstanding partner of Historic Manassas Inc., we coordinate our art shows in conjunction with the city’s twice-annual Gallery Walks, held on the first Fridays of May and November.” “Canned” is popular, and the May 2016 show was filled to capacity.

Vaughan-King believes the visual arts are a way to connect with the community. “Visual arts are a direct demonstration of the culture of our community—what its citizens are thinking and feeling,” she said. “Without that form of expression, our community will lose what makes it truly one of a kind.” Similar to what Rush and Davis said, she noted that the key to keeping the arts alive in our region is ensuring that local schools offer arts programs and connect students to diverse local artists, so they can see a variety of styles, mediums and perspectives.

Most of the pieces displayed at “Canned” are available for purchase. “We believe in supporting artists while they are alive, helping them to both share their talent and make a living from it,” Vaughan-King said.

Don’t go to “Canned” necessarily expecting paintings of pretty flowers or only traditional styles of art. What makes Imagine’s show different is its focus on modern and street art that you are less likely to see in area galleries. “Many pieces in our shows have current pop culture references, some are provocative, but they’re all incredible works of art,” said Vaughan-King. “These types of artists can be under-represented within the Manassas community.” Imagine will next host “Canned” on May 5 as part of the Spring Gallery Walk.

Speaking of unique art, you may think of visual arts as only paintings or photographs on walls, but let’s not forget about pottery and sculpture. This is the type of art you can touch and feel and even use as dishware or everyday pottery, or it could be art to leave on display to admire.

All the pottery and sculptures on display at Manassas Clay are made by local artists from Northern Virginia.

Manassas Clay in Historic Manassas is celebrating its 21st anniversary this year and has been a long-time staple of the region’s visual arts. Owners Fran Newquist and Jane Cullum still offer studio space for budding artists as well as a variety of classes for those looking to learn or expand their knowledge of pottery and sculpture.

All the pottery and sculptures on display are made by local artists from Northern Virginia, and quite a few of them are Prince William artists. Artists pay a fee for their gallery spaces and get a commission on each sale made. One of the biggest benefits is that artists can talk to customers about what they like or don’t like, and they can talk with other artists and share ideas while giving and receiving feedback.

The wealth of resources keeps potters coming back, and the varied levels of workshops also attract newbies as well as longtime supporters and artists. “Working in your own studio can be very isolating,” said Newquist. “Being in a class and having contact with other potters gives you ideas or help troubleshooting. It’s a way to network, share knowledge and socialize.”

Art All Around Us

The Professional Network for Manassas Area Artists (p-ARTners) is a local organization that publicizes art exhibitions, calls for artwork, upcoming workshops and other information for any artist within a 25-mile radius of Manassas. They list where you can find current and upcoming displays, even those in unusual places like local coffee shops, Manassas City Hall and other venues around the area.

While having coffee at Jirani in Historic Manassas, for example, look at the walls. You’ll notice beautiful photographs of newborn babies, artistic paintings of people and everyday things and abstract art that makes you feel a deep emotion even though you aren’t sure what the subject of the painting is. Walk into Grounds Central Station, also in Historic Manassas, and you’ll see the same thing: paintings that look more like they belong in an art gallery than displayed for sale in a coffee shop, next to wall shelves where they sell local authors’ books as well. Grounds Central Station Owner Matt Brower said, “Adding local artwork adds character to the shop. The p-ART-ners group comes in and changes it out every month, so it’s always fresh, and new local artwork is up there for sale.”

So next time you are out and about, take a look around you instead of looking at your phone and enjoy the beautiful artwork that surrounds us. Go a step further and support the local arts by collecting only local artwork for your home or business, attending gallery exhibitions, encouraging more funding for school art programs, or even taking a new art class.

Helena Tavares Kennedy (hkennedy@princewilliamliving.com), a longtime Prince William County resident who is always looking around her for unique local art, is a freelance writer and communications consultant and can also be reached at htkmarketingservices.com and livinggreendaybyday.com.

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