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In Staunton, a Visual Feast of Art

From tiny, out-of-the-way workshops to the better known art galleries, the visual arts play a big role in Staunton’s cultural life, and in the tourist experience.WMRA’s Luanne Austin has the story.

[Sound of paintbrush on canvas]

That is the sound of an artist applying paint to canvas. June Jordan, a student at Beverley Street Studio School in Staunton, is repairing an old painting, vigorously covering a dark spot with pale yellow. Jordan is one of the many students who have studied at the school since 1992. Since that time, Ron Boehmer, a co-founder, has seen the visual arts expand in Staunton.   

BOEHMER:  It has grown and I would like to think we had a lot to do with that. Because what we brought and what the idea of the school was to bring a very serious intention of quality education for people who really wanted to become painters. And we were successful with that.

Downtown Staunton has a thriving arts scene. As Boemher points out, part of the reason is the city’s location at the crossroads of Interstates 81 and 64. From music to theater to the visual arts, many events and exhibits keep the community calendar full. Visitors who come for a show at the American Shakespeare Center find the downtown’s architecture and art galleries to be a visual feast. As a matter of fact, it was Staunton’s art and beauty that made artist Cleveland Morris want to move here.   

MORRIS:  One of  the reasons I moved here—in addition to the glorious scenery and beautiful architectural preservation and the natural lay of the land and the light that you get here—is I was just passing through town on my way to someplace else and I walked up Beverley Street one day and saw a sign on a battered old doorway—my kind of doorway, I should say, peeling paint and dents and knicks—and it was announcing there was an open studio there twice a week, Monday evenings and Friday mornings. Now, if you’re an artist, that’s a sign that it’s a welcome mat. It means there are serious artists here.  

That open studio continues to be offered by Mary Echols, a co-founder of the Beverley Street school, national award-winning artist, and art professor emeritus at Mary Baldwin College. Serious artists do live here, as do art appreciators and students.  Galleries and art-related businesses abound.

[They include the cooperative CoART Gallery, the Beverley Street Studio Gallery, The Michael B. Tusing Gallery, the Frame Gallery, SunSpots Studios and Glass Blowing, the Children’s Art Network Gallery, Morgan-Miles Picture Frames, Inglis Art, Staunton Art Supply, the Barker Gallery, geSHENKe, and Dwell Collective.]

The city’s oldest art institution is the Staunton Augusta Art Center, founded in 1962. It has spacious galleries, a reception area and a gift shop. In her nine years as the center’s executive director, Beth Hodge has seen many changes in the city’s art scene.

HODGE:  And it’s grown in quantity but it’s also grown in quality. It’s been especially interesting to watch the sophistication of all of us: our residents, our professionals, our administrators like myself. And we have now a number of galleries in town, which is absolutely wonderful.

Each gallery in Staunton has its own personality. The Staunton Augusta Art Center generally offers fine art exhibits, but also community-wide opportunities to participate. The CoART gallery features the work of more than 40 area artists as well as students from the Beverley Street school. One of the city’s new galleries is the Dwell Collective. Steve Kiser and his three partners have been doing “live art” together at Staunton’s outdoor events and represent a less traditional approach. Last year, they made a real splash in the downtown art scene when they opened a storefront gallery.

I think over the past few years there have been a few attempts at more contemporary, kind of edgier, newer art as comparted to the traditional landscape. Sometimes it seemed there was a little bit of angst of the younger crowd against that and we got together and we never felt any of that. And so once  we started a year ago we were really embraced by the community to pursue this type of art and this type of scene in the city that people downtown really backed us and wanted this type of element around the community.

Of course, art sells here. At an opening in January at the Staunton Augusta Art Center, Cleveland Morris unveiled a new still life collection he calls Locally Sourced.  

MORRIS:  I have 24 works in this show of which 13 have currently sold so I’m very pleased, I’m very grateful, but it’s also important for the gallery to be able to sell the work too because they have expenses. Somebody has to pay to put those beautiful spotlights on the work, and keep the space open and heated and so forth. So there’s always an element of commerce to art. So yes, it is a good place, I think Staunton is a good place to sell your work.

Locals are not the only ones who buy art here. Visitors and tourists often make purchases at the city’s galleries too, says Beth Hodge.

HODGE:  Now that we’re a tourist destination for the arts, that means we’re clearly making an economic impact on the city of Staunton, and I think our legislators and city council people and board of supervisors are certainly recognizing that and supporting us however they can.

[Painting sound]

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.