Smyth County’s Art Scene

by Linda Card

Exploring Smyth County’s art scene, I’m impressed and inspired by the number, variety and quality of art studios and galleries to visit. Smyth County clearly supports and encourages local artists, craftspeople and artisans. When looking for things to do when visiting Smyth County, VA, consider visiting these art studios and meeting talented local artists. As you marvel at their creations, you too may be inspired. 

A Different Kind of Gallery: Ammi’s

Upon seeing the name on the Main Street storefront in Marion, Va., I thought, “What the heck is a Barbershop and Gallery?” That’s exactly what it is: Ammi Fields, owner of the shop, is a barber first. The art gallery is his homage to his late father, the well-known artist William Allen Fields.

Ammi’s full name is William Ammi Fields. His father gave him his middle name, which means “my people” in Hebrew. The reverence Ammi feels for his father is obvious in conversation. 

“I wanted to have my own barbershop and a creative space where I could display my father’s paintings,” he says. “He painted on burlap sacks stretched over barnwood frames.” 

To Ammi, William Allen Fields’ unique paintings are personal and represent their family history. The paintings hanging in Ammi’s art gallery include his father’s childhood home, a scene of his father and grandparents at the Marion train station, and a self-portrait of William Allen holding his infant son. 

Hairstyles as Art

Ammi opened his barbershop and art gallery on January 1, 2023. His regular barbershop clients appreciate his attention to detail and welcoming personality. 

“Haircuts are my art,” he says. “Men these days focus on their appearance, and I prefer to take my time to do my best work. A haircut is an expression of personal style, and for me it is a creative process.” 

The social aspect of the barbershop is also important to him. He’s part philosopher, part sounding board and always willing to share his thoughts and his hearty laugh.

As a new exhibitor in the art world, Ammi is learning as he interacts with other local artists and galleries in Smyth County. Some of his father’s paintings are on display at The Art Place in the town of Chilhowie. In exchange, The Art Place has provided several works that are on display in Ammi’s gallery. 

“My vision is to have regular showings, exposing the public to different artists,” Ammi explains. 

He invites local artists from Smyth County to contact him to set up an exhibit.

Pursuing His Goal

Ammi sees himself as the caretaker of his father’s work, stating, “My goal is to make sure my father’s artwork is shown.” 

William Allen Fields was honored with an exhibit at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Va., after his recent death. His goal, recorded in a journal that Ammi has, was to have his work displayed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. Ammi hopes to achieve that goal for his dad. 

Ammi’s Barbershop and Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. You can reach Ammi at 276-274-2667 or find him on Facebook. The shop is located at 201 E. Main Street, Marion.  

Ammi Fields, owner of Ammi’s Barbershop and Gallery in Marion, VA.

The Ford Studios

At The Ford Studios in downtown Marion, Va., variety is on display. This local art studio and gallery features pottery, painting, glass blowing, fiber arts, stained glass, watercolor and more. Owners Rachel Gibson and Jon Ives display their own work, as well as other artists’ work, at the studio.

Rachel Gibson and Jon Ives met while in graduate school in Colombia, South Carolina. They moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and decided to open their own studio. 

“While we were searching for the right place, COVID hit, and everything stopped,” Rachel recalls. “My mom was in Kingsport, Tennessee, so we moved there. We found Marion when I did a commission for a resident here. Then we found this old Ford dealership building and were able to rent it.”

After some renovations, they moved into the building in September 2020 and opened The Ford Studios on Thanksgiving. They kept the name and duplicated the design of the old sign for their logo. Now, the studio is doing well, thanks to local support, commissions and online sales.

Changing Displays

Rachel and Jon feature a new exhibit at The Ford Studios six times per year, each based on a theme. The Ford Studios is known for its changing window display which announces the latest exhibit. The exhibits feature works by 12 to 18 artists from around the U.S., including several Virginia-based artists. Some are artists Rachel and Jon know personally, while others contact them with submissions. 

“We sometimes put out a call for entries to get new artists,” says Rachel. “Unlike some galleries, we do not charge a display fee, and we keep our commission lower than most places.”

Jon and Rachel value Smyth County’s community support and encourage participation in local events. They are members of the Art League of Marion and point to it as a resource for local artists. 

“The community involvement changed our business,” recalls Rachel. “We are a retail store, and at first we did not expect that local folks would shop here, but now they are our customers. There was a misconception that we were not open for business. People assumed that all our work is very expensive, but it’s not. We make sure it’s affordable and accessible.”

Staying Busy

Jon’s specialty is pottery, and he works with his wheel on site at The Ford Studios. His pottery classes have become popular for Smyth County locals and visitors. 

“I used to have eight to 10 students per year,” Jon says, “and now I have 50 to 70. The students have a finished piece at the end of the class.” 

Rachel also offers a multimedia art class, combining painting and sewing to create a unique piece.

Today, the challenge for Jon and Rachel is keeping The Ford Studios stocked. They stay busy producing art, managing the studio, teaching classes, selling wholesale and online, and completing commissions with no plans to slow down. 

As Rachel reminds us, “The traditional ninth wedding anniversary gift for married couples is pottery, so come see us.”

The Ford Studios is at 103 Pendleton Street in Marion and www.thefordstudios.com. Regular hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 6 p.m. You may call them at 276-781-3406.  

Local art studio and gallery, The Ford Studios, in downtown Marion, VA.

The Art Place Is a Family Tradition

Appropriately named, The Art Place gallery in the town of Chilhowie, Va., is the place for art and has been for 32 years. In 1991, Edna Love opened the original Art Place in a Main Street storefront in Chilhowie. I visited the current Art Place on Lee Highway and talked with the owner, Diana Love, Edna’s daughter. Diana and her family are continuing the work Edna started, pursuing her mission to bring art to her community.

A multi-talented artist, Edna Love worked primarily with stained glass. She was also a highly respected art teacher, spending 32 years teaching in the Pulaski County Public Schools. But perhaps above all, she was a tireless, persistent promoter of art in all its forms and contexts. Any visit to The Art Place should start with reading Dr. Randy Vaughn’s eulogy. This text hangs alongside a portrait of Edna, who died in 2016. It provides a full appreciation of the life of Edna Love, her own artwork, and all she did to promote art in Southwest Virginia.

Moving Forward

The Art Place’s new location opened in September 2022 with a display of Edna Love’s work. In Spring 2023 the gallery held a Youth Art Show, displaying over 200 artworks from students throughout Smyth County. Encouraging school and community involvement are priorities for Diana Love and her family. The Art Place’s summer exhibit, called the Menagerie, featured works by 18 local Smyth County artists, including portrait photographer Cindy Goff. The current exhibit, titled “Fields + Heffinger,” includes paintings by William Allen Fields and a variety of works by Polly Heffinger and her son Tom. Polly specializes in beadwork and painted gourds, while Tom excels at wood carving. The collection is privately owned with individual sales up to each artist. 

“We’ll start 2024 with an exhibit of works by local educators who are also artists,” Diana states. “In March we’ll have another Youth Art Show, which was so well received in 2023. We plan three or four shows per year.” 

These shows are curated by Liam Besneatte Cullinane, the gallery manager. Liam graduated from Emory and Henry College with which the gallery has had a long relationship. 

“Liam is such an asset for us,” says Diana, “He is very talented and has a good eye for art. He hangs all the exhibits for us and does a wonderful job.”

Carrying On Edna’s Work

Another focus of The Art Place is to offer art classes, continuing the work Edna began years ago. She offered classes in her small gallery on Main Street. Currently the gallery hosts classes in various fiber arts each Thursday evening. They expect to expand offerings in the coming year and welcome volunteers who would like to teach.

With the support of family, friends and fellow art lovers, Diana has applied for 401K nonprofit status for The Art Place. Approval will allow her to raise funds to maintain the gallery and to grow. 

“We kept the name The Art Place as a tribute to my mother because so many people’s lives were touched by her efforts,” Diana shares. “Our goal is to carry on my mother’s mission to provide art opportunities for all ages in the community.” 

The Art Place is located at 124 E. Lee Hwy., Chilhowie. Current hours are Thursdays, 4 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by appointment at 423-612-3771. Visit the website at www.chilhowieartplace.org

The Art Place owner, Diana Love, with gallery manager, Liam Besneatte Cullinane.

Studio #4: A Calling

Donna “Suzie” Johnson has always been inspired to create art. Born and raised in Marion, Va., she completed a degree in art education at Emory and Henry College. After retiring as an art therapist from Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute, she felt a calling. 

“I felt a prompt in my heart while I was at church,” Suzie explains. “It was a sign from my higher being that I need to be in Marion and share art with the community.” 

Suzie and I visited in her studio, surrounded by paintings and her family. Prior to her current location, she had three other studios, named Eternal Arts in tribute to her calling. Studio #4, her present site, opened in May 2022 after building renovations were completed with the help of her brother.

Family Matters

Suzie’s daughter, Abby, teaches classes and hosts craft parties at Studio #4. She uses a Cricut machine to create designs for wooden trays and signs. Beading classes for kids are popular for birthday parties. Abby’s daughters often spend time at the studio and enjoy drawing and weaving. Suzie’s sisters, Martha and Lynda, also help out while they all enjoy family time.

Most of the paintings hanging in Studio #4’s gallery are Suzie’s oil paintings. 

“I prefer using oil because I can add layers and create texture,” she says. “I also do watercolors, pottery and weaving. I started painting on old windows when a friend asked me to do one for her.”

An African Experience

One of Studio #4’s walls features a collection of children’s paintings. 

“These are all special to me,” Suzie says. “I had the opportunity to go to Kenya to teach art to school children. They all painted pictures, and I asked them if I could hang their work in my studio here. They remind me of that meaningful visit.”

 She also did some oil paintings inspired by the African landscape.

In the back of the studio, Suzie’s pottery setup includes a wheel, molds and a kiln. She plans to offer pottery classes and add her own creations to her gallery. Plans also include developing a website and online sales to increase business. Most of the work in the gallery is for sale, and Suzie does commissions. She recently did 24 themed paintings for a business in Abingdon. 

Spreading the Word

I asked Suzie about her thoughts on Smyth County’s art scene. 

“I’m happy to see a greater awareness and appreciation of the arts here recently,” she answers. “While we have a concentration of galleries in Marion, we all complement each other, and there’s room for more. Through the internet, I often have visitors from other states, Appalachian Trail hikers and art lovers.” 

After being away for several weeks due to health concerns, Suzie is eager to create her art with renewed energy and vision.  

Studio #4 is located at 131 E. Main Street in Marion, Va. Art classes and craft parties can be scheduled by calling 276-685-3407. Regular hours vary, so call ahead.

Donna “Suzie” Johnson, owner of Studio #4 in Marion, VA.

Sharing the Appalachian Spirit of Art

Community support and a sharing spirit are the foundations of the Appalachian Spirit Gallery in Marion, Va. 

“We started out showcasing artists in Marion, then included all of Smyth County, and eventually the entire region,” says Ann Hull, treasurer of the gallery. 

When I visit the gallery, I am amazed at the variety of artworks on display. They include paintings, jewelry, fiber arts, photography, quilts, basketry, glasswork, pottery and marquetry — all from local artists! 

In 2005 a group of Smyth County residents formed a nonprofit cooperative to create the gallery. They have 15 board members, all of whom are volunteers who run the gallery. The gallery is housed in a building with a long history. It was once the home of the Copenhaver family with a car dealer on the lower ground floor. Lola Poston, the artist who painted the murals in the Lincoln Theatre, lived in the home. More recently the city police department and jail occupied the building. Now it is owned by the city of Marion, which provides all maintenance while allowing the cooperative to use the building. 

“The city is very good to us and so supportive,” says Ann. “They are happy to preserve this old house, and we did a lot of work to move the gallery here.”

Hosts of the Art Walk

The focus of the board is to promote local artists by advertising and displaying their work. Each month the Appalachian Spirit Gallery showcases a different local artist. From May through December, Appalachian Spirit hosts the Art Walk on the second Friday evening of each month. In addition to the display of the guest artist, a local musician provides music, and volunteers bring snacks and drinks for visitors. It’s a festive event, sponsored by the Bank of Marion.

“The art scene in Smyth County is much better than it used to be,” says Ann. “We see our gallery as complementary to the other art outlets in the area. We are noncompetitive and have helped many other nonprofit groups get started. We want to encourage and facilitate the art community.” 

They work with students from Smyth County schools, Wytheville Community College and Emory and Henry College in art education. 

Resident artist and board member Ned Johnson has several works on display at the Appalachian Spirit Gallery. 

“I was the art teacher at Sugar Grove and Marion Jr. High before I retired,” Ned explains. “Now my students are contributing their work here, and it’s great to see them.” 

One former student is Mina “Mirkwood” Goodman, who is one of the monthly guest artists displaying her work. 

The gallery is funded through donations from individuals and local businesses as well as a small fee for membership. It never charges a commission for displaying and selling artists’ works with 100% of the sale price going to the artist. In return, some artists donate a few pieces of their work to the gallery with proceeds of any sales staying at the gallery.

Volunteers Needed

“The main goal for the future of the gallery is to attract young people who will participate on the board. It takes dedicated volunteers for the gallery to remain open,” Ann states. 

It’s never about making money for these folks. It’s all about encouraging creativity and helping new artists make their way in the spirit of sharing. All are welcome to visit and join in this community effort.

You can find The Appalachian Spirit Gallery online at appspiritgallery@yahoo.org. It has limited hours but will open by request if you call ahead: 276-706-2909. The location is 144 W. Main Street, Marion. 

Appalachian Spirit Gallery resident artist and board member Ned Johnson.

Preserving Appalachian Arts

The Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts is truly one of a kind, offering a variety of hands-on classes.  My visit with Executive Director Catherine Schrenker was eye opening and engaging. She is a champion of the arts and “the Henderson,” as it is known.

In Indiana, Catherine studied and taught color theory at a university. She relocated to Bristol, Va., in 2001 to be near her brother, then moved to Abingdon, Va., in 2008. When she learned that the (then-named) Appalachian Heritage School was seeking a director, she knew she was a perfect fit. She convinced town leaders and was hired in 2014 as the old building was being renovated. 

“Now, nearly ten years later,” Catherine says, “I’m excited to come to work every day!”

The city of Marion now owns the historic building. It was saved from demolition in 2012 by a group of local citizens who wanted to create an arts center. They formed a nonprofit organization and received multiple grants to fund the restoration. 

“We scheduled an open house in 2015, and some folks thought it would be a bust,” Catherine recalls. “But the community really came through with donations and volunteers, and we had over 800 guests at the open house party! It was great to get all that support.”

Their Flagship Course

Early on, the board of directors felt they needed a special name. They contacted Southwest Virginia guitarist and luthier Wayne C. Henderson and asked if they could use his name. He agreed and joined the school to teach a guitar building workshop. The Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts offers three classes per year that are now booked a year in advance. Its onsite lutherie is the best-equipped shop in the country. In addition, it offers a course in fiddle making  and will add mountain dulcimer and ukelele courses in 2024. 

The lutherie is part of the Henderson’s mission to preserve Appalachian arts and promote the next generation of artists in Southwest Virginia. The basement of the building also houses a complete pottery studio, where classes are offered regularly. Each Thursday the studio is open to experienced potters who pay a small fee. The latest addition is the letterpress print shop, which Catherine established.

“The print shop is unique,” Catherine explains. “I found all the equipment, the presses and letters at the Burke Print Shop in Abingdon. None of it was being used, and it was like a museum. The Burkes agreed to donate all their equipment where it would be put to use, and I found some additional letter sets. Now we have letterpress classes, and students can use the shop on their own.”

Come and Listen

Other activities at the Henderson include quilt making in the quilt room, watercolor classes each Saturday, stained glass making and private music lessons. Every Monday evening is Jam Night, all year round. Musicians gather in the Jam Room to play old-time, bluegrass or country tunes to an appreciative audience. The school hosts monthly meetings of the Art League of Marion.

Unlike other studios or galleries, the Henderson does not exhibit or sell artworks. 

“Anything that an artist wants to sell is available at the Lincoln Theatre gift shop, Lola’s,” Catherine says. “The Henderson is supported by the fees for classes and workshops and donations. Also, the upstairs space is rented by Wytheville Community College.”

There are so many reasons to visit the Henderson. You can find them at 203 N. Church Street, Marion, or www.thehenderson.org. To schedule a visit, phone 276-206-0627. 

Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts Executive Director Catherine Schrenker.

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