As construction crews work to complete the finishing details on a new cultural and visitor’s center at the Barns of Rose Hill, a group of local artists is working toward a September 11th unveiling of a grand mural honoring the natural beauty and art in Clarke County. The mosaic masterpiece is a collaborative effort of local artisans and is being led by Loudoun artist Joan Gardiner and Clarke County’s Gail Bowman-Harlow.
Janet Eltinge, a board member for both Bowman-Harlow’s Opus Oaks Art School as well as the Barns of Rose Hill, said that there was a strong desire to have two of the area’s most talented artists lead a creative effort to adorn the Barns of Rose Hill’s main lobby.
“We wanted both Joan and Opus Oaks to be a part of the Barns of Rose Hill” Eltinge said. “That’s where the seed for the idea came from. It’s been amazing to witness the project coming together. The final result is going to be extraordinary.”
Although Bowman-Harlow and Gardiner are supplying the artistic vision for the project – along with their own individual clay tile contributions – the final masterpiece will depict Clarke County’s best known artists and most spectacular natural amenities through paint and clay molded by the hands of local citizens.
“The experience has been very inspiring” said Bonnie Jacobs while standing before a large, flat arrangement of plywood boards on saw horses in the workshop cum art studio behind her Berryville home. “I have been firing clay pieces done by art students at Opus Oaks in the kiln. Every new batch that I see just gets better and better.”
The mural itself will go together like a huge jigsaw puzzle with the larger pieces designed by well-known local artists and the smaller pieces designed by students, both young and old, attending Opus Oaks summer art classes.
“What is really fun is that children have been able to participate” said Joan Gardiner. “From a distance you’ll be able to see the landscape and the people pictured in the mural. But as you get closer you’ll be able to see the disciplines in the arts depicted around the border. When you get really close you’ll be able to see the smaller pieces like the turkey standing in the forest.”
Gardiner selects a small, irregularly shaped clay tile embossed with a wild turkey from a nearby table. The table is covered with hundreds of other small shapes ranging from dogwood blossoms, to fish, to oak leaves, to acorns, each depicting an aspect of Clarke County selected by the student artist who created it.
“The color palette is going to be warm and earthy so that it harmonizes very well with the Barns building” Gardiner points out.
Bonnie Jacobs described that each individual plywood section will be mounted with both large and small clay tiles depicting Clarke’s natural beauty – the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah River – as well as honoring many of the area’s individual artists artistic contributions to the community. Each panel of the mural will be individually mounted on the lobby wall at the Barns. Panel seams will then be covered with the small student tiles before a final layer of grout is applied to the entire mural.
Gail Bowman-Harlow explained that while the background of the mural portrays the Clarke County’s scenic beauty, its artistic heritage is depicted through various creative disciplines modeled after well-known local artists.
“This set of tiles shows a photographer for example, over here is a painter” Bowman-Harlow points out.
“If you were to take all of the art in the world the main subject would be â€˜people’” explained artist Joan Gardiner. “We chose to depict people and objects in the mural that would be immediately recognizable. Every discipline and artist pictured has been done by someone connected with Clarke County.”
Gardiner said that the size and shape of the mural had a lot to do with the decision to depict two of Clarke County’s most prominent features, the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The space was telling us what needed to be there because it was long and thin” Gardiner said. “It was very well suited for a combination of mountains and woods.”
Gardiner explained that even though the individual artists depicted in the mural are modeled after local people, the figures are stylized so they really could be anyone. Gardiner pointed out that such “anonymity” is very welcome to an artist focused on an artistic form because it frees the artist from needing to worry about social considerations like gender and race.
“It’s very rare to be able to depict people in public art because of the problems that you encounter with the public’s expectations” Gardiner said. “This approach has been very liberating.”
Bowman-Harlow said that a wide range of Clarke County artists provided inspirational models for the mural; Madeline MacNeil for singing and dulcimer music, quilter Joyce Bandanes for textile art, Bill Johnston for music, Bonnie Jacob’s camera and photography, potter Mizue Croswell, painter Jane Caspar, Malcolm Harlow’s sculpture and Neila Niemann and Dale Root for dance.
Bowman-Harlow said that the funding for the project came from several sources including the Barns of Rose Hill and from a grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation with the broad requirement that the mural depict life in the Shenandoah Valley.
So far contains the mural includes the work of ten artists, forty art students, both children and adults. Robin Braithwaite, Rachel Comparetto, Amy Curl and Sarah Tavenner form the mosaic project team.
“We had 50 – 60 people participate so far” said Bonnie Jacobs. “But they keep coming!”
Jacobs served not only as the model for the “photographer” depicted in the mosaic, she also created the tiles that are used to form the photographer.
At a nearby table in the studio, local fabric artist Joyce Bandanes has temporarily put aside her normal artistic tools – a needle and thread – and is focused on creating a small clay tile of a deer that will soon go into the kiln for firing. Bandanes, the model for mural’s quilter, said that she designed the quilter to be an expression of old and new sewing styles.
“The quilter is Sun Bonnet Sue who was iconic in the 1930’s but I have her doing a modern quilt with an abstract design” Bandanes said. “I used to do pottery before I started quilting. Pottery is a lot like quilting in a way though. It’s very zen-like, very calming and satisfying. It allows me to get lost in my work.”
The new Clarke County mural is scheduled to be completed when the Barns of Rose Hill formally opens its doors on September 6th. A week long community celebration of the Barns of Rose Hill will include a different event each day culminating with a community wide picnic to commemorate the events of September 11th, 2001.
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