Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Visiting Ward Center Brings Back Memories of Richmond

"Art in the Underground at The Ward" ©Mary Montague Sikes
After spending 10 years at Petersburg Regional Arts Center, touring the renovated Ward Center for Contemporary Art brings back many memories, especially in the Underground. In 2002, when I looked at floor plans for PRAC, I had difficulty deciding which gallery space I wanted in the facility that would replace Shockoe Bottom Arts Center in Richmond.

This was a turbulent time for everyone after the world turned dark and changed on 9/11, 2001. I had grown used to being in Shockoe Bottom for opening night each month and to attending other events there, including workshops by the late Roland Roycraft, a nationally-known watercolor artist at the time, and Carole Barnes, a popular acrylics instructor. Along with most of the other artists at Shockoe Bottom, I was at a loss for what to do--stay with a new group somewhere in Richmond or follow Rusty Davis and his mother Deanna Brizendine to Petersburg.

The two of them founded Shockoe Bottom Arts Center in 1994, modeling it somewhat after the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria and giving artists the chance to have affordable studio space in Richmond. The old tobacco warehouse building featured the prominent Lucky Strike water tower landmark rising above it. At one point, Rusty promoted an art contest to paint that tower.

Davis always wanted to keep the Art Center in Richmond. However, because of disputes with the owner of the Shockoe Bottom building, he incurred legal fees that he said made it impossible to afford property in the city. Going to Petersburg was the "best deal", especially when those city officials "courted him" because of their hope the new Art Center would help revitalize the downtown.

Out of loyalty, I made the decision to follow Rusty and his artist mother to Petersburg. Studying their plans, I went back and forth for several months between a large studio space on the third floor or a smaller space with a closet and two inset areas located across from the elevator in the basement. In the end, I chose the lower floor and was soon glad that I did because the large elevator failed and, because of the expenses involved, was never put back into operation. The small elevator that was left was unreliable, so I used the stairs whenever possible.

My Studio PRAC 2012 ©Mary Montague Sikes
That spring and summer, everybody worked together to develop the studio spaces in the old Butterworth Furniture Store building. After the dry walls went up in my studio, my husband and I painted them white and the wooden inset area, black. It made a striking display space for my paintings. Everything came together for an opening in July 2003. Rusty and Deanna had great plans for PRAC. He mentioned that he intended to put up a billboard along I-95, advertising PRAC. However, that and other plans never came to fruition. Both Rusty and his mother developed disabling illnesses.

Running the Art Center fell on his sister, Donna Jacobs, who brought enthusiasm to a difficult situation. She managed juried shows each month that were popular and gave artists the opportunity to compete for a total of $600 in prize money for 11 open house events each year. But, gradually, most of the original artists left for spaces in Richmond and other locations. I stayed until PRAC closed in July 2013 and was sad to see it go.
Terry Ammons sculpture in The Underground ©MMSikes
The configuration of the Underground at the Ward Center for Contemporary Art is nice. The ample hallway spaces provide opportunity for the display of sculpture as well as paintings. The placement of the Terry Ammons sculpture is thought-provoking.

At long last, Petersburg appears to be breaking out. The shackles and the cries of dying soldiers on the Civil War battlefields are disappearing and growing ever quieter. They will never be forgotten, but new art galleries, more restaurants, a new brewery, and The Ward Center for Contemporary Art are brightening the look and the mood of Old Towne Petersburg. I like the feel.

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