Open Studios Shows Off Roanoke’s Creative Class

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Jamie Nervo’s wildly colorful animal creations on Avenham Avenue
Jamie Nervo’s wildly colorful animal creations on Avenham Avenue

by Gene Marrano

There are a lot of very talented artists in the Roanoke Valley, that’s certainly not a shocking revelation. Just one look inside some of the galleries downtown, perhaps during the monthly Art By Night open house, or at the annual sidewalk art sale in June will provide all the evidence one needs. Patrons of the visual arts and the plain curious had another opportunity to meet local artists this past weekend during the 12th annual Open Studios tour.

More than two dozen artists met the public at 13 locations in Roanoke, at their home studios or at public venues like Ann Trinkle’s Kirk Avenue working gallery/studio. There were painters, sculptors, photographers and mixed media artists showing off their work in front yards, garages, indoor studios or bucolic back yards.

On Somerset Street in South Roanoke, sculptor J. Gail Geer was showing her work and explaining the process she uses to visitors. Geer, who learned to sculpt after taking classes at Virginia Western, favors the marble-like Kiisi stone from Africa, which she said has a sensual feel to it once it is shaped and polished. “The most fabulous finish …it’s a very difficult stone to get away from.”

Kiisi stone can be very brittle to sculpt, but it’s worth the effort said Geer, who will head to Italy this summer to work in marble. “I’m going to make angels and bears,” noted Geer, who has also taught sculpture classes at Center in the Square. She’s tried other mediums like clay, “but my obsession is stone.”

It became a passion for Geer when she reached her forties. She has also appeared at every Open Studios since its inception. “I love that people come from the community to see what we do. Just knowing that we are here is the important part. They need to be aware of us.”

Thomas Lawson’s work was in the back yard at the same home on Somerset, where the greenery provided an elegant backdrop to his paintings, abstract female nudes inspired by the masters like Picasso, Dekooning and Matisse. “Picasso is my main motivator,” said Lawson, who called himself, “a modern artist, just slightly behind the times.” He enjoys the Open Studios concept. “It’s a great opportunity for the community and keeps a little of the focus on art. It gets my pictures out – and I have a sale every now and then.”

Lawson is also a member of the Markey Gallery co-op in downtown Roanoke. As for using nude female models (the model for all his works at Open Studios, Tiffany Robinette, an artist herself, was on hand as a tour guide), Lawson said the female form fascinated him. “You can’t just stare, so you have to paint. It’s an interesting challenge to put it in different perspectives.”

On Avenham Avenue, photographer Barry Wolfe was showing off framed photographs from a recent trip he and his wife Libba took to Havana, Cuba. Wolfe said the country is full of gracious people in a place stuck in a time warp – crammed with pre-Revolution American vehicles from the 1950’s that Wolfe said were an art form in their own way…lots of chrome, tail fins and bright colors that became subjects for his camera. “It’s a place I always wanted to see,” said Wolfe, who found a government-licensed travel agency that helps get around the ban on travel to Cuba – a ban lifted to some extent by the Obama administration.

There is no cell phone service, ATM’s, credit cards or WiFi in Cuba – all cash and carry, according to Wolfe. “We went with eyes wide open and I was amazed by the whole place.” Many of the images he displayed at Open Studios featured weathered buildings, some of them adorned in faded pastels. “The infrastructure is in disrepair,” he said, “but we were very well received.”

Wolfe, in fact, was interviewed by a BBC crew as he strolled the streets in Havana, which he called “the most photographically-friendly place that I’ve ever been.” There’s plenty of neighborhood art and scores of classes for those that want to learn the visual or lively arts in Cuba, according to Wolfe. “They just need some commerce.”

On Grandin Road, local artist and art instructor Katherine Devine welcomed visitors to her second floor working studio, which overlooks Grandin. “It’s beautifully designed for artists,” said Devine, who is less distracted there than she was at her ground floor studio in downtown Roanoke previously. “It’s a lovely place for people to find and talk to me.”

This was the first year that Devine was part of the annual tour, and she hopes to be asked back: “It brings in people who are not already in my circle of friends, [as well as] students and supporters.” That in fact is the whole point of Open Studios.