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Diego Sanchez, Jay Sharpe, Susan Adams, Tesni Stephen and Tricia Pearsall Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Jay Paul
In early March, the memorial service for ceramics teacher Richard McCord drew more than 100 fellow teachers and students whose lives he touched in his nearly 30 years at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Colleagues spoke movingly of his gentle manner and dry wit. A table in the lobby displayed an assortment of books from his personal library. Attendees were invited to take what they wanted.
Three weeks later, the annual Collectors Night auction kicked off the center's 50th anniversary. The live bidding included a mixed-media piece called Cahoots created by Robin Kranitzky-Hurdle and Kim Overstreet. An elaborate wall brooch, it opened like a cuckoo clock to reveal two women holding a book titled 50.
Overstreet lived next door to McCord in 1985, and Kranitzky kept a small studio in his basement. "Through Richard, we got together and began making mixed-media work — we got in cahoots," Overstreet explains. "We didn't go the clay route until much later, and just last fall decided to take a clay class [together] from Richard at the Visual Arts Center. We thought this is so wonderful, emotional and strange."
The Collectors Night theme of "Through The Looking Glass" inspired teachers, students, staff and supporters to dress in elaborate costumes featuring Mad Hatter head garb and fetching fascinators for the ladies.
In the hallway leading to the live auction tent, gazing blithe and stylish from her photographic portrait, the center's founder, Elisabeth Scott Bocock, seemed as if she might step from the image to mingle with attendees. She would have fit right in with her wide-brimmed hat and fur-trimmed coat. Bocock, a socialite widow whose desire to change the world or at least the part with Richmond in it, was moved to create a center in Church Hill devoted to fine crafts in 1963. Called the Hand Workshop until 2005, the center offers free exhibitions and more than 400 classes annually, which continue to cross-pollinate the region's community of makers and creators, including those who follow.
Elisabeth Scott Bocock: Drum Major
Former board chairwoman Tricia Pearsall wrote in a monograph about the institution's early days, "The Hand Workshop spilled out of Mrs. Elisabeth Bocock's brain — probably in the middle of the night — from a sincere desire to do good, revitalize Church Hill, to work with the Historic Richmond Foundation and the restoration effort, to save her investments, to insure a trust tax write-off, etc. I expect she read Jane Addams and knew of the Settlement House tradition and success of craft venues in New York." Bocock's friends would've been volunteering in shops that supported cottage industries for the disadvantaged.
Bocock gathered her first group of seven trustees in 1962 at her columned mansion at 909 W. Franklin St. and created an organization that would be a retail outlet for craft and that would promote high-quality craft in every way possible.
A store incorporated on Dec. 26, 1962, and the Hand Workshop opened for students on May 2, 1963, in the Whitlock House at 316 N. 24th St. in Church Hill, north of Broad.
Bocock purchased 318 N. 24th St. in 1964 and donated it to the Hand Workshop. According to Bocock's daughter Mary Buford Hitz in her book Never Ask Permission, Bocock thought that Church Hill's children might find professions through weaving, sculpture or ceramics classes.
Bocock envisioned the profits generated by the retail craft store covering at least part of the operating expenses. She also provided some stability by setting up a 10-year fund in 1965 to supply the Hand Workshop with an annual dividend of $9,500.
However, a tug-of-war developed between Bocock's desire for a self-sustaining loop of children's classes feeding into a craft store and executive director Betty Conway Thompson's awareness of the contemporary crafts movement in larger cities. Thompson's desire to exhibit new work from regional and national artists, knowing how that work could influence students, was a dynamic that affected the course of the institution.
The Bocock endowment expired in 1975, and a deficit ensued. Three years later, 318 N. 24th St. was sold to help pay for operating expenses. "Mrs. Bocock had one of her falling outs with the board," Pearsall says. "But then again, they had a falling out every other month." The Hand Workshop classes and retail store then hopscotched around town.
Tricia Pearsall: Early Supporter
Living on Church Hill in the 1960s, Tricia Pearsall became acquainted with Bocock through their mutual interest in historic preservation. Pearsall organized historic walking tours and took weaving and textiles classes in the Whitlock House.
In the mid-1960s, The Hand Workshop began working directly with schools to teach art appreciation and offered classes to children and teens through the Salvation Army Boys Club and the Chamberlayne YMCA. "These were how-to instruction, for reviving these traditions of weaving, wheel-spun clay, woodworking," Pearsall says.
In 1976, a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts allowed the organization's annual craft fair to move to the Richmond Arena. The event featured 122 artists and more than 8,000 visitors.
By 1979, Pearsall taught some classes and joined the board of directors, which she chaired from 1982 to 1983.
While the retail store faded away in 1981, programs grew as exhibitions opened at the Jewish Community Center and at First & Merchants Bank. Classes met at Red Cross headquarters at Fifth and Main streets. The Hand Workshop organized shows as part of the June Jubilee downtown arts and music street fair.
A series of artist conferences and exhibitions called "State of the Craft" began in the mid-1980s that embraced workshops and, as Pearsall describes, attracted "a lot of good energy in a fairly prominent effort." This time, too, saw the birth of a slide registry for artists. Pre-Facebook, Richmonders needed a place to visit to get a sense of the regional arts scene.
"The founding and endurance of the organization is one of the most important occurrences in Richmond's modern cultural life," Pearsall says. "We kept pace with what was happening in the rest of the world and as a conduit, communicated it to our community."
Susan Adams: A Profession Found
Jeweler and silversmith Susan Adams drove her 1959 Cadillac to the last Hand Workshop Craft Fair at the maple-floored Richmond Arena. The Richmond native had finished graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and she used the Cadillac as a truck to transport her work to the 1988 show. She still drives it.
The show was an important event for both the institution and Adams. The fair, renamed the Craft + Design Show, moved in 1989 to the Richmond Convention Center.
"I realized after doing that show: I can make a living as an artist," Adams says. "It was a turning point. I don't have to get a job because I can be an artist." Program director Barbara Hill asked Adams to teach the children's summer classes called Training New Talent (TNT). One of her students was a 10-year-old girl named Tesni Stephen (see Page 123).
"When I first started teaching classes in 1989, I had an 81-year-old man and an 8-year-old kid," she says, laughing at the memory. "It was open to everybody." Adams continues to teach, and she's seen students return to courses over a 20-year span.
The Hand Workshop had moved into the old Virginia Dairy Building in 1986, and Adams liked how all the studios were in an open area. She had to walk through watercolor, drawing and fiber to get to her metalworking spot. That's how Adams met ceramicist Richard McCord and Shelly Shepherd, a longtime watercolors teacher.
"I would say that the Hand Workshop pretty much helped define the course of my life," Adams says.
"I've made some of my best friends, and [I'm] teaching, which I never thought I wanted to do, and volunteering, too. [It] made you feel a part of something. Connected. Not just floating around out there."
Diego Sanchez: The Lure of the Classroom
It was 1989 when Diego Sanchez first heard about the Hand Workshop from director Paula Owen, who spoke to his VCU graduate seminar. This led Sanchez to teach an extension class for the Hand Workshop, instructing middle schoolers at the William Byrd Community House in Oregon Hill. He chose drawing in charcoal.
"I didn't understand how messy it was going to be," he says with a laugh. "Within five minutes, there was charcoal all over them, the walls, the floor; but the kids had a wonderful time, except for one kid five minutes before it ended who [wet his] pants and started crying."
Still, he recalls the enchantment of watching youngsters draw without caring what the finished product looked like. For years afterward, Sanchez taught painting and drawing classes through the center's programs at the Boys and Girls Clubs.
And he kept teaching for the Hand Workshop, even after starting a full-time job at Virginia Union University. Sanchez spent time on the board as a liaison between the administration and teaching staff. Today, he's on the advisory board, and, while wearing white gloves, he assisted in handling the art for the March Collectors Night auction.
Sanchez has watched students fall in love with painting and pursue that passion through college and beyond. But his first summer drawing class, part of the TNT program for middle school boys and girls, remains the most memorable.
Sanchez thought he'd use a live model and hired one through VCU. He counseled the model to wear tights. The day arrived, and so did she. Sanchez guided her to the podium. He faced the class to begin teaching and noticed the eyes of the boys in the front row becoming larger and larger. Sanchez turned around to see that his model had removed her top. "I jumped in front of her and said, ‘Please cover up.' She in her defense said, ‘You told me to wear tights.' " Perhaps it should have been a leotard.
Sanchez went to director Owen and explained what had happened. He told her that he'd apologize to each parent. Owen was amused and replied that apologies weren't needed. On Sanchez's class evaluation forms, the boys claimed his was the best class ever.
Jay Sharpe: From Studio to Shop
"Jay, turn off your heater!"
Jeweler Jay Sharpe claps and chuckles about the shouted refrain of his studio mates after he moved his jewelry studio to the center in 1989.
The space was $84 a month and the size of a bathroom. On Friday and Saturday nights, he'd hear a garage band rehearsing across the street. "And I'd be a little jealous. Man, this is the Fan, and they're having a good old time, and what am I doing?" Sharpe received the studio space as a graduation gift from his parents. At age 22, he was the Hand Workshop's youngest tenant.
During the cold months, he wore boots, flannel and fleece, and he'd work all day. Then he'd resort to that space heater, which proved too much for the old building's circuitry, regularly cutting off the power.
He recalls the skylight over the lunchroom. A prosperous philodendron trailed down the wall. Sharpe shakes his head, remembering periods when the plant got no water for weeks, then received too much. "And it never died. It hung in there."
He left the studio in 1999 when he opened a Carytown store for his original work, but he continued teaching classes at all levels for the Hand Workshop. "I was over there five, sometimes six, days a week and kids classes in the summertime, and then I turned the corner and I was on the board."
Sharpe participated in the Craft + Design Show, then at the Richmond Convention Center, for nine years. He taught summer TNT classes, and one of his former students will help out in his Carytown shop this summer.
Sharpe taught his last class at the Visual Arts Center on Feb. 9. An infant daughter and business responsibilities now require his attention. A brief on-camera appearance as an event judge on The Real Housewives of Atlanta may lead to another opportunity that would be good for his trade.
"It's kind of strange, after all this time, to not be going to the center every day," he says. "Teaching is what's important there. It's the glue that holds the programming together." He muses that his daughter may take classes at VisArts, "And I'll be there as a student alongside her."
Tesni Stephen: Full Circle
"I'd be there all day," Tesni Stephen recalls. Between 1993 and 1997, from the fourth to eighth grade, Stephen says she took every Hand Workshop class available, sometimes more than once. Her teachers included Susan Adams and Jay Sharpe — teachers who were not making art as a sideline. Art was both life and livelihood.
While Stephen was in college, the former Hand Workshop underwent its $6 million transformation under the leadership of Jo Kennedy. The nonprofit purchased the Virginia Dairy building in 2002, and it underwent phases of renovation. The change of name to the Visual Arts Center of Richmond came in 2005.
Stephen graduated in 2005 from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in apparel design. She worked as a visual merchandiser at American Apparel in Richmond and as an English teacher in Japan. Friend and VisArts photography teacher Liana Elguero recommended Stephen for a teaching position in 2009.
As a kid, Stephen enjoyed walking through mazes to find her class. The new space, however, is quite fine. "Everything works, and there's lots of light," she says.
Stephen teaches courses in clothing pattern-making, and beginning, intermediate and experimental sewing for kids and adults. And for two years, she's taught in the art-based mentoring program for a dozen sixth-grade girls from underserved communities called Space Of Her Own (SOHO). Each student is paired with an artist mentor and participates in everything from painting to pottery.
SOHO culminates in a total bedroom makeover, with each student creating a pillow, a blanket, curtains, a small rug and artwork for her room.
"It's the most challenging-slash-stressful thing that I do," Stephen says. "But very rewarding, very fun." Not all the girls are interested in art, but what it's really about is problem solving and accomplishing tasks that may at first seem daunting. "It's a really nice tool that's sometimes scary, but I try not to make it scary," she says. "It makes me really happy when their teachers hear them say, ‘It's SOHO day!' and they're called the SOHO Girls. They look forward to it."