Diverse backgrounds lead artists to a love of Rappahannock

If you go

What: Seventh Annual Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 5-6, with headquarters at Washington fire hall
Tickets and info: Pick up a map with driving directions at the fire hall; passes are $10 per person. For more information, call 540-675-3193 or visit raac.org.

This is the second in a series of weekly visits with some of the new and returning artists on this year’s Open Studio and Gallery Tour, sponsored by the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC) every November.

Three local artists participating in the seventh annual RAAC studio and gallery tour on Nov. 5-6 may have been raised in the greater New York area but have contributed much to Rappahannock County with their mixed-media art: wood, glass, textiles and more.

Eating at Sperryville’s Thornton River Grill, you might not realize your burger is sitting atop fungus-embedded wood – a spalted maple table top – created by local cabinetmaker Peter Kramer.

New Jersey-born Kramer hunts down massive trees which are dead or dying, and creates works of hand-planed art: cabinets, benches, headboards, and tables. His “flying tables” series hover in mid-air attached only to a wall. The latest of these he calls “I’m outta here.” Asked why it’s flying away, he answers with a grin, “people move on.”

PETER KRAMER shows a maple burl coffee table at his studio in Washington. Photo by Megan S. Smith.
PETER KRAMER shows a maple burl coffee table at his studio in Washington. Photo by Megan S. Smith.

The wilder the wood Kramer finds the better, he says, and often a negative for the tree is a positive for the buyer. A box elder bug weaving its way through a tree’s insides, for example, leaves magnificent red streaks from its larva. One mammoth 200-year-old maple downed by Hurricane Isabel has coffee-table-sized burls (scars left by injury) – for Kramer, a lucky find.

Kramer’s father and Sunday School teacher encouraged him to be handy, which soon led to soliciting handmade footstools door to door. But in “selling [stools] only to mothers,” he says, the “market dried up” quickly and he was forced to go on to bigger things.

Working as manager of Radio Free Europe in Manhattan, Kramer made furniture on the side, eventually selling 40 pieces after a cold-call solicitation to Bloomingdale’s. Around 1970, he made his way to Rappahannock, where his work is now part of the permanent decor at The Inn at Little Washington.

Of recently downsizing his once robust shop, Kramer says with a shrug and contented look, “The slow economy has been good for creativity.”

PATTI BRENNAN fires a glass rod eventually to become beads for jewelry at River District Arts in Sperryville. Photo by Megan S. Smith.
PATTI BRENNAN fires a glass rod eventually to become beads for jewelry at River District Arts in Sperryville. Photo by Megan S. Smith.

Patti Brennan’s lovely stained glass is also displayed locally in every window of Flint Hill’s Macedonia Baptist Church, whose congregation commissioned the artist for the three-year project.

“Stained glass in churches was very inspiring,” says Brennan of her early career. She’s taken photos of church windows all over the world to gather ideas for future work. “Working with glass is completely about working with light.”

The current president of Middle Street Gallery, New Jersey-bred Brennan has both a home studio and one in Sperryville’s River District Arts cooperative. She was drawn to glass staining 30 years ago after reading a Mother Earth magazine article on the craft.

Brennan soon worked with different techniques in stained glass: painting, silkscreening, etching, slumping/fusing and most recently torching. A propane torch is set up in her RDA studio and is used to melt glass rods into an array of jewelry.

Brennan is also experimenting with fused glass to make dishes, soon available to the public. For now, Cafe Indigo chef Anthony Ahrens plans to set his masterpieces atop her colorful glass/dishware.

A Rappahannock resident for 32 years, Brennan says, “My work brings joy to others . . . and it lasts forever.”

BRENDA VAN NESS sits among some of her creations at her home/studio in Gid Brown Hollow. Photo by Megan S. Smith.
BRENDA VAN NESS sits among some of her creations at her home/studio in Gid Brown Hollow. Photo by Megan S. Smith.

Anyone lucky enough to visit Brenda Van Ness’s revitalized 100-year-old home and studio in Gid Brown Hollow this fall is in for a real treat. Van Ness and husband, John, co-created their house and magical landscape.

New York-raised, the kindhearted Van Ness jokes that she is “still growing up in Rappahannock,” which is wonderfully apparent in her whimsical approach to her mixed-media art. “I work with an array – or better yet disarray – of materials,” she says, including textiles, paintings, photography, jewelry and both interior and exterior sculptures.

A self-taught artist, Van Ness first felt she had a calling in the arts when she wore her sister’s hand-me-downs “inside-out . . . because I liked the seams.” Having an affinity for textiles, many of her creative surprises includes a displayed collection of used wedding dresses and vintage children’s clothing.

But her collections go beyond that. She became so entranced by bowling balls that she bought out an old bowling alley to gain access to a plethora of them, which are displayed as sculptures throughout her property.

Van Ness’s photographs are heartfelt collections of items and people, all of which have their own story to tell. “A lot of my work,” she says, “reflects a sensitivity and/or sensuality to daily living.”

Van Ness gives back to the community by offering up her “sanctuary” for use in fellow artists’ creative process. Enveloped by the awesomeness of her “Alice in Wonderland” woodland property, an artist would certainly not have to look far for inspiration.