Head north; meet more artists

This is the second in a series of visits with the new artists on the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s (RAAC) eighth annual Artists of Rappahannock Studio and Gallery Tour this Nov. 3-4.

Two of the six new artists on RAAC’s eighth annual Studio and Gallery Tour are located in the lovely countryside of northwestern Rappahannock County.

Raised in upstate New York, Mike Wolniewicz (pronounced like “wool never itches,” he jests, or wool-neh-vich) began by throwing clay as a “meditative practice, to keep my sanity.” But by the end of his third year at Buffalo State University, he says, “I knew I was going to be a full-time artist.”

Chester Gap artist Mike Wolniewicz with one of his large sculptures. Photo © Nick Crettier Photography.
Chester Gap artist Mike Wolniewicz with one of his large sculptures. Photo © Nick Crettier Photography.

Indeed, Wolniewicz minored in pottery while earning a degree in furniture design. It was the love of wood that brought him to Rappahannock years ago, where he has worked for furniture design companies for the last 20 years. Employed by Hardwood Artisans in Woodville for five years, his career path took a sharp turn when he was assigned custom work orders by the owner, a task which he carried out with great joy.

“Everything has a purpose,” Wolniewicz says when describing his journey to defining his art. His newfound creative freedom of carrying out custom work orders defined him further when he decided to become self-employed.

What does he take in to influence his art? “I needed to get old and slow down to know what that meant,” he says.

“Most artists I have a kinship with is more philosophical,” he continues. He also enjoys putting himself in the artist’s shoes and trying to figure out their motivation, “like why Andy Warhol did what he did. He really helped define for me where art fits into life and where I fit into this picture.”

Just out of college, he observed an installation of a stainless steel “tension metal” sculpture piece. Something about seeing the enormous high-polished pipe and cable being torqued about intrigued him.

Another influence included a college professor who told Wolniewicz to either create art “small with lots of detail or do it large.” Mostly he’s chosen the latter.

Then three years ago, after he and his wife moved to Chester Gap, one of his clients asked him if he had ever made a sculpture. “And now,” he says, “here I am!”

Wolniewicz explains that his style of furniture design is contemporary Asian, where he plays with different materials – such as wood, metal, plastic and ceramic – which are also incorporated into his sculptures.

Wolniewicz says he loves nothing more than having no direction for an installment except for needing to fill a space in a client’s house – he simply studies the space and off he goes.

“Art blows the dust off of everyday life,” he says, quoting Picasso. “I’m really in a transition now,” having no one thing defining him as an artist. And when anyone asks him what he does for employment, Wolniewicz simply answers, “Having fun!”

Just down the long, winding mountain road from Chester Gap is Huntly, Va., home of artist Ruth Anna Stolk.

Stolk, a Washington, D.C. native,  has developed a unique style of sketch and watercolor, using subjects on the mountaintop-placed Rappahannock farm she and her Dutch-born husband bought in 1994.

Stolk also sketches people and architecture observed in her extensive travels while abroad with the Smithsonian’s international tours she was hired to set up. She spent a lot of time sitting in cafes and passed the time by sketching – something which soon turned more serious. Working on and off at the Smithsonian since 1987, she’s also known to do caricatures of colleagues at meetings.

“I draw with a micron pen, then add water color,” she says of her recent work, a type of “pen and ink.”

A detail of a bundle of carrots, drawn in Stolk’s signature pen, ink and watercolor style. Photo by Tim Overton.
A detail of a bundle of carrots, drawn in Stolk’s signature pen, ink and watercolor style. Photo by Tim Overton.

Exploring negative space – a concept used to study the space around an object, rather than the object itself – Stolk fills in these areas with heavy pigment. She says she loves using crazy primary colors, which has led some to compare her works to those of Matisse.

Stolk regularly uses gates and fences as subjects, such as those on her farm with “360-degree views.” This led to her series called “Huntly Gate,” which is on display at her studio.

Stolk applies bold colors and heavy pigment, mostly on thick textured paper. She likes to sum up much of her work as “abstractifying,” she laughs.

Her interesting Huntly studio space is a light-filled loft in her old farmhouse, and one certainly not to be missed on the upcoming tour.