An Interview with Arts Center Director Sheila Gwaltney
Standing in the vibrant space on Main Street in downtown Smithfield that’s shared by the Arts Center @ 319 and the Visitor Center, it’s hard to believe that it all began in a run-down, turn-of-the-20th century building just down the street. Local artist, Ann Hubbard and two others rescued the large Victorian house, turned it into art studios and gallery, and after lots of hard work, the Smithfield Cultural Arts Center was opened in 1991. The organization was rechristened the Isle of Wight Arts League a few years later.
Sheila Gwaltney joined the Art League in the mid-90s, but it was late in 2005 when she rented a studio in the Victorian and was elected to the board of directors that her key role in the organization’s history began.
In August 2007 Sheila became the center’s director. It was while she was dealing constantly with the usual problems faced with owning an older building, on-going maintenance issues and costs, inaccessibility to the second floor, etc., that a new vision for the Arts League began to take shape in her artist’s mind. In 2008, Sheila was approached by Tourism Director Judy Winslow who was eyeing a property on Main Street for a much-needed new location for the visitor center. The two discussed a collaboration, then approached property owner Mark Hall about an innovative idea for one of his buildings.
After a year or more of hard work, in March of 2009, the vision became reality when the Arts Center @ 319 opened. The Arts League, in partnership with Smithfield & Isle of Wight CVB and property owner, Mark Hall, unveiled the transformation of the former Winn’s Hardware Store into a vibrant arts space, a new visitors center and office suites.
Tourism Director, Judy Winslow played an integral role in helping bring that vision to life. But Judy saw it as a win-win situation for all the parties involved. As Judy describes it, “Partnering with Sheila and the Arts Center@319 allows the Visitor Center to be more than a Visitor Center….it’s an actual attraction! And, it allows the Arts Center access to more visitors to enjoy the exhibits, take classes and buy local art. Plus, the creativity and always changing art exhibits make it a joy to come to work daily!”
Sheila’s focus on that final vision for the center, as well as her leadership skills steered the way through the many complicated steps of the process: the sale of the Victorian house, the layout and design of the new Arts Center, the selection of the resident artists who would work in the new space, and much more. Today, Sheila has achieved her goal of creating an accessible and energetic place to showcase excellent local art and artists, and provide a retail venue for their artwork.
Arts Center Classes: Sheila’s passion lies in arts education and fostering new talent. “We sought to give the public access to all stages of the artistic process and a place to further arts education for amateur as well as professional artists. We offer classes in fine art and craft for children and adults at all levels of artistic achievement. We are especially successful in providing introductory level classes for adults looking for a new experience, or who are finally pursuing their creative dreams.” In fact, it’s not unusual for artists who begin with an introductory class, to end up passionately involved with the Arts Center, with their own works proudly displayed on the gallery walls.
Resident Artists: Today, six resident artists make the Arts Center their home. Visitors and residents can interact with the artists, ask questions and watch them close-up as the art is created. “Our resident artist are a very creative and talented group possessed of a great sense of humor. In fact, all six artists submitted entries for Bra-Ha-Ha this year!” (Bra-Ha-Ha is a fundraising event for breast cancer survivors, sponsored by Chesapeake Regional Health Foundation.) http://www.brahaha.org/ Brahaha.org
Sheila describes each of the six artists and their unique vision: “Fiber artists Chris Pascuzzi and Angelia Armstrong fill their studio with colorful wearable art and textiles, while Eco- artist Juliette MarShall incorporates an earth-friendly ethic in her paintings, wire and copper jewelry, and decorative items. Each painter here has a distinctive style. Janet Goldbach produces classic oil paintings with smooth surfaces that are built up meticulously. Downtown Smithfield resident Stephanie Faleski’s paintings exhibit her passion for animals, local scenes and history. Cil Barbour and Bobbi Canellas are both terrific colorists, with Cil painting oils and acrylics in a realist manner while Bobbi follows an impressionistic style. Diane Greenhalgh paints in watercolor, oils and acrylic and handles both whimsy and realism equally well.”
The Gift Shop: What a wonderful amenity it is to the community to have the artwork of local artists available in the gift shop at the Arts Center. Sheila works very hard to offer a variety of items. “The shop is well supplied with unique, hand-made creations by local and regional artists. A variety of photography, paintings, pottery, jewelry and glasswork showcase the talent of artists and artisans in the Smithfield area. Handmade jewelry is always very popular and we have items in all price ranges by several artists. We have three distinctive local potters who produce very useful items that please a lot of shoppers, and Carrollton oil painter Germaine Curry has a good fan base here.”
The Gallery: Among her many responsibilities and tasks as director, Sheila’s favorite is creating the gallery shows. “A committee meets each August to develop the show calendar for the next year. At least six times a year, we hang a new show. We take 20 to 50 or so fresh artworks and transform 80 feet of gallery into a visual narrative to delight our visitors and provide a beautiful venue to some amazing local and regional artists.”
The annual Isle of Wight Arts League’s member show is a favorite of visitors and locals alike. During the show, visitors are invited to select their own nominee for a “People’s Choice” award. The Arts League also works closely with area schools and students of all ages and abilities to display their work throughout the year. But don’t think that because the Arts Center is located in our small town, that it’s not cutting edge at times. For example, while the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond featured Japanese tattoos this past summer, Smithfield’s Arts Center presented the show “Inked,” featuring photographs of tattoos, exploring “art on a living canvas” way back in 2010!
In fact, the Arts Center has put Smithfield on the map as one of Coastal Virginia’s most unique and charming arts destinations. According to Sheila, “It is frequented by county and Coastal Virginia residents as well as visiting tourists from all 50 states and many foreign countries.” In fact, in 2009, the Virginia Downtown Development Association recognized the effort of the Arts League and its partners with its “Award of Excellence for Organizational Development.” https://www.facebook.com/VirginiaDowntown?fref=nf
Of course, running the gift shop, working with the resident artists, organizing the classes and all the other tasks necessary to run an arts center is not all that keeps Sheila busy. She also “directs” husband, Gerald (Isle of Wight County’s Commissioner of the Revenue), three adult children Jonathan, Caroline and Ginny, her dog, two cats and a horse. And in her “down time” she’s involved with the Smithfield 2020 project team and the Calendar project for the Woman’s Club of Smithfield. But to relax, Sheila spends time “horse-keeping,” as she explains, “Working with and taking care of my horse and barn is my personal retreat, I guess it’s equivalent to a man cave.” http://www.smithfield2020.org/
Needless to say, Sheila is thrilled with the success of the Arts Center. She especially enjoys the reaction of folks when they visit which she describes as “absolute delight.” “We have friendly, approachable artists and volunteers and lots of creativity displayed in the high quality work of our local and resident artists.”
As someone who has worked very hard to see her vision come to life, Sheila hopes that the Arts Center @ 319 will continue to be seen as a place to view and create “amazing artwork,” and enjoy the “creative energy” captured there. Most of all, she hopes you will come by for a visit!
The Arts Center @ 319: 319 Main Street, Smithfield, VA 23430, 757.357.7707
Hours: Open Monday to Saturday 9 to 5, Sunday noon to 4