Great Falls Studios comprises 88 talented and eclectic artists who share ideas, friendship and “a sense that we’re all in this together.”
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Laura Nichols, center, in her studio.
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When Laura Nichols, a professional potter, returned to her family home in Fairfax County in 1979, after living in Maine, she was appalled to learn that there was no viable art community in Great Falls, a wealthy Washington bedroom community with 6,200 households and a $160,000 median income. With its large residential lots and hilly topography, Great Falls isn’t a place where neighbors chat over the fence. “There were no other artists to talk to,” says Nichols, sitting in the warm but cluttered workroom she calls Pig Pen Pottery, located in a small dependency on a family homestead.
For artists, who tend to work in isolation, friendships are not only a way to maintain sanity but also, sometimes, a creative stimulant. By 2003, Nichols says, the lack of camaraderie was intolerable—and so, like an annoying telemarketer, she started a cold-call campaign “to [find] other artists in town and to see if they wanted to join a group.” She got more than a few “clicks,” she says, before eventually discovering a small group of kindred spirits. That year, Nichols and 15 other artists formed Great Falls Studios—a collective, not a location, and organized an exhibition of their work.
The inaugural show was a bit seat-of-the-pants and attended mostly by the artists themselves. “We got together in a caravan of cars and toured each others’ studios,” Nichols recalls. Still, the interaction was uplifting. Artists began collaborating with each other, equipment was shared, friendships were formed. The next year, a handful of local residents joined the tour, despite rainy weather, and by 2006 the studio tour was drawing a modest number of people. Word got out, more artists popped up, the tour slowly grew. Today, Great Falls Studios has 88 members whose work spans the spectrum—there are painters, potters, sculptors, photographers, digital artists, printmakers, calligraphers and jewelry makers. And the group’s annual fall tour has become a major event in the community.
Certainly, there is no shortage of talent. Jinny Beyer is considered one of the top quilters in the U.S., and busloads of people visit her commercial shop. Ronni Jolles makes layered paper art and is represented in top D.C. galleries. (She formerly taught at Sidwell Friends, which the Obama girls now attend.) Jan Bender is an old-fashioned photographer who makes artful black-and-white photographs. Robin Kent, another Great Falls photographer, has a state-of-the-art digital studio and takes dramatic images of D.C. monuments. Jonathan Fisher, a retired magazine editor, creates massive sculptures and colorful structural reliefs out of wood. “Having those first 16 people go around together built a culture right away,” says Nichols. “It started out being supportive, not competitive. It’s the sense that we’re in this together.”
Are they ever. Last year, 38 artists exhibited on the tour, drawing an audience from the vast D.C. Metro area, including Northern Virginia. Some displayed in individual home studios, some in more public venues like the town library and even a local pub. Sales totaled $24,000. This year’s tour, on October 17 and 18, features the works of 45 artists. No tickets are necessary; a highlighted studio map, which can be downloaded from GreatFallsStudios.com, directs visitors on their own motor tour. (Note: See the site's calendar page for details on a Holiday Festival and Sale on Dec. 12-13, and ongoing events as well.)
One of the challenges facing the Great Falls artists is that some of them don’t have studios. “Some people’s studios are on their kitchen table or in a spare bedroom,” says Fisher. That obviously made it hard for those individuals to show their work to the public. Seven painters in the group banded together and rented a large studio in a building on Walker Road, not far from where many of the artists live. They named the space the Artists’ Atelier—and now 14 artists share it.
For a young organization, Great Falls Studios has had significant impact on the village. Two years ago, the group started the Great Falls School of Art, offering group or individual classes, workshops and special programs at the Atelier. The group has also established the nonprofit Great Falls Foundation for the Arts, which operates independently of Great Falls Studios. Its chief goal is to raise enough money to build an art facility in the village—a place for both the creation and display of local pieces. To do that, 10 percent of all revenues from the studio tour are earmarked for the foundation.
“Finding cost-effective space is difficult for artists,” says Jonathan Fisher. “In places like Richmond, there are lots of old buildings and warehouses. We don’t have that here. But we’re connected.” Indeed. Nearly all of the artist members live in the same zip code.
According to painter and foundation president Molly Vardell, who has a space in the Atelier, Great Falls Studios has not just provided a cultural fillip to the community. It’s also fostered individual creative development, and friendships. “I’ve grown so much as an artist ...,” says Vardell. “I would never be at this stage in my art career otherwise. There is some synergy and joy being around other artists.”
Fisher agrees. Great Falls Studios “is supportive beyond the organization,” he says, and that makes it a special group.