Bedford: An Artistic Tradition

by Patrick Ellis, Goose Creek Studio

If artisan culture seems new or revolutionary in Bedford, you probably were just not paying attention to what came before.  The vibrant artisan scene in Bedford is the natural outgrowth of a core part of the county’s historical identity and is built on a foundation that was literally generations in the making.

Stone Coal Studio Art by Judith F. Lochbrunner

Hosts of local craftsmen from woodworker to blacksmiths to quilters to gardeners have set an aesthetic tone to the area for generations.  Local clubs for knitters, photographers, writers, needleworkers and gardeners dot the landscape.  The enthusiasm around the annual Peaks and Pieces Quilt show at the library, as well as the yearly Bedford Women’s Club Craft Show at the elementary school, is proof that these age-old aesthetic traditions not only live on, but thrive in this county.

In the past several decades, this local craft tradition has expanded into the world of the fine arts.  Artists within the art department at Piedmont Label fostered creativity outside of office hours and gave the area some wonderful artists.  Zim Jackson, Warner Scott, Ken Kinnear, Jay Barnes and Beulah Witt have all had a tremendous impact on the local art scene.

Virginia McCabe, Shelley Koopmann, Beaulah Witt, Belvia Holt Tate, and Pat Dougherty

The Bedford Academy of Arts (predecessor to the Bower Center) bought the Christian Church on N. Bridge Street and mounted exhibitions, concerts and offered art classes for all ages.  Local retailers like Ed and Evelyn Johnson at Moncure’s Frame Gallery, P.J. Podyma and Cindy Connor at Rainbow Tree Gallery, as well as Bill and Elizabeth Mosley at Art Upstairs at Bedford Hardware offered local artists a place to show their work.  Edith Smith, known for her oil portraits, taught a new generation of artists in the county.  Bill and Annis McCabe’s vision for an arts center in the county produced art workshops, music and a cooperative gallery, The Sedalia Center.  Priscilla Palmer and Jim Leavitt at Emerson Creek Pottery developed the unique technique of applying natural pigments to an absorbent glaze in a distinctively recognizable style that is know across the country.

Twelve years ago, local potter and entrepreneur Patti Siehien introduced downtown’s first “art walk”. Siehien’s foresight in purchasing the old Bedford Electric Power Company building on Depot Street and renovating it into an arts and crafts gallery, artisan restaurant, and artists’ studios was a game changer for downtown artisan revitalization.

Local “masters of their craft” including (but not limited to) James Underwood, Revelle Hamilton, Rod Adams, Patricia Strobel, Michael Maxwell, James Jones, Pat Dougherty, Dotti Stone, L.T. Skinnell, Des Black, Alicia Daily, Andre and Kathy Namenek, Shelley Latreill and Susan Loy put Bedford on the map with their wide-reaching reputations for excellence in craftsmanship and vision.  In recent years a new generation of artists are calling Bedford home and expanding their reputation beyond this county.  Among these artists are Kurt Kindermann, Suzanne Paddock, Nancy O’Neal, Bill Mauser, Jean Wibbens, Kathy Husted and Nancy Blankenship.  All in all, Bedford County is home to over 100 working artisans.

The Wharton Memorial Foundation and Sara Braaten have established the Bower Center for the Arts as a regional arts center. And the work of the Sedalia Center is now carried on by a new generation of dedicated volunteers to connect creativity to community health and wellness.  Three years ago over a dozen local artists got together to form downtown Bedford’s first cooperative art gallery, The Electric Company Artists’ Co-op (TECAC).  The annual Bedford’s Finest Fare and the Bedford Artisan Trail are working to highlight the artisan connection between art, local culinary talents and regional agriculture.

Other art forms abound in Bedford.  Little Town Players celebrates 40 years of local community theater this year.  The Bedford Museum continues to showcase Bedford’s history through a variety of permanent and special exhibitions, as well as offering bluegrass music on Friday nights throughout the year.  The Bedford Community Orchestra presents two performances a year, and the Friends of the Bedford Library hosts monthly concerts featuring some truly national talent.  Local restaurants like Clam Diggers and The Bedford Social Club regularly feature local and regional musicians.

2nd Fridays is just part of a growing local art scene that brings together local art and music, shopping and dining experiences.

Economists call this the creative economy.  Today nearly a hundred local residents derive some form of income from sales of their handicrafts and fine art.  This creative workforce can have a profound impact on the local economy and the community.  Local offices of tourism and economic development have embraced local business and community efforts to foster, build and encourage local artisans.  But the benefit to the community is much deeper than just sales.

Growth of community arts programming through not-for-profits like the Bower Center for the Arts, the Bedford Artisan Trail and the Sedalia Center are providing opportunities for the arts to reach an ever widening audience.  The innovative and creative outreach of local retail and cooperative art galleries bring local artists together with residents and tourist to celebrate the area’s diverse talent.  This is the infrastructure that will build and grow a local creative economy, bolster tourism, and help to build a better quality of life and community pride here in Bedford.

These artists and craftspeople give a community a pride of place.  To put it simply, the local artisan scene makes Bedford an interesting place to live and work.