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April 2008

In Our Own Backyard
Full Speed Ahead at the Torpedo Factory
Viewing Art & Visiting With Artists

By Michele Bush Kimball

We encountered a little confusion when I explained to my family that I was taking them to the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria.

“Do they have droids? So they have things that make holes? Do they have conveyor belts?” asked Joey, 5, a boy who adores all things mechanical. Torpedoes in a factory sounded like fun to him.

Luckily for us, he is equally as happy to look at works of art. Once we got to the art center, he switched gears and was ready to explore with his sister, Gracie, 3.

The Torpedo Factory is a former U.S. Navy Torpedo Station. For five years, torpedoes were maintained and manufactured at the site. It then became a munitions storage area until World War II. It went through many forms as a storage facility before becoming an art space in 1974.

Now it is a center, open to the public, that provides space to more than 160 professional artists who create, show and sell their works. More than 500,000 visitors file through each year, viewing art and visiting with artists.

The building is divided into studios and galleries around the perimeter of each of the three floors. Glass windows allow visitors to peer in at the art, even if the artist is not available. Art is available for purchase in each space, and the materials used are endless, including ceramics, paper, photographs, fibers, glass, metal and stone.

Artists apply for studio space each year in a juried process. They are chosen by a panel made up of art professionals, such as artists, curators, museum directors and professors. The panel chooses the applicants who show the most professionalism and promise.

What caught Joey and Gracie’s attention immediately was the bright green torpedo in the front hall. It was manufactured in the factory in 1945, and it is exhibited with historical documentation about the factory. The torpedo dwarfed the kids, which thrilled them.

From there, they dashed across the hall to Gallery 18, which belongs to the Potomac Craftsmen. Standing outside the door are a giraffe and elephant, available for touching. Gracie, the animal lover that she is, gave them gentle hugs and pats, which increased to kisses. When she asked if she could lick them, we moved her on to the next gallery.

While I was enthralled by the stunning ceramics and textiles I saw in many of the galleries on the first floor, the kids adored Gallery 30, which belongs to Carol Levin. Prominently displayed in the front window was a life-sized ram. Levin's sculptures of animals were, for obvious reasons, Gracie’s favorite. The colors and textures caught her eyes and her imagination.

A few doors down on the same side of the hall was Joey’s dream gallery. Pat Monk’s work, in Gallery 33, was breathtaking in size and scope. His welded metal sculptures took up almost the entire room. Joey literally gasped when he walked through the door.

“Wow! Wow! Mom,” he said, rooted in his tracks. He started pointing and describing what he saw, just trying to absorb it all. “That looks like a doughnut, and they have CDs around it,” he nearly yelled. The sculpture was at least 6 feet in height and about the same in depth. It was comprised of flat metal disks welded together in a three-dimensional shape that mimicked the shapes themselves – in Joey’s terms, a doughnut made of CDs.

Just outside Monk’s studio and gallery was another highlight of the visit: a double sink where Joey and Gracie could wash their hands at the same time. Other amenities high on their list were the multicolored chairs placed throughout the public spaces in the center – one row gray, one row green, one row purple.

Upstairs, we found more galleries. At one end of the second floor is the Art League School. The school offers classes and workshops throughout the year in most of the media seen in the artists’ galleries. There are classes available for children, too.
On the top floor, we were all enamored with the vivid tropical art from Marcel in the gallery at the top of the stairs. The kids ran right in to look at the paintings and sculptures. They dropped down on the floor to look up at all the colors around them. Joey said he wanted to stay. “It’s because they’re wonderful,” he said. “It’s because it makes me happy when I’m in here.”

Just across the corridor, another gallery caught Gracie’s attention. This time, it was the brightly, cheerfully painted portraits of dogs by Jackie Ehle. And even better, a real dog was visiting his owner, artist Alexia Scott, who shares space with Ehle. Ranger tried to rest at Scott’s feet while she delicately applied oil paint to a triptych landscape.

Scott, a former art teacher at Georgetown University, said she is one of the few early-openers on a weekday. Weekends are a different story, she said. The galleries are filled with artists honing their crafts. The halls are filled with visitors, their strollers and even their dogs.

“Saturdays are a madhouse around here,” Scott said with a laugh.
Her gallery has become a great place to work, she said. Watching her lightly touch her brush to her canvas, and seeing a peaceful landscape appear, was mesmerizing.
The visit inspired all of us. We went right home and raided the art drawer, pulling out paper, paint, scissors and glue.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer in Springfield and a stay-at-home mom.

Location: The Torpedo Factory Art Center is located at 105 N. Union Street, on the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria.

Parking: There are parking meters and public parking garages all around the art center.

Cost: Free.

Amenities: There are several restaurants and cafes on the streets around the art center. Right outside the back door is the Torpedo Factory Food Pavilion, which offers several fast food options. The Chart House restaurant is also right behind the art center. Art can be purchased in the galleries. There is also a small gift shop on the first floor with souvenirs and books.

Kid’s activities: The Art League School offers classes for kids. In the fall, the art center sponsors an art festival with hands-on activities for kids.

For more information: To read more about the art center, or to see examples of the art, go to www.torpedofactory.org.

For more information about classes, go to www.theartleague.com.

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