“My favorite part about this festival is seeing the local community come together. We have such beautiful park, and it’s wonderful that we can all enjoy this jewel” — Cathy Johansen
Virtu Art Festival kicked off for its 21st year and had no shortage of beautiful, intriguing, and inventive pieces of decorative and functional art to choose from. Truly the only difficult part of the festival was having to choose only a few people to interview from the dozens upon dozens of amazing artists.
Cathy Johansen is a Rhode Island native but moved to Westerly fifteen years ago and started participating in the Virtu Art Festival right at that time as well. “My favorite part about this festival is seeing the local community come together. We have such beautiful park, and it’s wonderful that we can all enjoy this jewel,” she explained. Although she has traveled to Italy and England to take photographs and then use those images to create some of her paintings, she is fond of capturing the enchantment of Westerly and the surrounding areas.
This year, she is showcasing a series of paintings called “Serenity Scenes” based on the beauty of our many local ponds. “I’m drawn to scenes that are inviting and peaceful, and our town and the environment is just so beautiful, there’s no shortage of inspiration.” She’s also just finishing a five-year long project with the Westerly Health Center, as a tribute to her mother who was staying there. The Center contracted her to make large scale giclee prints of her original artwork to help redecorate the building following its recent renovations. Now both floors serve as a permanent gallery of her work, and a calming visual experience for the Center’s Alzheimer’s patients, who are now surround by beautiful and familiar local scenery.
Cathy also participates in all other Rhode Island art festivals (Wickford, Narragansett, Scituate) and a few in Connecticut (Old Saybrook, Niantic, Mystic), and when not working the festival circuit, she sells her art through her website, in a shop in Watch Hill, and at the Beach House downtown.
Another veteran of Virtu is photographer Duncan Hall of D & M Images, hailing from nearby Coventry, CT, but originally from the small town of Sherborne in Dorset, England, which is still where he draws much of his inspiration. A regular at many festivals both here and abroad, he’s been participating in this particular festival for 20 years, nearly since its inception, and loves to come back each year because of the welcoming environment and the way that the festival is run by the town.
“When there’s a vested interest in creating an arts community, it shows,” he explained, adding that he believes the town manages its finances really well to help plan and promote this event and others. “Having it happen this weekend is great, too, because a lot of people are just opening up their homes for the season and want new art to redecorate it.”
He says that he’s inspired by life in general, and the cultures of the world. “I haven’t been to every continent yet, but I’m getting there. I’m a colorist, just chasing the colors in nature and trying to capture the light,” he stated. When not at this festival or or other exhibits like the Boston Flower Show, he sells his art on his website and does some architectural photography as well, which he believes comes across through his more artistic work. “I love bringing European flavors back to America,” he explained.
One especially wonderful part of the festival is the variety of art and the varied experiences that lead these artists to the festival. While Duncan has been perfecting his craft for decades, Carol Schmedinghoff of Gatherings has only been creating her pieces for the last five years, although you’d never know it based on their beauty and quality. After carving a single chickadee from a piece of spare Balsa wood with an Exacto knife five years ago, she now creates full dioramas of a variety of birds in lush settings, perfecting her craft and creating ever more detailed wings and intricate habitats for them.
A former florist, she draws her inspiration from nature, of course, but also explained that she had always been intrigued by the dioramas at the Natural History Museum. Carol is a native of Cranston and a regular at other local art festivals in the state and nearby Connecticut. This is her second year at Virtu Art Festival.
“This is a great town for art, and this festival is so well organized and so well run, They’re so helpful about getting you into your spot” she shared.
Carol is also a member of the Artists Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, which is your best chance to see her work outside of festivals. She has a website but it’s more of an informational reference point than a shop because her pieces are too delicate to ship and difficult to even photograph because of their depth and use of light and shadow.
Emily Grace, of Emily Grace Studio, is a visual artist from nearby Attleboro, MA and has been traveling the country for the last several years, ranging from New Hampshire to Colorado and California. Now she’s back in Westerly. This is not only her first year at the Virtu Art Festival, but her very first festival ever. “I’m learning a lot quickly,” she laughed, adding that “little things snuck up on me,” like how working on the certificates of authenticity for her pieces took an unexpectedly long time. However, she says she’s been very lucky to have a great crew of family and friends to support her and help get her set up.
“This has been a really cool experience so far, and everyone has been very friendly,” she said. She was an art minor and traveled to Italy for a painting trip with fellow collegiate artists, and then learned to frame and mat her work from art jobs in Colorado and California. She says she’s glad to be in Westerly again because “it has such an artistic atmosphere and there’s a huge appreciation for art here.”
Emily Grace draws inspiration from landscapes, nature, architecture, and her personal experiences therein, and promotes her work on her Instagram and sells on Etsy. One piece that really stands out is an oil on canvas painting of a seagull and called “Gull at MacArthur Park.” The name comes from the subject, of course, but also from the thinned paint drips that run across the canvas, giving it the impression of having been left out in the rain, like so much cake sung mournfully about by the late Sir Richard Harris in 1968 (or Donna Summer in 1978, if you prefer).
Emily Grace had just been finishing the tail feather for the seagull when the first accidental drip occurred, and after a few choice words were expelled, she says she realized that she may have stumbled onto an awesome effect. Just like Bob Ross might do, she decided to look upon the drip as a “happy mistake” that she could work with, and now the truly unique piece is up for sale.
The Festival continues on Sunday – May 28th from 10am-5pm – and is definitely worth checking out. Artists and visitors agree, it’s truly one of the best art festivals around, for its welcoming atmosphere, variety of beautiful goods, and smoothly running, practiced organization. The forecast looks promising, so bring your family, bring your friends, bring your wallet, bring a picnic lunch, and make a day of it!