News & Features » Cover Story

Guiding Hand: The Hand Workshop Art Center is almost 40

and Executive Director Jo Bowman Kennedy wants to tell everyone the doors are open.


This is the philosophy, and the creation story, of the Hand Workshop Art Center, which 40 years after its birth, has become something no one expected.

It's not a fancy studio. It feels nothing like a museum. It is a place of old bricks and tiles, corrugated steel ceilings, paint-splattered walls and faltering plumbing.

It's "the only place in the world where you can put something in the trash can and get paint all over your hands," says Kennedy, ruefully examining her blue-smeared fingertips after a brush against a student's discarded palette.

Still, she smiles. Here, children just learning to draw and renowned Richmond artists call each other by their first names. Adults who once protested picking up a paintbrush become absorbed in their canvasses. Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" mingles with classical music. Chocolate chip cookies are shared by all.

Thriving on chaos, the Hand Workshop works. For nearly 40 years the nonprofit organization has steadily advanced toward its goal of "bringing art to the community and the community to art."

Each year thousands of people, children and adults alike, take classes there in stained glass, illustration, interior design, welding, writing and more. Last year, 7,000 people attended the Hand Workshop's annual craft exhibition, a nationally acclaimed three-day event held in November.

But still, somehow, few in the Richmond region recognize its name. That's been the case for years. In a November 2000 interview shortly after Kennedy took office, she told Style that "we also want to be more comprehensive and regional. Right now we're a pretty well-kept secret."

Now Kennedy, 57, has been charged with letting that secret out. An award-winning lyrical poet with a warm, calm demeanor, she seems an unlikely candidate to shout it. Her colleagues call her a "quiet leader," expert behind the scenes but shy of the spotlight.

In two years on the job, Kennedy has managed to accomplish what the Hand Workshop has long hoped for — successful fund raising, the purchase and planned expansion of its building and ever-widening involvement in art education. Those who have witnessed the changes believe that it is time for the humble building on Main Street to become known as more than a place to learn to draw still lifes. Will the Hand Workshop someday become Richmond's destination for visual arts?

"We believe that we already are Richmond's art center," Kennedy says. It's just a question of convincing people to venture in.

hen you walk into the airy entranceway of the Hand Workshop's home at 1812 W. Main St., the first thing you notice is the noise. A discernible buzz drifts in from the doorways — a mix of children's chatter, whirring pottery wheels and strains of music. Absent is the solemn hush of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, or the don't-disturb-the-artists feeling of studios.

Kennedy sums up the feeling succinctly: "You walk through the door and you can feel that things are happening here." Anyone who enters thinking, "I'm not an artist" quickly learns otherwise.

In a recent session of Artventure summer classes, Leah Jay, 11, is sitting before a wooden loom, threading it for a scarf. When a visitor fingers the silvery blue chenille and comments wistfully that weaving class looks like fun, Leah looks up quizzically.

"You should take it," she says. Duh. For most, one class is not out of reach, with tuition ranging from $25 to $205 for nonmembers, depending on the length and nature of the class. Also, 80 scholarships are available each year for children.

Many of the students who take one course at the workshop keep coming back. "It's infectious," says Richard Steiner, former CSX executive and current chairman of the board of directors. "Even I took a class," he says a bit sheepishly.

The Hand Workshop preaches that experience doesn't matter. "You can be a rank beginner or an advanced, accomplished artist," Kennedy explains. Both share the facilities equally.

For instance, this summer, students and instructors made hundreds of shallow ceramic dishes to sell at the workshop's August ice cream social and exhibition of students' and teachers' work. Piled up in leaning stacks, those intricately decorated by a professional artist lie next to bowls painted by a child's hand. Each one, regardless of the signature on the bottom, costs $10. "Isn't that cool?" Kennedy exclaims over the mix on the shelves. "It's wonderful. The common denominator is that they're all fun."

This is, her colleagues say, what sets Kennedy apart as more than an average administrator: her genuine delight in the art that pours out of this realm. Every Friday, when a week's worth of students has a show for their parents, "she is down with the parents … talking with the kids to see what they've done," says Christine Shorr, the Hand Workshop's education director.

"It takes someone very special like Jo to do the daily grind and keep a business sense about it," says board member Rejena Carreras. "It's like right-brain, left-brain." Never loud, dressed more like an art teacher than an administrator, in simple colors and distinctive silver jewelry, Kennedy seems like a pillar of calm amid constant movement.

Educational programs are the heart of the organization, but the Hand Workshop is more than a jumble of classrooms. What makes it unique is that no other place in Richmond aims to immerse everyone in every aspect of the visual arts.

"Our goal never was to be a museum," says Carreras, nor to be an art gallery. The workshop is achieving pre-eminence as an educational center, she says, but adds: "That does not mean we compete with VCU." The Hand Workshop has become an amalgam of all three while still, she says, "keeping it personal and keeping it very human in the approach."

The Hand Workshop brings art to the community, most notably, through creative use of its gallery space, which in its silent, air-conditioned whiteness bears stark contrast to the classrooms on the other side of the wall. After three years under curator Ashley Kistler, the workshop is becoming known for bringing fine art to the public in a friendly atmosphere. The next show, "Pushing Paper," opens Sept. 6 and will display prints and artist-made books.

It also brings the community to art. The Hand Workshop offers a staggering array of classes. It employs 10 full-time staffers and more than 100 part-time instructors, all professional artists — possibly the most artists of any Richmond organization apart from VCU, Kennedy says. Classes take place 47 weeks out of the year and are open to all.

The only limitation now is space. But by December, the organization will, at long last, be able to exercise an option to buy its building; $585,000 has been raised to buy it, part of $900,000 received in pledges. The crowding that plagues most classes will be alleviated when the workshop breaks into 11,000 square feet of unused space, doubling the studio and class space available.

The renovations will probably take 12 to 18 months, Kennedy says, but the starting date depends on the funds raised in next year's campaign. Still, staff already anticipates spreading out. Animation instructor Kirk O'Brien, standing in a stuffy classroom and dodging kids dashing back and forth, speaks longingly of the day when he has "a room with slightly more, well, room."

hough at times it seems small, the Hand Workshop has grown exponentially since its inception. It was created in Church Hill in 1963. Six Richmonders prominent in the arts, led by preservationist Elisabeth Scott Bocock, bought a humble house at 316 N. 24th St. and remade it as an artists' haven.

Bocock began bringing in children to learn crafts such as ceramics and weaving from the artists there. The original wooden hand looms, worn but sturdy, are used for classes today. At first the artists taught in Whitlow House, as it was called. But when increasing numbers of students threatened to overflow it, Hand Workshop artists began giving their lessons in private studios across the city.

Neighbors knew the place as a quaint craft shop, where in the outdoor courtyard artists would sell things like woven place mats and coffee mugs. However, the workshop's annual craft show quickly gained regional then national recognition as it grew from eight artists to hundreds. In 1986, the invested profits allowed its directors to lease and restore part of a long brick building on Main Street, formerly the Virginia Dairy.

Many expected the new building to be a grander version of the shop, but instead, the Hand Workshop decided to turn its energies to education and exhibition. At the time, it employed only two people full time. Twelve part-time instructors and a horde of volunteers assisted with teaching and, in the first days, turned the dairy into home.

"We were young and stupid when we moved into this building," says longtime board member Carreras, laughing. "I can remember hosing down the floors that were covered in dirt and grime, scrubbing out the toilets that hadn't been cleaned in 20 years … But hey, we're here to tell it."

Space on the first floor became classrooms and an exhibition gallery. A tiled tank that once held milk was crammed with staffers' desks. A steel ladder leads to the second floor, where biologists once bent over cultures in petri dishes. Now, the space is divided into small studios occupied by about 20 artists. It's chilly in the winter and stifling in the summer, Kennedy says, but nevertheless it's a well-populated place.

In 1993, the Richmond Printmaking Workshop closed and donated its equipment to the Hand Workshop, which carved out additional studio space for printmaking on the first floor. Under Kennedy's predecessor, Susan Glasser, the workshop raised its annual class attendance from 3,000 to 5,000 in three years and also added a gas kiln, darkroom and new computer system.

In 2000, Glasser resigned, saying, "Now it's time for someone else to move it to the next phase." Kennedy stepped in.

Or rather, was pushed in. In the spring of 2000, she had recently retired after 14 years as director of the graphics department at Dominion's nuclear business unit. Kennedy, who has a master of humanities degree from the University of Richmond and a master of fine arts in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, was happily settling into a part-time position as an adjunct English professor at both schools. Then Marjorie Grier, a longtime friend from Dominion who was on the board of the Hand Workshop, called Kennedy to see if she'd consider applying to become the new executive director.

Absolutely not, Kennedy said. She was enjoying teaching, she said, and wasn't looking for another demanding job. Grier did convince her, however, to serve as acting director from June until September, while the search progressed.

Kennedy remembers clearly the day she and Grier were talking after a lunch together and she confessed "Marjorie, it's going to be hard to leave this place." Grier said, "You don't have to leave, Jo. Why don't you apply for the job?"

Kennedy did, and the board of directors gladly took her on. She stepped into a difficult situation, says Steiner, current chairman of the board. The workshop had long been going through "a series of false starts," Steiner says, ever since 1994, when he joined the board after arriving in Richmond to work for CSX.

The Hand Workshop continued to expand its programs, he says, but public recognition lagged behind and funds sagged. "We never quite got the critical mass of all the elements to make it happen," Steiner says.

According to some board members, there was a fundamental disagreement between the director and the board over which direction the Hand Workshop would take — toward becoming a gallery and museum, or remaining an educational center. One member of the board at the time says it felt as if the organization had made it halfway up a mountain, then lost its way and slipped back.

When Kennedy arrived she wasted no time, board members say. She refocused the workshop on its original mission, education, and placed the highest priority on finding good teachers and organizers.

In fact, Kennedy says her greatest success has been "the team of players that we've put together," a group that existed in part before she arrived but has grown stronger under her guidance. She's not being modest in pointing to her artists and staff as the strength of the workshop — summer students and board members alike agree.

Using her corporate experience at Dominion, Kennedy examined the goals and problems of the institution with a practical eye. She found new donors to provide for the workshop's wide array of programs, yet also emphasized the importance of financial independence. "We're an entrepreneurial nonprofit," Kennedy says.

Currently, 64 percent of the organization's operating budget comes from earned income (classes, fund-raisers and rent on its studios) while 36 percent is grants and contributions.

Both increased substantially under Kennedy's leadership. "Last year, in a year when many nonprofits came in in the red, we finished $20,000 in the black," she says. "And that was phenomenal, because we received no state funds, and we increased our earned income by 15 percent."

Kennedy also sought a wider array of members for the board, people who could bring new ideas and new money. Twenty percent of the board must always be artists, which is "not the greatest thing for fund raising," Steiner says.

But the mix of creators, advocates and business people leads to lively discussions and renewed excitement. One member, who works at a bank, once told Kennedy the board meetings in the art-crammed multipurpose room are a highlight of her month. "It just happens to be the right chemistry, that's all," Steiner says.

And most importantly, despite Kennedy's direct approach, "she didn't come in saying, 'This is what you need to do and this is how you have to do it,'" recalls Stephanie Micas, executive director of the Arts Council of Richmond. "She listens. And she learns."

isten and learn. These are the fundamentals, in a place where so much knowledge is traded. And children, especially, are surprisingly eager to settle down and pay attention. The Hand Workshop offers a freedom they find nowhere else. Kennedy likes to relate how a student once told her, "I love these classes because I never make a mistake."

School is different from the Hand Workshop, students say. In school, "You just do pictures of people, or take pictures of people. … It's the teacher's decision," says Leah Jay, the weaver.

Nick Marlton, 10, feels the same way about art classes at public school. "We have an assignment and we work on it for a while. Assignments like making pottery and drawing still lifes." Nathan Willett, 11, says "It stinks."

The two boys, however, are enthralled by the video-animation summer class taught by cartoonist O'Brien. In one week, the students, ages 8 to 15, design clay and paper characters and turn them into three short animated segments. There are just a few rules — no firearms in the plot lines, don't kick the camera.

Students create a vast array of brief films, using a small video camera, a television and an editing device called a Lunchbox. In one afternoon class, 11-year-old Lindsay Sisson's clay brontosaurus waddles across the screen and eats a rainbow. Nathan's American soldier crouches behind a clay embankment, facing an Afghan opponent (O'Brien looks at the scene askance, but agrees the story can be filmed as long as no clay guns appear). And Nick, a four-year veteran of the class, makes clay versions of Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" characters carrying out their devious schemes.

The students ask how much it would cost to have Lunchboxes of their own. When O'Brien tells them $2,500, they're awed. "I wouldn't buy a Lunchbox for that price," remarks Kyle Howlett, 11. "I'd buy a bunch of other nice stuff."

School administrators feel the same way. Tight budgets mean few schools have such things as pottery wheels, looms or glass grinders, let alone a Lunchbox. That, plus an unrelenting emphasis on raising students' SOL scores, means "art is squeezed out of the curriculum," Kennedy says.

The Hand Workshop wants to reverse the trend, bringing art back to students. Last year was the first time it received enough private funding to offer free art classes to students at Binford Middle School Monday through Thursday, every week.

A free after-school program for students from Binford and three other schools began last year, Shorr says, prompted by a perilous situation. Every afternoon, horrified Hand Workshop administrators would see students with no place to go after school playing on Main Street. "Kids would be playing chicken in the road, jumping on cars," Shorr says.

No longer. Soon, instead of running in the streets, she says, kids ran to their pots and paintings. Last year, 140 students enrolled in 28 free after-school classes — which incorporated lessons in Virginia history that related to the SOLs, Shorr says. Overall, nearly 2,300 people under age 18 participated in the Hand Workshop's programs. And it's not enough, says Shorr. As the organization grows, she says, she'd like to include as many schools as will fit.

ith the promise of more students and more space, Kennedy and the workshop have decided it's time to spread the word. But why after nearly 40 years has the Hand Workshop remained obscure?

One reason is money. The workshop, like most nonprofits, has few extra dollars to spend on hiring a publicist or launching an expensive marketing campaign. The time the Hand Workshop's name is seen most is in advertisements for the annual Craft & Design Show, which has no relation to the educational programs the workshop wants to publicize.

Other theories abound. Some believe the long brick building, with its modest sign and imposing atrium, says to passers-by "elite studio" instead of "art for all." Shorr says, "I think if our building were pink or something, people would say 'Hey! I want to go in there.'"

Some think maybe the name "Hand Workshop Arts Center" isn't right — maybe the organization needs something catchier. Kennedy says the possibility of changing the name has been tossed around, but, Carreras says, that's been the case as long as she can remember.

Name debates aside, for the first time the Hand Workshop is embarking on a real effort to brand itself. August has marked the end of an eight-month "visioning process," in which board members, staffers and artists met to decide how they want to define themselves to the public.

It was a challenging task — nothing that makes the Hand Workshop unique could be put on graphs and charts. In the end, they came up with a "purpose statement" to tell thousands of potential members what the place is about: "The Hand Workshop is an open door to the unexpected through art and art making."

Unexpected. Like Kennedy's first clay bowl, like the force the Hand Workshop has become.

Kennedy has moved far beyond basic wheel-throwing pottery now, and plans to sign up for an advanced course this fall. "Then, when I feel that I can actually make a pot, I'll probably take a jewelry class," Kennedy says with a smile. "Eventually, I want to take all of the classes here." S

Add a comment