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Feature Story: A Space of Her Own

Artist Vicki Bruner renovates her Jackson Ward loft.


What made her take on such a huge project? That's simple: the patio.

Bruner bought the second floor of an old building at the intersection of Brook Road and Marshall Street, which was once used to store carriages serving the Richmond Dairy Co. plant across the street. Bruner's apartment not only has a wall of windows overlooking the famous local landmark's white bottle-shaped corners, but it also has a 1,350-square-foot rooftop patio that's almost half the size of her loft — big enough for a hot tub or some serious landscaping. And there's plenty of space for Bruner's 110-pound Great Dane, Fibi, to roam. Bruner plans to finish laying the patio stones and to add a Japanese pebble garden.

But first there is some unpacking to do.

The work is worth it, says Bruner, happy to have found an old, untouched building. Once both her children were out of the house attending Virginia Commonwealth University, she was ready to get rid of her house in Virginia Beach with its pool and yard. But all the old buildings in Norfolk had been torn down, and when she finally found one for sale, intact with some space, she was disappointed to find that the "loft" space had been chopped up into rooms.

So Bruner turned to Richmond, where she knew there was plenty of old building stock. She sees it as a baby step toward her dream destination of Mexico, she jokes. Plus, she's near her children and Richmond's thriving arts scene.

Bruner is a mixed-media artist represented by the White Canvas Gallery in Shockoe Bottom. She also illustrates for Viva HaHa Designs, a company she started with her friend Tracy Kunzier. The two make paper and kitchen goods that are adorned with female characters and have a playful attitude. They also just launched Tastes Like Chicken, a line of humorous kitchen paraphernalia. Bruner illustrates and Kunzier writes the saucy one-liners.

Bruner worked with BAM architects and contractor Doug Hilemn to build out the space for her needs. The relationship is important, she notes. "Find a contractor you like because you're like in bed with the guy," she jokes, adding that she's been pleased with everyone she's worked with on the project.

BAM had a previous relationship with the owners of the building, helping them prepare it to be sold as condos. They also worked on the plans to renovate the first-floor unit, so for Bruner they were the logical choice.

Bruner had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do with her space, says BAM owner/architect Burt Pinnock, so their job was easy. She came to them with sketches and clips from magazines. Bruner knew she wanted to keep it minimal; she wanted as much open space as possible. The end result was breaking the room up only for one bedroom and one bath.

"It was just a shell — no bathroom or kitchen in the space — so we helped her figure out how to do it for the least amount of dollars," Pinnock says. "On-the-cheap sort of plays well with the kind of space that it was — sort of raw, industrial."

The main, multipurpose room has a large area toward the back for her studio. "I'm a mixed-media artist, so I've got tons of stuff," she says. A hefty table for matting prints provides the barricade between the studio and the rest of the room. Bruner also has a sewing table, sketching table and drafting table in the studio space. Flanking the desks are raw wood shelving units from IKEA filled with boxes that hold her many supplies: fabric, wood figures and pieces, stamps, grommets, sequins, springs, wire, beads. Plus, she has paint, charcoal, and pen and ink supplies. "I have never been this organized in my life," Bruner says. Now that she's finally unpacked, she adds, that's likely to change.

Bruner's kitchen area is a vision in black and stainless steel. She went to Lowe's to design an industrial look inexpensively. Gray slate-looking Formica on the island counter is a good substitute for granite. It's held up by galvanized piping, which echoes the exposed air ducts and water pipes overhead. The front of the island is covered in corrugated aluminum sheeting.

"Basically this house came from Lowe's and IKEA," Bruner says. Despite some bargain ingredients, the result is a well-thought-out industrial setting for Bruner's varied art collection, which includes a stuffed zebra and a Mark Chatterly life-sized clay sculpture of two figures kissing. Other than those oversized works, Bruner says, the new scale of her living space has posed a challenge for some of her art: "My little pieces that looked fine in my last house have just dwarfed," she says.

Bruner says she is trying to "de-junk" her life and has given away much of her art. She did, however, keep many Richmond artists' work for her new space, including a Timothy McClellan painting, a vase by Mary Lou Deal and a metal sculpture by Clifford Earl, along with a lot of fine crafts she's collected over time. The loft has a slight Southwestern feel, thanks to several Texas artists' colorful work she's picked up while visiting her mother in San Marcos, Texas. Bruner says the state is also the source of much of the whimsy around the place, too, like the neon beer signs, wooden cigar-store Indian, stuffed deer head and zebra skin. Bruner also has several silk and metal palm trees, which, along with the rattan floor pillows and ottomans, add a tropical element to the loft. Bruner says she really scaled down her collection and hopes to keep it to these choice pieces. "I cannot collect any more," she vows. "I am done."

No matter what she does to the décor, Bruner knows it's destined to pale in comparison to the bones of the loft, but that's the way she likes it.


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