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Furniture that Inspires

An exhibit at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design features the work of a local artist couple who made it big.

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Talk about a lucky break for two artists then working from a second floor apartment in the Fan. When Catherine Roseberry and Rob Womack displayed their hand-painted furniture at the first ever International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 1989, they were singled out in a New York Times article about the show.

"We were mentioned above the fold," Roseberry recalls, still sounding amazed at the couple's good fortune. "And we were the only artists from the South."

The good press that continued with articles in Metropolitan Home and Casa Vogue was enough, she says, to put them on a level playing field with international designers. So level that the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery now has "All Sound," a chest painted with a terrace view of an elaborate imaginary metropolis, as part of their permanent collection.

"Coloratura at 35: a Retrospective" at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design brings together 50 of the couple's works in a wide-ranging exhibit of chests, tables, cubes, paintings, preparatory drawings and, significantly, five long-packed away panels belonging to the city of Richmond. And while the pieces of furniture may be functional, it's impossible to stand before them and not see works of art heavily grounded in art history.

Looking through their record albums in 1983 for lyrical or poetic inspiration, the term coloratura came up twice, once as a Duke Ellington composition and also in liner notes describing coloratura soprano Maria Callas.

"We both latched on to it and it stayed at the top of our list. It had color in it, it had a nice flow and part of the dictionary definition is 'elaborate embellishment,'" Womack explains of their collective name.

The lineage of their painted furniture began the same year the name was decided. "Coloratura #1," a folk art chair Womack found in Shockoe Bottom for $6 and painted using a bright, folkloric pattern, is now owned by Catherine Robb, Chuck and Lynda Robb's daughter and Lyndon B. Johnson's granddaughter.

"With that chair, I began marrying art history with sculptural form," explains Womack. "After that, my ideas became more elaborate and I started searching out pieces with interesting forms."

"Resurgam," which is Latin for "I shall rise again," was an early work of Roseberry's done on a wooden cube. Depicted on each side of the piece was a different brown-skinned woman trying to escape, a woman confined by society's constraints on her. When commissioned to do a similar piece in 1999, Roseberry decided to tighten up the composition and include women of all colors — Muslim, Central American, African-American and white — to illustrate the continuing limits placed on all women. She dubbed it "Dum Vivimus Vivamus," which is Latin for "While we live, let us live." 

Inspired by magic and memories of having seen Buckminster Fuller and Miles Davis at the Mosque, Womack created "The Conjurer Revealed" in 1995 for the renovation of the Mosque into the Landmark Theater. When Altria took it over in 2014, the five panels featuring a Turkish acrobat, pieces of lace and the Mosque itself contained in a crystal ball were relegated to crates and an uncertain future.

"To find these panels in immaculate condition was a gift," says Penelope Fletcher, the Branch Museum's executive director. Insisting that they're too significant and beautiful to be packed away again, the Branch is soliciting viewers' opinions on where in the city the panels should be hung once the exhibit closes.
After the exhausting work on the panels, the couple took time off to visit Florence, Italy, and soak up its art history and traditional elements from laurel leaves to depictions of women found their way into the couple's art.

More recently, current events have been the inspiration for new work. Although unhappy with the results of the 2016 election, Roseberry was mindful that people rarely want a piece of furniture for their home that churns up anger, so she looked for a positive spin when painting a wooden chest.

The result is "Ariacne," inspired by a talented young Cuban violinist who'd befriended Womack at an artists' retreat in Amherst, Virginia. A brilliant musician who was considering defecting so that she could make music freely, the woman eventually got her green card and stayed.

"She was an immigrant and is a fabulous contributor to our culture now," Roseberry says. "My statement is that immigrants are important to this country."

Created for the restaurant Dinamo, "The Boy Who Loved Ketchup" is a table with a family history. As a child, Womack's grandfather had regaled him with the story of a boy's ketchup obsession, which the artist then recreated comic-style, panel-by-panel, by reverse-painting it on glass. The result is that Dinamo's customers literally eat off a work of art, but to Womack it was simply a labor of love.

"This show is important because we could show our diversity working in different styles and periods that sent us in different directions of art history," Womack notes. "We do a lot of research at Cabell Library."

If it sounds like a lot of togetherness, the couple is more than OK with that. "Our work and our life have been the same thing for 35 years." Roseberry says. S

Coloratura at 35: a Retrospective" runs through Aug. 19 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Ave. branchmuseum.org. Gallery talks with the artists will be held July 14 at 1 p.m. and July 19 at 6 p.m.

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