In Bath County, artists find sanctuary and inspiration at
Nimrod Hall through a 27-year-old arts program on the Cowpasture River.
When Richmond oil painter Laura Loe first discovered
Nimrod Hall in Bath County, Va., she was working full-time as a graphic
designer during the week and spending her weekends bartending in an effort
to make ends meet. A friend told her about a retreat for artists at Nimrod
Hall and suggested she go.
“I did not feel I could go,” Loe recalls, but she somehow
managed to take a week off work and scrape together the cash to pay the
tuition. “The first week I was there was life-changing,” she says. “I could
paint all day long. I didn’t have a single responsibility. I could walk down
to the river, sit on the porch, laugh with the other artists. There were no
Loe fell in love with the rambling old house on the
Cowpasture River and the summer artists’ colony some Richmond ladies had
started in 1986. “Most artists tend to be ADD and take on more than they can
handle,” Loe remarks. Nimrod Hall gave her the chance to slow down and focus
on her work and remember the joy of painting without an agenda.
By happenstance over three or four summers of visiting
Bath County, Loe became friends with Nimrod Hall’s owners, Frankie and Jim
Apistolas, and the couple asked the young painter if she would take over the
Nimrod Hall Arts Program as executive director and actually turn it into an
organized and profitable venture.
Some Richmond women had started the program more than a
decade before Loe took over in 1997. “No one had tried to make it a
business,” Loe explains, noting that before her tenure the program had only
about 40 participants. “A group of wealthy women in Richmond started it as a
lark but then found out the whole experience was pretty awesome. What they
didn’t like was all the work it involved.”
A former teacher at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Loe
had attended other artists’ colonies in Vermont and Kentucky and decided
those she liked best were ones without formal classes but with enough
teachers for all the students to get individual attention without
overwhelming the artists in residence with work. She decided to establish a
similar environment at Nimrod.
Loe overhauled the Nimrod Hall
Arts Program, bringing in two teachers per week who are there to give
advice, not to lead workshops. “Artists come here to paint a long time by
themselves,” Loe explains.
Twenty-four artists attend the program each
week during the summer, and each artist has his or her own private room,
though most do their painting outdoors.
“Our teachers come from all over the state,” Loe says,
many of them returning every year. She has artists in residence from
Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Lynchburg. “In order to qualify to teach
here, you have to teach locally where you live,” she adds. “We get many of
our students because they follow their teachers to Nimrod.”
Loe says she has no trouble filling the colony each
summer. “We get most of our artists via word of mouth,” she notes. Nimrod
isn’t for everyone, however. “There are tiny little cottages that you stay
in that have been there since the 19th century,” she points out. “It’s not a
place for people looking for luxury. It’s old beds, old sheets. It’s like
stepping back in time.”
The luxuries at Nimrod Hall are time and environment.
“There is nothing you have to do here but paint,” Loe says. “There is no
pressure. We don’t encourage competition.” Most artists enjoy the free time
to pursue their art without interruptions in a beautiful mountain setting
where they can meander down to the river for a swim or spend long evenings
chatting with other artists on the front porch of the main house. Loe says
the program enjoys an 85 percent return rate.
“Plus, the teachers pretty much never leave!” she says
with a laugh. “We don’t have very high turnover among teachers either. The
teachers love it, too, because they also have time to work.
“Some of the other artists’ colonies I’ve been to are
geared toward super serious artists,” Loe explains. “But Nimrod isn’t like
that. We’re about being with a like-minded group of people in a beautiful
setting. You just don’t get this level of sedateness anywhere else.”
Time for Art
Loe says she has stayed with the Nimrod Hall Arts Program
so long because she’s absolutely passionate about it. And she realizes it
gives artists like herself time to just be artists. With three growing
children and a career, Loe knows how hard it can be to find dedicated time
to paint without interruption.
Right now the arts program has about 125 to 130 students
attending each summer, and their skill levels range from beginner to
professional. Each week-long session hosts about 24 students. Loe says one
of her favorite things about Nimrod is the camaraderie that develops among
the artists. Because there are no distractions like jobs, children, and
television, they enjoy long stretches of not just work time but downtime,
too. “Our generation doesn’t visit like our parents’ generation,” she
explains. “Here, you visit. People sit on each other’s front porches and
talk. It’s almost like a playdate for grown-ups!” she laughs.
If you ask Loe what the secret to the success of the
program is (good luck getting a coveted spot in one of their summer
sessions!), she answers without hesitation, “When you feel comfortable and
relaxed, you do better artwork!”
If You’d Like to Attend ...
The Nimrod Hall Arts Program runs for five weeks with an
additional “open session” at the beginning of the summer season for artists
who don’t need or want the guidance of a resident artist. Sessions begin in
early June and run through mid-July. Tuition includes accommodations and all
meals, and the atmosphere is informal. There are no classes or workshops,
and slots are filled
on a first-come, first-served basis. The cost to attend
is $725 per artist per week. There is also a program for writers. For more
information and to download an application, visit www.nimrodhallart.com.