Cover Story

Mountain Artistry

by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

 


Artist Laura Loe's depiction of Nimrod Hall in Bath County.

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 expectations.”

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.

 

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