Arts and Culture in Virginia
Virginia was one of the first places settlers from Europe came to in North America. Settling in landscapes from tidewater to mountain highlands, these first Virginians created a long history of arts and culture, and a varied one. There are mansions and log cabins, symphonies and bluegrass festivals, ballet dancers and cloggers. The range of artists past and present who have called Virginia home is just as diverse.
The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra looks for ways to combine its music with other arts. It offers a multimedia children’s festival as well as a regular season of concerts, and has been serving northern Virginia for more than fifty years. In central Virginia, the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra finds musicians from the community joining up with faculty members and students from the University of Virginia to present more than a dozen concerts each year. Roanoke Symphony brings classical music, pops, concerts, and a youth harp orchestra to western Virginia. Fairfax, Richmond, and Onancock are other communities that support classical music groups.
Norfolk is home to both a symphony and a professional opera company. Its Virginia Opera, the official state opera company, offers three dozen performances each year, on stages in Norfolk, Richmond, and Fairfax. The Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville celebrates the talents of both regional and national artists and has an apprentice program as well as educational outreach. In the Shenandoah Valley, theRoanoke Opera also hosts national and international guest artists, and is known for its creative approaches to staging.
Bristol, Roanoke, Reston, and Salem are among communities with ballet companies and schools.Richmond Ballet, the state’s official ballet, tours across the state and up and down the east coast as well. The ballet offers classic and new works, and has had more than three-dozen ballets created specifically for its company. It is also the home to a renowned ballet school.
The Southwest Virginia Ballet Company in Salem is a youth ballet offering training and a series of public performances, while the Reston Conservatory Ballet welcomes adults and children to its classes. The Roanoke Ballet Theatre is a teaching ballet whose instructors form the core of a professional company.
Culture and community in Virginia span more than five centuries. The Alexandria Archaeology Museum has collections of prehistoric artifacts along with Revolutionary War-era items and more recent pieces. Pamunkey Indian Museum in King William is one of several that reflect Native presence.Jamestown Rediscovery, in Jamestown, is involved in the excavation of the settlement there, which dates from 1607.
Historic structures have themselves often become museums. Bacon’s Castle in Surry dates from 1665 and is one of the few examples of Jacobean style architecture in North America. At Colonial Williamsburg a whole community from the early 18th century has been preserved in architecture and artifacts, and is recreated through costumed interpreters and exhibits. Homes of well-known historical figures are also museums, comprising both their architecture and exhibits on the lives and times of those who lived there. George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s home atMonticello are two of these. For the first centuries of its existence, parts of Virginia were always frontier, and this can be explored at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton up in the Blue Ridge, which traces farm and rural life in the time leading up to the War Between the States. That war is also the subject of museums and historic sites across the state, including the Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters Museum, an antebellum house in Winchester; Petersburg National Battlefield, the site of the siege of Petersburg; and Appomattox Courthouse in Appomattox.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond holds collections of works from ancient Egypt to present times, and is noted for its holdings of the art of Nepal and Tibet. The Appalachian Sprit Gallery, on the other hand, concentrates on the work of regional artists. It is located in Marion. Danville, Norfolk, and Alexandria are other Virginia communities with fine arts museums. Children’s interests, local history, and natural science are also popular topics the more than 200 museums in the state. Virginia boasts lighthouse museums, railway museums, firehouse museums, and other special collections as well.
Piedmont blues, old-time mountain music, hip-hop, rock, jazz, and country are all parts of today’s music scene in Virginia, and its past holds ties to musicians across these genres too. Dock Boggs (1898–1971), from West Norton, and John Jackson (1924–2002), from Rappahannock County, both played early Appalachian-style blues songs on the banjo. A.P. Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter (1909–1978) had been singing tight family harmonies and collecting old songs for 10 years when they recorded a demo for a regional scout for RCA in Bristol in 1927. The Carter Family’s legacy of recordings and radio broadcasts have influenced country and bluegrass artists through the generations.
Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) and Broadway star Pearl Bailey (1918–1990) were both born in Newport News. Rock vocalist Pat Benatar (b. 1953) began her singing career in Richmond. Jam band and alternative rock artists Dave Matthews Band began in 1991 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Singer and actress Sissy Spacek (b. 1949) lives in the Charlottesville area, and her daughter, Schuyler Fisk (b. 1982), also an actress and folk singer, graduated from the University of Virginia. Rapper and hip-hop artist Missy Elliott (b. 1971) was born in Portsmouth and lives in the Hampton Roads area. Toby McKeehan (b. 1964) from Fairfax has won a Grammy for his rock gospel music. Ralph Stanley (b. 1927), a pioneer of bluegrass, is from McClure. Folk and country songwritersRobin and Linda Williams live in Staunton. Award-winning folk and country songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter (b. 1958) lives in northern Virginia.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, located in Vienna, is an internationally known venue for music concerts and other stage shows. There’s a performance venue and museum at The Carter Fold in Hintons, and Clintwood’s Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center displays Ralph Stanley memorabilia. The Lyceum, a Greek Revival-style building in Alexandria that dates from the Federal period, houses a museum on its lower floor and a performance venue for acoustic musicians upstairs. The Crooked Road marks places significant to the history of Virginia’s old-time music as it winds through the southwestern part of the state. The Kid Pan Alley project, pairing schoolchildren with professional songwriters to create songs, is active in the Charlottesville area.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk is a professional theater company offering classics as well as musicals and new works, for which it often provides sign language interpretation. Up in the Blue Ridge, Abingdon’s Barter Theatre got its name because, when it began in 1933 during the Great Depression, people often paid for their tickets with food they grew on their farms. Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal are two actors who played the Barter at the start of their award-winning careers. Today, the Barter is a professional resident company bringing a variety of productions to the highlands, and offering an Appalachian Festival to encourage and showcase the culture of the region. Shakespeare is the focus atBlackfriars Theater in Staunton, both in the plays presented by the professional company and in the theater design itself. The theater was recreated from those of Shakespeare’s time, and has the very contemporary effect of making Blackfriars a theater with a small carbon footprint. The Firehouse Theatre Project, Theater IV, and Barksdale Theater are professional companies based in Richmond. Vpstart Crow in Manassas is a resident company dedicated to presenting thought-provoking performances. Middletown and Arlington are also home to professional resident companies.
Virginia has been the location for political thrillers, mysteries, historical drama, and just about every other sort of film, both appearing as itself and as a stand in for other locations. The 1978 political storyAll the President’s Men was shot in part in Arlington. A resort in Pembroke stood in for the Catskill resort when Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey made the low-budget film that became a blockbuster, 1987’s Dirty Dancing. Parts of the Academy Award-winning Civil War-era drama Cold Mountain(2003) were filmed in Williamsburg and Richmond, and Richmond stood in for Washington, D.C., in the 1992 film Dave. Though it was filmed mostly in California, the television series The Waltons (1972–1981) was set in rural Virginia. In the 1980 award-winning film Coal Miner’s Daughter, locations in Virginia stood in for Washington State, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Virginia also has an independent film community within the state and a number of companies active in supporting film production.
Warren Beatty (b. 1937) and his sister Shirley MacLaine (b. 1934) have both won many awards during their careers as actors. Both were born in Richmond and lived in several cities in Virginia as they were growing up. Sandra Bullock (b. 1964), who has won Golden Globe and Academy awards for her work, was born in Arlington and graduated from high school there. Joseph Cotten (1905–1994) appeared in Citizen Kane (1941) among other films, and was also a stage actor. He was born in Petersburg. Diane Neal (b. 1976), known for her role in the television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, was born in Arlington. Academy Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek, who has starred in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Carrie, Violets Are Blue, and other films, lives in central Virginia.
Suspense, history, political intrigue, food, exploration, and the Declaration of Independence: all of these feature in the works of Virginia writers. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who would go on to become the third president of the United States, was the main author of the Declaration of Independence and wrote many other works as well. He was born in Shadwell and lived near Charlottesville, at Monticello.Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), both natives of Virginia, explored the American West all the way to the Pacific, writing about their travels along the way. Award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver (b. 1955) wrote about her family’s experiences with eating only local food in Animal Vegetable Miracle. She lives near Abingdon. David Baldacci (b. 1960) writes political suspense novels, often set in Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area. Baldacci was born in Richmond and attended Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia.
Lee Smith (b. 1944) was born in Grundy, and often sets her novels in Virginia. Patricia Cornwell’s (b. 1956) crime novels are often set in her hometown of Richmond. Nature writer Annie Dillard (b. 1945) attended Hollins College in Roanoke. Rita Dove (b. 1951), U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, has taught at the University of Virginia. Earl Hamner, Jr. (b. 1923), author of The Waltons, hails from Schuyler.
The Virginia Festival of the Book, held each spring in Charlottesville, is one of the largest literary festivals in the mid-Atlantic region. It brings readers and writers together for a series of readings, workshops, talks, and other events.
With 84 working studios, the Torpedo Factory Arts Center on the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria is one of the largest art centers in the east for artists and craftspeople, from printmakers to jewelers. The Chestnut Creek School for the Arts in Galax teaches both contemporary arts and heritage crafts. Many Virginians are active in painting, sculpture, and other fine arts, and most cities have at least one space dedicated to art exhibits. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, with collections spanning a range from ancient art to the present day, is considered one of the top art museums in the southeast.
Sculptor Edward V. Valentine (1838–1930) is known for his works depicting famous people, including Robert E. Lee and John James Audubon. Though he worked elsewhere most of his life, sculptor Moses Ezekiel (1844–1917) was born in Richmond. Painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) was born in Virginia, but his family moved to Missouri while he was young, and he is best known for his romantic realist paintings of the opening of the west.
Mount Vernon, built in 1743 in northern Virginia, was a self-contained plantation community, so it is composed of the family home, as well as slave quarters, overseer’s housing, a grist mill, a smokehouse, and other structures. The family house itself has a hipped roof with dormer, a portico across the front and, as a result of additions to the building over time, an off center door. It was the home of, and possibly designed by, the country’s first president, George Washington. Thomas Jefferson designed his own home, too, at Monticello near Charlottesville. He chose a style influenced by the work of Italian architect Andrea Palladio for the building, which was begun in 1768. Later, Jefferson also designed theRotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, using elements of classical style. An older and simpler home is the Adam Keeling House in Virginia Beach, which is thought to have been built around 1680. Also in Virginia Beach, the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse dates from 1792.
Several Virginia cities have historic districts. Old Town Alexandria is one, where buildings from across several centuries stand next to contemporary construction.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ARTS
When colonists first arrived in Virginia, they were living in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, and had to make whatever they needed. Excavations at Jamestown show early examples of this. As settlements prospered, so did crafts such as weaving, blacksmithing, and pottery. The evolution of local arts and crafts may be seen at Colonial Williamsburg. Woodworking, pottery making, and blacksmithing were needed for daily colonial life, and were also chosen as ways to be creative. The Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum in Ferrum is one place to learn about these crafts.
Today, many Virginians are active in crafts including making pottery, jewelry, woven goods, and objects out of wood. Southwestern Virginia and the Blue Ridge have a number of independent crafts businesses, and craftspeople are found throughout the state, often showing their wares in craft fairs such asArtisans in the Park in Virginia Beach and the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival in Chantilly.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
The Carter Family’s signature harmonies, their reworkings of folk songs, their ability to write new songs which meshed well with older material, and Maybelle Carter’s unique style of playing the guitar influenced country, bluegrass, and folk artists in their own time, and through their recordings, continue to do so today.
-World Trade Press