Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Photography Exhibits, Wounded Warriors and Other Unusual Happenings at the Village Exxon

If it’s wrong to fall in love with a gas station I don’t want to be right. It’s not just that someone offers to look under my hood every time I fill up or that one of the attendants hand delivered my debit card to my house minutes after I left it there or that they have music CD giveaways, although those things could give anyone a good case of the warm fuzzies. No, the Village Exxon goes above and beyond: they support local businesses, charities and artists in a way I haven't noticed anywhere else while pumping gas.

I first knew something special was going on between the exhaust fumes and oil changes the day I asked the dark eyed, dark haired woman holding a Chihuahua in a pink sweater behind the counter  for quarters to vacuum out my car. As she handed me my change, she started talking about authors, poetry and the novel she was in the midst of writing. I lit up. There's nothing like finding literature outside of an expected institution. Over the months, as I read Exxon's Customer Service Administrator, Hope Whitby's book reviews and artists interviews included at the end of each of the station’s electronic newsletter, I knew I’d discovered something really special.

As Hope and I continued to talk about literature and music and the local arts scene, she told me about her most recent efforts to organize “Art in the Shop, The Photography of Scott Pels,” a benefit for The Wounded Warrior ProjectI was immediately taken with this unusual marriage of form and function. But what successful marriages, I wondered, aren't unusual? And who wouldn't love the opportunity to blend culture and charity and a good fill up?

Why, I asked Hope, do you feel moved to support local artists from behind the desk of  a filling station and auto repair shop? “Being an artist is often a hard life to live and sometimes lonely,” she says.  “An artist is often overlooked or maybe even misunderstood, so if there is an opportunity for me support an artist or give him or her a platform, I’m there. Art enriches our community with beauty, it educates our children, it mirrors our society and inspires change, and it can foster an appreciation for cultural differences.”

Excellent! Why then did you choose the photography of Scott Pels for Exxon’s first art opening? “Scott Pels has a gift," says Hope, who gave the 25 year old chef his first official sale two years ago, purchasing one of his photographs of the Byrd Theatre chandelier. "He has an eye for capturing the snapshots of our everyday lives and giving it back to us with romance, charm, and respect.  I appreciate how he approaches his subjects and the dedication he has in revealing that picture to his audience. There was no other choice for me, but to recommend him for the show.”

Fabulous! Why then will the proceeds from this opening benefit the Wounded Warrior Project? "They are a non-profit that provides a complete rehabilitative effort to assist wounded service members as they recover and transition back into civilian life," says Hope. "The owner of the station, Jim McKenna, admires the work they do and wanted to give back to them by having a yearlong fundraising campaign.  Helping veterans is dear to Jim, because his father, James McKenna, Sr., served during World War II and was taken prisoner. Jim, Sr, later founded the first chapter for POWs in Richmond This art show and the fundraising drive is dedicated to the memory of James McKenna, Sr."

Skibo's Ride
“I’m excited and a little bit nervous at the same time," says Scott Pels, a native of Charlottesville who moved to Richmond at age 3. "It’s something that I’ve never really done before.” Scott first became interested in photography in the fall of 2008 and joined the Camera Club of Richmond in 2009. After submitting his work and winning numerous wards, he started taking his new hobby a little more seriously.

So far he has focused on shooting nature, architecture, landscapes, portraits and anything else that catches the eye of his Canon 60D, a digital single lens reflex camera, the shots sometimes enhanced with photoshop. Scott loves venturing downtown, to the James River, the fan area, Shockoe Bottom, Hollywood Cemetery, Goochland and Maymont to find subjects that appeal. At the opening this Sunday, prints of his work will be available for purchase, order or to be framed upon request.  

              And, if it goes well, Hope plans to organize more arts in the shop. "It’s a great space to host our neighbors and bring awareness for a great charity," she says. "We are considering a poetry event in April and a silent auction in the early summer." 

Even if my tank's already full, I know where my car will be parked this Sunday. I hope to see yours there, too. 

Enjoy the photography of Scott Pels, live jazz by Moore and O’Leary and refreshments on Sunday, February 26 from 1-4 pm at the Village Exxon. All proceeds from the $10 admission price benefit the Wounded WarriorProject.

82 Creations

Time Warp

Self Portrait


Contact Scott Pels at 804-200-9592,   or on Facebook:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In the Land of Strangers: The Unnerving, Narrative Paintings of Mary Chiaramonte

"There are a select few people that are the people I understand them to be. I read a study about twinship and loneliness and how that effects a person. Apparently twins feel really alone all the time—when they’re not with their twin because they have such a bond that they feel such a separation from everyone else. This portrays the general feeling that I have with my sister. It seems like there are so many people that I've come across in my life that I've trusted to be one way but they've turned out to be not what I've expected"   --Land of Strangers, 2012 

I am a word girl. I hear music through lyrics and I see images through the veil of language. Which is why the paintings of Mary Chiaramonte hooked my imagination immediately; leading me out of the room in which I was sitting when I saw them first, through the gallery where I saw them later and into a lush, dark underbelly within the world of story.
Mary’s paintings are laced with narrative, but like books that don’t end tied neatly in a bow or with a happily-ever-after trailing off into a synthetic sunset, her paintings ask more questions than they answer. “I feel like one of my biggest goals with my work is to try to understand human nature,” she says. “I think I’ll never grasp it fully. I take what I know and make it more bizarre because it’s that place I don’t understand.”
Like snapshots taken in the middle of a dream, Mary’s paintings in the body of work, “Land of Strangers,” evoke the sensation that a secret has just been told, or that you are peering at someone in a moment of intimate privacy. If you’d happened to look a second later, everything would have been different; the subjects would have made themselves more presentable for the world. But that’s not what we want—we want what’s hidden deep inside. 
The images in Mary’s paintings beg their viewer to keep looking, to figure out what could possibly have led to this, to piece together a personal interpretation. They echo that whole unending question that I have about human nature,” she says. “There isn’t any answer.” There is, instead, unnerving compositions within a blend of darkness and light where the subject seems to hang in the balance. “There’s a story in my own mind,” she says. “A lot of the stories I convey in my paintings seem to be the negative things that happen in my life. That’s where my mind tends to go—to the dark places.”
            Mary reads biographies and autobiographies and says that while painting, she has listened to every single episode of This American Life. “The mystery of human nature is just so interesting to me,” she says. “That’s why I’m drawn to biographies. I want to know the truth about people but I don’t know how much of it’s real anyway. There’s no sure ground for anyone.”
 Using acrylic on birch panel, she keeps a rigorous schedule. “It’s the same thing everyday,” she says. “Sometimes it gets boring. I make myself stay in the studio all day and paint. I get up pretty early—about 6 and take my dog for a 3 mile run, come home, take a shower and get to work” She’s currently at work on a painting of a woman with a bobcat on the end of a string. “The bobcat is one of my husband’s taxidermied animals,” she says. “It’s standing up growling and looking crazy. The title’s going to have something to do with being tamed. It’s what I was saying about settling down in my married life.”
            So far the marriage of Mary’s discipline and talent has paid off—in her prolific body of work with a wide cast audience. At 32, her art appears in collections throughout the US and Europe. She has been featured in New American Paintings and American Artist Magazine and is currently represented by Long View Gallery in Washington, DC, Hespe Gallery in San Francisco and the Eric Schindler Gallery here in Richmond, Virginia.
            The opportunity to ask questions about her work in general and certain paintings in particular, was, for me like the unparalleled pleasure of discovering an epilogue after the cliffhanger.  

            Mary's paintings are mesmerizing, thought provoking and unsettling. But don’t take my word for it. Go see them for yourself. 

Her show, “Land of Strangers,” will be at the Eric Schindler Gallery through March 10. 2305 East Broad StreetRichmondVA 23223. Call 644-5005 or visit for gallery hours.

Visit Mary Chiaramonte online at

Take Care, 2011-  I wanted to leave anything dark in the past behind. That’s why there’s a building storm behind her. The umbrella symbolizes having shelter from that and moving on. There’s a positive outlook, but a foreboding, ominous  background. 

The Nameless, 2011 --  This one's about the mystery of human kind and how I can't put a name to it. It’s just something indescribable. Nothing’s ever what you expect. It’s kind of fun that life’s like that. I take it with me, everywhere I go. It’s such a big thing for me, it burns inside of me that I can’t understand people. They’re not always how you think they are or what you know, even. I love the mystery. It’s a thing that I’m so passionate about. For this, I built a cardboard model of a house and lit it on fire. I was living in a suburban area at the time and there were all these houses, but I painted it in front of a nighttime sky. It was funny, I thought somebody was going to call the fire department. 

Souvenir, 2011 --I don't think this has any deep dark meaning or anything. My husband has all these sort of treasures, he would call them, but they’re just all these different taxidermied animals in our house. He has a trunk full of them. It’s just a little snippet of my life at home with my husband. 

Our Very Own Secret Hideout, 2011
Best Friend of Man, 2011

High Tide, 2010
Forever Lull, 2011
Estranged, 2011

World Turning, 2011


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Was a Teenage Bisexual

When my step-brother and I were high school juniors we each made an announcement one night at a family dinner. “I’m bisexual,” I told “the parents” as we called them then. “And I’m dropping out of high school,” said my step brother. “Oh! Well isn’t that wonderful?” they exclaimed, my dad launching into a story about hitchhiking to Florida from rural Virginia, finding work in an orange juice factory and returning home to make straight A’s after the acid ate away the soles of his boots. Later, my own mother stopped just short of rubbing her hands with glee. She’d already introduced me to her friends who wore short hair and flannel: she was prepared. My brother did want to pursue a life of unadulterated freedom and I was as curious and nervous about girls as I was about boys; however our parents’ reception knocked the wind out of our sails. After graduating high school, my brother went on to college and in the end, I married a man.

But not before exploring my options first. My friends were smart, beautiful, creative, funny and kind, making them obvious choices over, say, the hairy boy who reeked of Drakkar that asked me to accompany him to Red Lobster. In high school, I did date boys and even had a boyfriend--- although I refused to name it that then, shunning labels like the pledge of allegiance. I didn’t want to be easily pinned down or classified— none of us in our rag tag group did. Banding together, we created a category of our own— just like millions of other suburban fringe kids around the country. Just as soon as I tried on one identity I outgrew it, like a haircut or jeans. A part of me secretly longed to be the cheerleader adored by the football team, but falling just short of that, I did a 180. Bleached dreadlocks and a girl one week, crimson curls and a long-haired boy the next.

For me, one size did not fit all.

And then, my junior year abroad in Italy, along with my first apartment, I had my first girlfriend--- I think it was a course requirement at our particular liberal arts college. I still refused to use labels, but after moving out of the homes of our host families and in with each other, we were more than roommates and more than friends. We shared not only espressos and homework assignments but living expenses, and beds. I wrote poems for her. She painted me. We gave each other jewelry. We took weekend trips to remote villas, exploring both the country and largely hidden sides of ourselves. It could have been that we were young and in a foreign country, but I count it as one of the most romantic and devastating relationships of my life—certainly one of the few that has taught me the most. It was far from perfect, but that’s why it fit perfectly into my life.

A few heartbreaks and (mis)adventures later, I’ve chosen—at least from the outside and compared to many of my friends-- a fairly straightforward life, one that includes marriage, motherhood and a mortgage in the suburbs. Most days I feel lucky to have found another person I want to spend my life with; I can’t imagine not having been allowed to do so based on his gender or mine.

Yes, my parents made it more difficult to rebel, but I am infinitely grateful to them for their acceptance of my choices regarding not only who to be, but who to love. I have little doubt that I would have done everything I was going to do anyway, but doing it with their blessing went a long way.