Meese and her son, contractor Mark Sprenkle, spent months restoring function and finish to the structure, recapturing its prominence on a once-fashionable Petersburg corner. Now, the Nathaniel Friend House is saturated not with debris but patina, its walls partially stripped to reveal patches of wallpaper, its woodwork scrubbed of color but not gleam.
The four-story house, Meese says, is "the only place in Petersburg where you can get a massage, eat sushi, listen to jazz, buy a painting and even live." Wabi-Sabi, a fusion restaurant on the lower levels, opens later this month. A spa operates within the first-floor storefront, and the spacious Friend Gallery and studios claim the upstairs. Two loft-like city-view apartments fill the attic, each renovated to exacting standards that retain the brick building's hearty character and nearly all of its original materials.
In this setting, Meese displays the work of other artists alongside her own, including many pieces painted on location during her world travels. This year, she's seen Thailand, Oaxaca and the French Riviera, building mixed-media pieces in each place that are "very dreamlike and surreal and done intuitively," Meese says. "It often feels like it is coming from some other source. I try to create scenes that other people would want to step into, be a part of." Meese has done that with the gallery as well.
Its wood floors and plaster walls offer rustic contrast to her bold-hued and exotic canvases and give dimension to the work of other artists. Potter Kathryn Hedgepeth works her wheel in a second-floor studio above the city streetscape, and artists Barbara Duke and Anita Hume will show their paintings and raku in the gallery this fall.
In Richmond, Meese says, a space like this might not have gotten much attention. But in Petersburg, the place is cause for curiosity and celebration. "This is all part of an American city being reborn. There's a strong sense of community and history, wonderful architecture and small-town atmosphere. I believe that it's on the cusp," she contends, "that it's going to be a totally different place in five years with all that's going on."
Like-minded artists are beginning to buy old buildings nearby so that they can create gallery space and studios at the street level and living quarters upstairs.
"It's affordable, and people here are very supportive of the arts," Meese says. "Here, the city manager comes to every opening, the city council people have all come to my gallery. It's so easy to get things done." SThe Friend House Gallery, 27-29 Bollingbrook St., will open for Petersburg's monthly Friday for the Arts walk on Oct. 14 from 7 to 10 p.m. Regular gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday noon to 5 p.m. Call 931-1370.
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