Tucked inside an old dairy factory in the Fan, the Hand Workshop Art Center is one of very few places where you can find artists with national reputations painting alongside empty-nesters trying to get in touch with their karma. With more than 300 adult classes and 100 kids' classes taught each year by local professional artists, it's a fixture in the arts community a place where artists rent studio space, earn a living, create new work and teach the rest of us how to have an artistic voice. But outside the city even as close as the surrounding counties few people really take advantage of it as the first-rate arts resource that it is. And even if they did, the current facility is bursting at the seams. That's a shame, according to its new executive director, Jo Bowman Kennedy, who officially assumed the job this fall. If she has her way, that will change. At first glance, Kennedy seems all wrong for the job. She's not a visual artist, and her resume lists a rather un-artsy 14-year stint at Virginia Power. But what her supporters are counting on is that those business experiences make a powerful cocktail when mixed with the fact that she's also an award-winning poet, a breast cancer survivor and an adjunct professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. This is a Renaissance woman on a mission. Style: You have a very varied background in business, commercial art, poetry and education. How did that come about? Kennedy: I've always had one foot in the artistic world and one foot in the business world. I had the love of poetry and literature always, but I also loved working with people, so I was drawn to teaching. I went into the business world because I needed to earn more money. It was difficult to adjust. At the beginning of my business career, I wasn't sure there actually was a place for someone like me. But eventually, I did find a home [at Virginia Power] for 14 years while I was continuing my own poetry and teaching. S: The Hand Workshop enjoys an unusual reputation as both a community arts facility and as a high-quality venue for respected artists. How do you balance those very different aspects of your mission? Kennedy: Well, they are very complementary. Our mission is an educational mission. We carry it out through studio classes for adults and children taught by professional artists. Those who are enrolled are then enriched by our exemplary exhibitions. But we also support artists by providing studio space and a place to teach. We have 24 studios that the artists simply rent on a monthly basis. They have keys and can use it any time they wish. Some come in every day 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and some come in only on the weekend. Some of the artists who have studios teach; some use it just as a place to work. We were the first organization to offer studio space. We want to encourage artists, so we make it as easy and affordable as we can. It's a financial wash for us. S: As fine arts budgets shrink in the area schools, how does the Hand Workshop help fill the gap for kids? Kennedy: We have several neighboring schools Binford Model Middle School, Maymont Elementary and William Fox Elementary and we like to complement the art program at those schools. Those students come in during the day or after school for extended arts experiences. We also offer a number of free programs to the city schools. Right now, we're looking at doing a program for at-risk students. Kids from lower socio-economic communities will be bused to us to do an hour of classes each week. And, we're very active in Partners in the Arts which awards grants to teachers who write proposals for integrating the arts in their classrooms. I'll be evaluating grants and looking at existing programs. S: What do you see as the current strengths of the Hand Workshop? Kennedy: It's uniqueness. It has a very open and inviting atmosphere. It's not intimidating for anyone, regardless of whether they are beginners or accomplished artists. It is truly a very democratic place. It offers an opportunity for folks to explore their creative side and feel comfortable doing that. The whole ambiance is [of a] creative factory. This was an old dairy plant; and it feels like an old industrial building. The atmosphere fosters creativity. We have changed lives. For example, one of our own board members is metal sculptor Maurice Beane who has a national reputation. He got his start at the Hand Workshop. S: What are those areas that you, the board and staff are targeting for improvement? Is your focus distinct from that of the former director? Kennedy: We really want to target our physical facilities. We've been leasing the building since 1985 and we'd like to actually purchase it. We've maxed out our space. We have very limited gallery space and preparation space. The focus is going to be on renovating and updating so we can provide the very best programs in Richmond. We also want to be more comprehensive and regional. Right now, we're a pretty well-kept secret. I was surprised when I moved to Chesterfield county how few people had heard of the Hand or even participated in its programming. Poetic Justice "Windriver Song" is a collection of poems Jo Bowman Kennedy wrote over a 10-year period. In 1995, it received an award in the Anabiosis Chapbook Competition. "Anabiosis means 'new life,'" Kennedy explains. "I was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, so it seemed fitting that it was recognized at that time." Here is one of her poems from the collection: Swimming in Akumal You could learn to live here without ever measuring time in linear seconds or distance in the miles we journey. Everything here is cyclical and circular like the half moon bay we swim in. Sun and wind are nature's runes, marking summer solstice, or storms churning in from sea. You could learn to forget here, drifting in emerald water among sea turtles and fish the color of fruit - kiwi, mango, papaya - and all around you, coral reefs rising like sacred temples from the ocean's floor, their exotic bloom luring you beyond the cove, tugging you to unfamiliar channels of amnesia, uncharted dreams. You could learn what it means to love here, the red hibiscus unfolding its petals to morning, a beauty and clarity as resonant as the tide. At night you could taste the salt on your lover's lips, knowing you are tasting the earth, knowing what it means to love the world we are adrift in. Jo Bowman Kennedy
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