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Singular Gestures 

Alma’s RVA offers a mixed-used art space and gallery with comfort food as an unlikely inspiration.

click to enlarge Alma’s RVA founder, Sarah Mizer

Scott Elmquist

Alma’s RVA founder, Sarah Mizer

Picture this: a perfectly round golden yeast roll — still warm — and a plump sun-kissed tomato handpicked from the garden in the middle of August.

Now put them together in a sandwich. No, this isn't a recipe, but an article about Alma's RVA, a mixed-use-artist-owned-and-operated-retail space and gallery for contemporary craft on Brookland Park Boulevard founded by artist and educator Sarah Mizer.

Mizer wants to repackage the experience of biting into a sandwich that pairs two things her grandparents were best known for: rolls and tomatoes. While she was in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, this recipe encapsulated her approach to making art.

"A tomato sandwich was oddly one of my favorite foods and what I thought a lot about with that sentiment was 'Well, I'm never going to have that again (after her grandparents died)," she explains. "Even though it's super accessible, it's really unique to me and my lineage and my story. That's really been a driving point of what I've been making since then. It's always been about thinking about those singular gestures, those frozen moments or entities."

She adds that when she was thinking about Alma's RVA, she wanted it to encapsulate some of that energy that was changing her life and trajectory.

"Alma's was a good way of paying homage to that idea," she says.

Mizer—whose own work has been exhibited at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and the Chrysler Museum of Art—left the university about a year ago after teaching there for 11 years. Most recently she was an assistant professor and administrative director of the art foundation program. Leaving was the capstone to a series of changes for her and her artist husband, John Blatter: A commercial space for purchase in Hull Street fell through, they moved to the North Side, and some friends had recently opened Crate Wine Market and Project, a mixed-use-art space in Laurel Park, North Carolina.

It was just the push Mizer needed to make the leap to small-business owner. By December she had secured a three-year lease on a building that had stood vacant for more than a year after a tattoo parlor left. This winter, Mizer and Blatter finished renovating the building with help from a developer.

"I've always wanted to be doing this. My husband and I worked really hard to amass the [financial] ability. … It's really scary," she says with a laugh. "This felt like the right spot. It's where I live and it really is a labor of love. It seemed really important that we had a connection to the location."

The year of transition had been a long time coming. Since graduate school, Mizer discovered that her own art was dictated by one show after another and competing curatorial visions rather than her own needs. "I felt like I was wanting more out of the conversations," she recalls. Now she hopes to provide those open-ended opportunities to artists.

While Alma's RVA will be an eclectic mix of retail space and gallery, it will cohere thematically around contemporary craft. Works will include wholesale lines and one-of-a-kind art on consignment. Functional housewares will feature prominently and prices will vary from less than $50 to several thousand. Work will rotate seasonally based on themes selected by Mizer.

For its opening, Alma's RVA featured work by nearly 30 different artists, most of whom currently live in the city or formerly called it home. The inventory remains on view until late summer. Although her family has roots in the Shenandoah Valley, Mizer is a transplant from Rhode Island who moved to Richmond in 2005.

"It's definitely a celebration of my community," she says with a smile.

With the aid of social media, Mizer has big plans. She aims to develop a wedding registry website, more community educational workshops — an upcoming calligraphy session is already available for adults — and studio spaces for artists.

"Alma's is my dream come true," she says. "I've always been really interested in the contemporary use of craft materials. I think that right now we're in this awesome gray area in how people are being able to look at craft. There's a lot of different access points for all people to approach material-based work."

For information, see www.almasrva.com.

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