Local artisans find ways to flourish amid adversity

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Whether tucked away in home studios or out in scenic locales with their tools of the trade in tow, artists and artisans in the Harrisonburg area are putting the final touches on their wares this holiday season. 

Many, like printmaker, sculptor and painter Torie Topor, would normally show and sell pieces at in-person shows. There are still a few of those this year, such as the Handmade Harrisonburg event at Pale Fire Brewing this Saturday, for instance. Topor will be hawking bandanas screen printed with ink that changes color in the sun. 

But by and large, these creators have had to transition to a primarily online market. 

Topor’s most iconic pieces are those painted on repurposed skateboards.

“I’ve been developing these faces for a long time,” Topor said of the two pieces on the left. “That style is a staple for me. I call them ‘toothies.’ Everything else is stuff I doodle, or I go through phases with imagery. So anything that sparks my interest, I obsessively draw it until I find one or two images I like.” 

She’s outfitted her shed as a private art studio, complete with an insulated paint cupboard, jigsaw, palm sander and workbench. 

“I love that I have the space now where I can hang them and stare at them. It makes me think of a meat locker,” Topor said. 

Topor started collecting the used decks from skater friends who had old boards lying around.

“I love the marks and grooves,” Topor said – she often keeps those marks visible in the final pieces, along with the grip tape on the back as a vestige of its previous life. 

Besides the cancellation of in-person shows, Topor said another effect of the pandemic has been the rising prices of supplies, such as the N95 masks that she uses to protect her lungs from wood dust and other hazardous art materials.

Embroidery artist JoAnn McGranahan has been able to sell some work in person through the Dart Resale & Trade shop, including those pictured on the right. 

And she also posts her pieces on Etsy and Instagram. This holiday season, though, she’s been focused on a commissioned photorealistic piece that’s under a complete media embargo until it’s unwrapped by the patron’s spouse on Christmas morning.

McGranahan starts each embroidered piece with a pencil sketch, which she then draws or transfers onto the fabric. 

“Things that inspire me could be lyrics or … nostalgic images from childhood, or they could be something a little bit more powerful,” McGranahan said. 

About the work in progress pictured above, “this is my sort of reaction to everything that’s been going on this year during the protests and Black Lives Matter, and I wanted to make something that I could sell that generates a little income that I could donate to somebody or to organizations,” she said. 

The owner of Dart Resale & Trade, Mary Yoder Anderson, is also an artist herself – so she particularly enjoys featuring local art in her shop. 

She opened the Dart storefront in October, after leaving her job as an art teacher at Keister Elementary School. Previously, Yoder Anderson had a small shop space in the Agora market. 

Yoder Anderson has worked in graphic design and printmaking, but her current pieces for sale at Dart are ceramic jewelry. 

The store’s style, she said, “has kind of this Pacific Northwest vibe, like a lot of flannel and denim and leather goods … and it’s a mix of funky vintage stuff and casual everyday stuff.” 

In a fun twist of fate, the new Keister art teacher – Brooke Imber, at right – is also a jewelry maker. She and Ethan Morris, at left, are the lapidary artists behind Woodland Wizard Wire Works, selling wire-wrapped stone and gem pendants on Etsy and Instagram.

The duo have a mobile operation, setting up their toolboxes in the JMU Arboretum and other scenic spots on nice days.  

Imber and Morris get their stones, like this amethyst, from various suppliers and gem shows in the area. 

As they spoke with The Citizen, nimbly manipulating strands of copper for a few new pendants, they finished each others’ sentences.

“There’s two different kinds of rock people,” Imber said.

“There’s rock nerds like myself, who really just … enjoy learning facts about the makeup of the rock,” Morris said. “Why it is this color, where it can be found. I dabble in historical meanings of rocks.”

“Like old folklore,” Imber explained. “Like, this is what the ancient Egyptians used to believe.”

Morris said that the other type of rock person looks into the “metaphysical” properties of rocks.

“I don’t really subscribe to that a whole lot,” he said, “but I kind of see it … like tying a string around your finger and reminding yourself to have these qualities every time you look at the rock.”

Morris hammers out a copper wire.

“Not only does this give it an old school, antique-y look, it actually hardens the metal which helps it keep a shine a little bit longer, and it makes it sturdier,” he explained.

A slice of agate catches the sunlight.

Imber and Morris’s dog Stu often models their finished pieces, like this jasper necklace.

“It just feels nice to have something like this that’s really vibrant and adds some color and adds some history to your life,” Imber said, excitedly explaining that some display visible colonies of fossilized algae and others were formed in a volcano in Indonesia.

While the pair sold a lot online during Black Friday, they haven’t been working at such a clip the whole year. Several artists told The Citizen that, even if they were home more because of the pandemic, the stresses of this year inhibited their creativity at times.

After all, “we’re all experiencing a global trauma event,” Morris said. 

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