BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va., May 22, 2015 – It’s on this weekend: the latest edition of the Spring Berkeley Springs Studio Tour, that is. With (allegedly) zero percent chance of rain this weekend, the spring stanza of this twice-yearly tour is a great, short getaway drive that takes you to West Virginia’s nearby Eastern Panhandle.
Better yet – no beach traffic hassle. This informal driving tour offers you a chance to meet the artists at their working studios, where you can check out – and perhaps purchase – some unusually fine art, pottery, glass, and forged metal originals.
Not far from metro Washington, D.C., Berkeley Springs, W.Va. — known as “the nation’s first spa” – is just a short drive more or less northwest from the Beltway.
Getting there is a pleasant, less than two-hour drive through northern Virginia, taking Virginia Route 7 West and a short loop around Winchester to pick up U.S. 522 North.
Maryland and D.C. drivers will likely find it easier to take I-70 north, getting off at U.S. 522 South at Hancock, Md. Berkeley Springs is less than 10 miles south from that point.
Once known as the Town of Bath*, Berkeley Springs’ ongoing claim to fame centers on its famous warm springs located right downtown in Berkeley Springs State Park, where you can take the waters in a pair of historic bathhouses. You can even get a low-cost professional massage from the only licensed professionals employed by a state government in the U.S.
But warm springs and spa services aside, this is a special weekend for paying a visit to this historic, mostly** picturesque town, originally surveyed by none other than George Washington when the area was still part of the colony known as Virginia.
The main event out here this weekend – The Berkeley Springs Studio Art Tour – mostly takes place in the hills and by-ways surrounding Berkeley Springs, which is also the county seat of Morgan County. During the hours of the tour, participating artists and craftsmen open their studios to the public, showing their latest work and in many cases also giving informative demonstrations.
Not far off the town’s main drag, Washington Street (North and South), you can begin your own tour by sampling some of the local arts and crafts, at the Morgan Arts Council (MAC) Ice House Co-op Art Gallery. It’s located at the intersection of Independence and Mercer Streets. Listed telephone numbers are 304-258-2300 or 304-258-0066.
For an impressive sampling of some of the nation’s finest arts and crafts, you’ll also want to drop into the Mountain Laurel Gallery at the main intersection of Washington and Fairfax streets, right across from the new courthouse.
But partaking of the art tour proper is a bit like taking your car on a slow motion version of a road rally. The tour’s online brochure describes the weekend this way:
“While touring scenic Morgan County, you can visit nationally and regionally known artists in their studios. You’ll see contemporary and traditional art and fine crafts in many different media, the Artists will be demonstrating and describing the processes they use to create their work. Studios will be open from 10AM until 5PM on both days.”
Once you’re in town, the best way to prep for this driving tour is to check in at the Ice House and/or Mountain Laurel, as we suggested earlier. Look for printed tour brochures or maps if they’re still available when you get arrive. Alternatively, many local establishments and restaurants also plan to have copies available.
Note that cell phone and GPS services can be a little iffy around here, particularly up in the hills. Whichever route(s) you choose will traverse primarily rural areas underserved by broadband and iffy via GPS. That’s why we strongly suggest printing or obtaining a good old-fashioned hardcopy map.
If you don’t want to run the risk of not finding a hardcopy map/brochure in town, link to the Studio Tour website’s directions page, download the brochure/map and print it out before you jump in the car.
The most logical place to set out on your own tour is downtown at the Heath Studio Gallery on N. Washington, not far from the Ice House. From that jumping off point, it’s up to you where you head next, as the other galleries are scattered here and there, making this a random drive.
If you plan to visit most of the studios on the spring tour, you should plan on making this a daytrip, as you won’t be using interstates or four-lane highways to get from place to place.
When you’re on the road, watch out for speed limit signs warning of sharp curves in the roads, particularly on West Virginia 9. When they give you suggested speed limits for the curves out here, they’re not kidding. Driving a bit more carefully is not only the best way to stay safe while you’re on the tour. It will also give you a better opportunity to sample Morgan County’s delightful rural environment.
The reason we know all this stuff, BTW, is that we have a weekend home right in the heart of Berkeley Springs that we’ve been busy restoring for years. We’ve been on the tour many times and know many of the artists involved, having admired and often having purchased art directly from them.
Everyone’s tastes are different, of course, and we don’t always love everything that we see. But the quality out here tends to skew high, and that’s a big plus.
As opposed to the larger number of studios that tend to participate in the fall tour – this year on Oct. 24-25 – the spring tour is a bit more compact. All the artists on the tour are worth a visit. But over the years, we’ve found the following studios to be particularly interesting and well worth your patronage if you’re in the market for specific and unique arts and crafts:
Heath Studio Gallery, 327 N. Washington St., Berkeley Springs. Husband and wife artists Jonathan and Jan Heath exhibit their own highly individualistic specialties. Jonathan goes in for painting satirical art focusing on timeworn but still hilarious social clichés, such as the childishness of Congress shown here. Jan does woodcuts, linocuts and monoprints that are simultaneously sparse yet provocative, often calling to mind the spareness of East Asian art. Full disclosure: We own a few of Jan’s pieces.
A little further into the outback is the Highland Forge, owned and operated by blacksmith-craftsman Glenn Horr. Glenn gives demos on site at his forge and offers a variety of small but beautiful ornamental ironwork pieces for the home. He’ll also contract larger jobs if you’re looking for something unique when renovating your home. This is high-art blacksmithing like you’ve never seen it before.
Even farther afield, snaking along the outskirts of the Woods Resort well off WV 9, is Amingo Glass. Run by Ed and Henry Palczewski for what seems like eons, the studio offers unusual, often art deco-themed stained glasswork in numerous, exquisite designs. Pieces, according to the tour website, include “stained and fused glass windows, glass plates and mirrors in irridized and dichroic glass.” The brothers will also do commissions. A sample of their work appears in our header graphic above. (A direct link to the studio website was not functional as we posted this article.)
Working from his summer/weekend home and studio located in the high hills above the former Coolfont resort area, Richard Kaufman’s Magic Mountain Studio does one and one thing only – Chinese- and Japanese-style watercolors whose subjects are often animals and scenes in nature. A member of the D.C. chapter of the Sumi-e Society of America, Kaufman is no dabbler. His original pieces are exquisitely evocative examples of this exquisite and delicate art form. We’ve purchased watercolors from him before to accentuate the design of our entertainment room, having chosen to redecorate it some years ago in an East Asian style including Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese antique pieces. Richard’s art provided the perfect finishing touch and it still feels fresh, new and appealing every time we look at it.
Since it’s located at some distance from most of the other studios, visiting the Hsu Studios (pronounced “shoe”) is probably best done either when you’re approaching or leaving Berkeley Springs proper via U.S. 522. They’re located right off that road as you head north, not long after crossing into West Virginia from Virginia. (Or south, if you’re headed back to the Commonwealth.) Run by Carol and Jean Pierre Hsu, the studio is nationally known for its lightweight, brilliantly colored abstract jewelry, constructed from tiny pieces of anodized aluminum. My esteemed spouse has purchased several of the Hsus’ pieces over the years, mostly earrings, and they’re still among her favorites. They also make larger pieces, including inventive mobiles. You can see some of their work at the tour link above, or visit their website here.
Pottery, fiber, lacework and paintings are also on tap for this spring’s tour. For a complete listing of studios on the tour, including some really good videos of the artists in action, check out the Studio Tour Website.
Dining suggestion: Although some of the studios on the tour may supply snacks, soft drinks and wine, there are good restaurants in and about town for more substantial fare. But the top of the line here is one of our favorite restaurants in the entire extended D.C. metro area: Lot 12 Public House, owned and operated by the Heaths’ son Damian and his wife Betsy. Head chef Damian consistently serves four-star dinners, even by picky D.C. standards and sources fresh local ingredients as much as possible for his creations. But be sure to get reservations beforehand.
The 2015 Berkeley Springs Spring Studio Tour takes place Memorial Day weekend, May 23-24, in and around Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
* Its oldest downtown section still goes by that name.
** We say “mostly” picturesque, alas, because a raging fire last week destroyed a couple of charming old buildings on Fairfax Street in the heart of the tourist district adjacent to the park.