Del Ray Artisans (DRA) was created in 1992 as the epiphany in the journey of our original founder, Peter Smirniotopoulos. Peter had been exploring the Del Ray neighborhood on long walks with his dog Bluto, who helped Peter and his wife Lauren find their Del Ray home. On the brisk winter morning of January 12, 1992, after a decade of learning the ups and downs, the “right side” and “wrong side” of Mt. Vernon Avenue, Peter’s epiphany was that this diverse, blue-collar neighborhood with artists, craftspeople, tradespeople, and other “creatives” could be a home for a center for artisans. As stated in Peter’s 2017 treatise on “The Meaning of Place”:
“At its core, the concept was to both change the public perception of Del Ray and also imbue Mt. Vernon Avenue with new life, while simultaneously allowing me to promote the kind of three-dimensional artistic endeavors I found so compelling, like contemporary furniture design, sculpture, ceramics, and fiber art.”
For the next 4 months he was a man on a mission, promoting his idea to friends, neighbors and strangers, who were like-minded and artistically oriented. As Peter, our founding human, was joined in this endeavor by fellow founding humans, Bluto our founding canine was also joined by other founding 4-footed friends. In weekly meetings, the growing group of founders helped mold Peter’s original vision of the Town of Potomac Artisans Cooperative into the Del Ray Artisans Center (DRAC), which opened the doors of our first public gallery space in a new, although too long vacant, storefront space at 2210 Mt. Vernon Avenue.
Our new community art center began to host exhibits, slide lectures, classes, workshops, and receptions, and to introduce local audiences to fine and functional art. The mission continued to build this organization to attract artists and artisans with skills to restore the neighborhood’s distinctive homes and promote a sense of community. The Arts Resource Foundation (ARF), whose initials serve as a reminder of our dog-walking founders, was developed to serve as an umbrella organization for a host of smaller arts entities, and on November 23, 1992, ARF was incorporated. On March 24, 1993 the IRS authorized the Arts Resource Foundation as a 501(c)(3) public membership organization. Del Ray Artisans Cooperative was the first established entity under the ARF umbrella. On September 15, 1997, an official filing was made with the Virginia State Corporation Commission to adopt Del Ray Artisans as the “doing business as” (dba) name of the Arts Resource Foundation. The founding members included:
- Terry Atkin Rowe & Nick Bayus
- Ann & Steve Campbell
- Adrienne Hollander & Robert Ellis
- Melissa & Rod Kuckro
- Mart & Bob Larson
- Mary Jo Long
- Kathryn Brown & Marlin Lord
- Lorenzo “Larry” Merola
- Dara Schumaier & Leslie Perkins
- Nancy Reder & Peter Pocock
- Rob Reuter (the first treasurer)
- Lauren & Peter Smirniotopoulos
- Tally Tripp & Mark Morrow
Founders also included:
- Local Business: Maguire-Reeder, Ltd., through the owner Dennis Reeder
- Public Sponsor: Del Ray Citizens Association
- Public Sponsor: Potomac West Trade Association (today know as Del Ray Business Association)
In that first year, the founders had contributed financially in order to create operating funds. These founders remained the backbone of the organization by also providing an unlimited amount of volunteer time. Included in those contributions of time were the creation of the DRAC logo, still in use today (although the “C” part of the wording has been dropped), by Terry Atkin Rowe, and the creation of the ARF logo by Leslie Perkins, assisted by Peter. The volunteering also included all aspects of maintaining the organization, mounting and advertising the shows (including the origins of our postcards, crafted uniquely for each of our shows and events, and continuing as artistic statements unto themselves), clever fundraising, and indeed finding spaces and re-locating multiple times.
The group spent three years at our original location, 2210 Mt. Vernon Avenue—enough time to develop a membership and a reputation for bringing great art and new excitement to the Avenue, which was sorely in need of positive “street traffic” and activity at the time. DRAC used that space at below market rent, but when all that activity brought an interested, market-rate renter, DRAC searched a full year to find another location.
The organization stayed together during that year by placing our members’ art in local businesses and spaces—the beginnings of our Gallery Without Walls program. A juried multi-media exhibit, titled “Focus on Del Ray,” was also mounted in the Target Gallery of the Torpedo Factory during this transitional period.
Then DRAC rented 2003A Mount Vernon Avenue—a cozy space where, led by Bob Larson, we built a wall to hold more artwork. The walls of the large restroom facility were even used, and affectionately called the “Potty Gallery.” When a commercial renter moved in, DRAC was allowed to continue to use the other half of the space (2003 Mount Vernon Avenue)—on the other side of the new wall. There was no restroom in the new space, and permission was secured to access the former Potty Gallery during opening receptions.
The next move was up the Avenue to the space currently occupied by the Dairy Godmother and the UPS Store, at 2310 and 2308, with plenty of walls already there. Marlin Lord, Kathryn Brown and Ellyn Ferguson artistically spray-painted the bare concrete floor, even though DRAC’s time there was brief. Then, DRAC moved across the street to 2213 Mount Vernon Avenue—the rounded façade, corner building which now houses Bean Creative. We painted that whole facility—three relatively small rooms, two of them with full wall windows. DRA has always benefitted by having that “street presence” on the Avenue.
While DRAC was at 2213 Mount Vernon Avenue, the Mount Vernon Recreation Center addition was being completed. DRAC Member Jane DeWeerd pointed out that the activities for Seniors, which were then held in the Colasanto Center, would be moved into the expanded space in the renovated recreation center. Marlin Lord arranged DRAC’s use of the Colasanto Center, as he had most of the previous spaces. By October of 1997, now “dba” Del Ray Artisans (DRA) had its first exhibit on the walls of the Colasanto Center. This building includes yet another wall that the members built, led in the effort again by Bob Larson. The new wall separates the gallery from the back of the space, which includes two restrooms, storage space and a kitchen. DRA installed track lighting to light the artwork and put many layers of paint on the walls over the years. In 2010 members installed a new bamboo floor, making good use of the proceeds from one of DRA’s famous OffBeat Auctions. The Nicholas A. Colasanto Center at 2704 Mount Vernon Avenue is leased from the City of Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities. The City of Alexandria is a strong supporter of Del Ray Artisans. Today, a new exhibition is mounted ten (10) months per year in the DRA gallery. Each show has a different theme and welcomes artisans in every medium, always encouraging quality and diversity. In the remaining two (2) months, the gallery hosts art camps, public workshops, and holiday markets.
Many discussions about location were held, especially in the early years of the organization. Offers came to move out of Del Ray or to locations not on Mount Vernon Avenue, but the group believed that it had a commitment to this neighborhood. Del Ray Artisans has been instrumental in the rebuilding of the Avenue—part of the “economic engine” that made Mount Vernon Avenue and Del Ray the enviable commercial and residential neighborhood that it is today.
As the organization has continued to grow and prosper, so has the Del Ray neighborhood. DRA is the only arts organization in the area which emphasizes support for emerging artists. Its focus on inclusiveness has attracted artisans with many skills, and the Del Ray neighborhood has gained a reputation of being highly supportive of the arts.
DRA is committed to the development of the local commercial district. Show patrons and visitors to the gallery frequent the many area restaurants and shops. As part of an effort to give Mount Vernon Avenue a boost, DRA participated in the early years of the Del Ray Farmers Market, a Spring-to-Fall activity where the community comes together. DRA, both as an organization and as represented by its individual members, is a strong presence at Art on the Avenue (founded in 1995), one of Alexandria’s biggest annual festivals dedicated to the arts. The event typically attracts over 50,000 art lovers to the Del Ray neighborhood in early October.
Del Ray Artisans seeks to promote community-based art in the Washington metropolitan area and to employ the arts as a resource for community development. By having an open and inclusive membership policy, DRA encourages artists and non-artists to come together and work toward common goals. DRA promotes new talent while nurturing established artists and artisans. It provides the first exhibition opportunity for many of its members, who can begin to reach a wide network of clients, artists, and galleries. By also offering educational and workshop opportunities for the public, DRA develops artistic excellence.
DRA has collaborated with well-known art organizations, businesses, and local schools to reach common goals. Among these are Washington Woodworkers Guild, Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, The Art League, The Choreographers Collaboration Project, City of Alexandria Public Schools, Mount Vernon Recreation Center, the Live Poets Society, Quilters Unlimited, and the City of Alexandria Office on Women, as well as a not-so-local organization in Mississippi called The Arts, Hancock County, hosting a Show for their artists post-Hurricane Katrina.
Information collected from the DRA Board Handbook, the DRA Curators Manual, and recollections by founder Peter Smirniotopoulos, and co-founders Kathryn A. Brown and Marlin G. Lord. Written and edited by Mary Louise Clifford and updated October 2017 by Kathryn A. Brown to honor our 25th Anniversary.
“Alexandria County (which became renamed Arlington County the next year) established a Health Department in 1919 and constructed one of its clinics in Potomac in 1923 at 2704 Mount Vernon Avenue. The clinic was open one or two days a week, concentrating on pregnancy and infant care, functions later taken over by City agencies after town annexation. Seen here are most of the professional employees of the Arlington Health Department in December 1929: Director Peyton Chichester, MD, second from left; Sanitary Inspector Norbert Melnick, second from right; and Norma Davies, RN, a nurse shared with the school system, far right. Missing is infant nurse Minnie Rudasill, RN. On the far left is Henry Latane, MD, who gave tuberculosis tests as needed, and in the center is Sue Brown, RN, who organized the “Health Crusaders” in Mount Vernon School on a volunteer basis to teach the virtues of cleanliness and a healthy lifestyle to local children. The building was also used sometimes by the one-person County Welfare Department, which concentrated mostly on child abandonment and truancy cases, and by the county school system’s full-time dentist.”
—Photo and information from the Virginia Room, Arlington County Library