Whitewater Valley Arts Association Opens Downtown

Slowly but surely, volunteers and contractors transformed a water-damaged, former law office into a home for the arts, more accessible to the community so residents can partake in and appreciate the arts.

During its 2016 spring grant cycle, the Foundation funded $8,500 toward the building’s new roof, one of the pivotal projects of the entire undertaking. The Foundation also helped to fund the WVAA’s “Mystery Mural” which was unveiled in July along the side of the building at 400 Central Ave., adding a bright spot to the downtown. The mural, of which sections were composed by various local artists, is the recreation of a photograph taken near the middle of the intersection of Central Avenue and 4th Street circa 1913, depicting Connersville life.  A plaque was installed below the mural listing those who made the mural – one of the WVAA’s contributions to the city for the 2013 bicentennial – take place.  Foundation funds made possible the purchase of the framing and installments materials.

The Whitewater Valley Arts Association will show off its new home to the public Friday with a ribbon cutting at 4 p.m. and an open house from 5-8 p.m. The members will celebrate at an invitation-only event Thursday. The exhibit will also be open Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.

Planning to attend the open house will be Dr. Don MacDaniel, the last remaining founding member of the Association and its first president.

Bringing the building back to life has been a three-year labor of love by the members since the offer of the building as a donation by Richard and Marilyn Smith came to them. Richard joined the law office of John Himelick and his wife Luanna Himelick was an original WVAA member.

The membership debated the pros and cons of accepting the building, knowing the cost and labor that would be involved, said President Sharon McQueen. The membership decided to move ahead at a special January 2015 meeting and the deed transferred in April that year.

The scale of the project seemed overwhelming even for those in favor, said member Hector Perez. The limitation of the old West 28th Street gallery helped propel the decision forward but it’s obvious, it had been a good idea.

The old building served as home to the Association since 1983 but member Terry Hreno said too many people did not know the group even existed, hidden in a residential area.

“It was an intimidating decision,” he admitted, “but if we wanted to expand the vision of the Association, we had to move.”

“This was an opportunity that was too good to pass up,” McQueen said.

“Now that we’re here, it was an obvious no brainer … we couldn’t have gone any other way,” Hreno added. “For the first time, I’m really starting to feel excited about it; the apprehension is pretty much gone. The first time we turned on the lights with white paint, it was ‘wow.’”

But to get to that point, literally hundreds of volunteer hours would be needed.

One of the first public displays that things would be changing for the good in the downtown came when the 2013 Connersville Bicentennial Mystery Mural, went up in July 2015. The mural had been seeking a permanent location since the celebration. It found that home on the side of the building just feet from the intersection where someone took the original photograph, sometime around 1913.

While still hosting exhibits at the West 28th Street gallery, the members spent two and half years tearing out the old walls and furnishings before the rebuild began. While not everything is completed, it is functional but there is still a wish list of things to do.

The first exhibition in the Smith Building will including several works that are in the permanent collection on the north wall of the gallery and members’ works on the south wall.

“The permanent collection is from members from the past 55 years,” Perez said. “Some will be works our members sold that have been made available for the exhibition. This may be the only chance to see some of the artwork, because some of it will be going back.”

Rick Coleman will have a large piece that is owned by someone in Indianapolis and if it’s not seen in the opening exhibition, there won’t be another chance, Hreno added.

The Whitewater Valley Woodcarvers Club and the Conner Quilters will have pieces as well. They both have shared space in the old gallery and will eventually move to the new location.

With the more prominent location across from the Government Center, plans are already underway to make the gallery a place for the community to use to appreciate the arts.

One Shot Workshops will be one day classes for special events such as a day to make gingerbread houses at Christmas or something for Halloween or Thanksgiving. There could also be days for jewelry making, fiber art, weaving and loomless weaving and more, Hreno said.

“The idea is to be able to call up and ask ‘What is going on tonight?’ and in theory the answer will always be ‘something,’” he said. “We want lots of action, workshops … long workshop, mini workshops, kid workshops, grown up workshops.”

The goal is to have engaging activities where people come in and examine and contemplate the work, said Hector Perez. The organization will be able to be far more functional besides being located in a more accessible location.

“We look forward to the community to come in, look and question, engage and even maybe take part to bring art into their lives,” he said. “We want to engage people in nearby communities to come to Connersville and bring the world to us.”

The Association aspires to show art to people who would not ordinarily go see it and they might find it challenging and find a way to get a wider perspective than before, he said.

Activities will not be limited to the visual arts but to any arts, McQueen said. The Association will host a Fayette County Chamber of Commerce mixer in October in cooperation with Edward Jones-Gena Hartman.

Imagine Performing Arts will have sketches, musical jam sessions will be encouraged, poetry readings, writers’ workshops and it could be a place writers and illustrators get together on work.

“That was the original founding purpose of this organization, which is why it is not the Whitewater Valley Art Association, it’s Arts, plural,” Hreno said. “It’s an important distinction that could be lost very easily. That is one thing Don MacDaniel is still very adamant about, to engage all the arts.”

The doors will be open more often for the public to come in an view the work or become part of the group. Those who work downtown can stop in during their lunch period.

The northern portion of the building is the gallery with a functional working area on the south section, offering the ability for many people to work at the same time an exhibition is open to the public.

In the back are the kitchen and a handicap restroom with a door of wood samples from around the world, donated by Larry and Sue Jinks, designed by Lisa Getting and framed by Hreno.

The kitchen is donated by the late Julia Yake. Her late husband Bill was a founding member.

“We want people to know, you can take an old building, downtown, that looks like ‘What have they done?’ and turn it into something really beautiful,” McQueen said. “It took donations from people in the community, grants and hard-working folks who have given their lives up for two and half years. People with other old buildings downtown can look and see what we did and know it can be done.”

“Someone said something about getting downtown the way it used to be but no, it’s about getting downtown to move forward to what it could be,” Hreno said.

It can be an anchor in the revitalization of what the new MainStreet program is hoping to bring to the downtown, called “Discover Connersville,” McQueen said.

With much of the work done on the first floor done, the members can look forward to the upper floor renovations and they are already thinking about 2018, which includes the every-other year Art Auction with a theme of the Roaring Twenties. Keep up to date on the Association’s activities at Facebook.com/wvartsa.