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Pinned to the wall in Hillary Steel’s studio, a massive artwork rises. Intermixing striking colors in bold plaids and jagged stripes, its patterns resemble the flamboyant plumage of a bird in flight. Steel assembled the layers from cloth she had hand-woven and dyed months before, awaiting inspiration. “I love what birds symbolize,” says the artist. “I wanted it to be hopeful and uplifting.”

Standing in the studio at her Silver Spring home, Steel is surrounded by three floor looms, acquired over the 40 years she has been developing her craft and earthy, soaring-in-scale contemporary art. During that time, her richly textured wall pieces have become increasingly three-dimensional, their abstract designs continuing to express ideas arising over a lifetime.

One series came about when Steel’s adult daughters were small. Disgusted by scandals in the news, the artist began cutting up newspapers, interweaving paper strips and cotton thread into squares stitched together to form small, rough-hewn houses. “Newspaper has such a beautiful texture,” Steel comments about the approach she revives periodically. Most of her pieces, woven of cotton, reflect a strong West African influence; others made of silk or rayon glimmer in the light.

Steel views her craft as a basic human activity. “Weaving is in our DNA,” she observes. “But we’ve moved so far away from hand-weaving in our industrial society, people don’t understand how cloth is made anymore.” As she explains, weaving is simply the interlacing of two linear elements on any kind of loom. A vertical thread, called a warp, is held under tension as a horizontal weft thread goes over and under. “It’s a very, very old technology that I have a great fondness for,” the artist says.

Most hand-weavers make cloth on a loom, then use the fabric in functional objects such as blankets, rugs or clothing. Steel takes it further. “I think of weaving as a construction method,” she explains. “I create the structure—the cloth, then I manipulate and change it a lot.”

The artist begins by weaving cloth in a variety of textures, patterns and colors in lengths up to 18 yards. Later, while composing a new piece, fabrics may be interspliced and dyed again. “Eventually I’ll get it into a form that seems right and I’ll sew it together by hand,” she says. A large wall piece—like the eight-by-eight-foot work currently underway—can take nearly five years from start to finish.

To understand the roots of her art, Steel has traveled to West Africa and South America, and worked with craftspeople from Central Asia. Almost every year since 2006, she has visited Tenancingo, Mexico, to study with the late master weaver Evaristo Borboa and, more recently, Ruben Nuñez. For these trips, Steel takes along a backstrap loom. That deceptively simple device—made of sticks, rope and a strap—anchors to a stationary post at one end and wraps around the weaver’s waist at the other.

Using that loom, she has learned to weave highly complex, traditional patterns with very fine cotton thread in resist-dyed patterns. Called ikat in Malaysia and jaspe in Mexico, the technique involves isolating groups of threads that are tightly bound to resist taking on color, while the color in a dye bath permeates the untied threads. The process may involve handling and counting thousands of threads, as bundles are marked off before dyeing, then later lined up on the loom to create a pattern. “It’s a brilliant design system and a complicated, labor-intensive process that requires a lot of time, planning and math,” Steel notes. “You can take it very far.”

The artist’s proficiency offers no hint that she stumbled into the field by chance. While majoring in English at the University of Buffalo, Steel took a poetry class at a nearby college where she discovered the textiles studio. Peering through a window, she first glimpsed floor looms.

“Somehow, I signed up for an intro to textiles class. From there I took a weaving class,” the artist remembers. She taught herself basic chemistry to understand how dyes work, combed textile exhibits and learned from books and workshops. “I experimented a lot,” she notes.

After moving to Pittsburgh with her husband in the 1980s, Steel taught textile art in a high school, continuing to learn along with her students. A Maryland resident since 1994, she now teaches full-time at The Potomac School in McLean and leads adult workshops in the U.S. and Mexico.

Steel remains grateful to her own mentors, especially those in Mexico. “To be able to travel to places where the language and customs are so different, and work with people in the same area of craft, to have an intercambio—an exchange, as it’s called in Spanish—is a gift,” she observes, while recognizing her point in the constellation. “I’m not from that culture. I’m not going to produce what they produce. In my own studio, I try to take what I learn, what makes sense for me, and interpret it through the lens of my own time and place.”

Hillary Steel’s art will be on view from April 1 to May 1 at the Hillyer Gallery at International Arts & Artists in DC. For more information, visit hillarysteel.com.

Rezgar Mamandi’s earliest memory reaches back to his family home, and the vivid impression made by a huge, handwoven rug. Its central picture of sprightly fish chasing each other around a large, light-blue circle captured his youthful imagination. “I was always playing there, pretending I was fishing and swimming in the sea,” he recalls fondly. “Maybe that’s one reason I love to show fish in my painting.”

An artist with strong ties to his homeland, Mamandi was raised in the historic village of Musasir, now called Rabat, in the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran. The ancient town was a religious capital in the Mannaean civilization some 3,000 years ago.

These days, the artist works from his studio in a bright, new apartment in Sterling, Virginia. Along one wall, tiles and other ceramic forms are stacked on open racks, ready for his hand-painting. Finished works and those in progress line shelves opposite. Mamandi pulls out one 20-inch-round platter with intricate, geometric bands in dazzling black-and-white patterns. Nearby, a colorful, nearly completed wall tile shows two hunters—one pointing a bow-and-arrow at a bison, the other directing his spear toward a bull. The inky forms exist in separate quadrants divided by jagged lines, like national borders, and stand out against a terrain as fragmented as a mosaic of multi-hued stones.

Brimming with energy, harmony and folksy charm, the animals and figures recall prehistoric cave paintings. Here and throughout Mamandi’s art, main motifs are enfolded by meticulously detailed backgrounds, or framed in richly ornamented, symmetrical borders that bring a formal order to each spirited, hand-painted piece.

The painter’s exacting embellishments conjure a broad Middle Eastern past. “I always say, when we moved from caves to houses and palaces, especially with the tiles, we were telling our stories and history—with the colors, with every way we could express them,” Mamandi notes. While several of his favored subjects, from winged lions to rams and circular sun symbols, derive from ancient tiles unearthed in his village, “We can’t say this style is based on a Kurdish house,” he explains. “It’s a Mesopotamian house.”

Mamandi started drawing at an early age, never dreaming that one day he would become an artist. After studying health at Iran’s Urmia University for two years, he left school and opened a bookstore and publishing business with a relative in Sanandaj, a center of Kurdish culture in Iran. He had moved to the city to take classes with well-known Kurdistani painters, but found little time to attend. Still, he recalls, “I never stopped painting and sketching.”

During a difficult time for Kurdish activists and writers starting in 2005, Mamandi relates, “a United Nations office in Turkey accepted my case as a refugee.” Settling in Avanos, Turkey, he prospered as a self-taught painter on ceramics, exhibiting his work at one of the city’s largest art galleries. “I had a good life,” he remembers.

Four years later, the artist was offered refugee status in the United States and emigrated in 2010, at age 33. “This is the land of opportunity,” he says, “but for a couple years, it was very hard.” While working in restaurants in Chicago, he also pursued ceramic painting, researching and testing clays and glazes that he found to be different here from those he had worked with in Turkey.

Then in 2013, when presenting his art for the first time at a craft show in Oak Brook, Illinois, Mamandi recalls, “My life changed. People admired my work; a lot didn’t believe I painted everything myself.” As he traveled around the country, the artist came to a show in Gaithersburg and discovered that he liked the DC area. He moved to Virginia in 2019.

Today, Mamandi considers himself a tile designer. “That’s my passion,” he says, citing the freedom of creating sumptuous designs on expansive, flat surfaces. Recognizing, however, that “everyone may not need a tile, but everybody needs a mug, a plate, a bowl,” he continues, “I wanted to bring that culture, that design, that symmetry to this country in every way possible.”

The artist paints on blank earthenware forms, which he glazes and fires in a kiln off-site. Creating the brilliant colors and precise floral, geometric and architectural patterns of his art—inspired by Kurdish women’s clothing and rugs—may require up to six different colors dappled in one spot.

Reflecting back to his birthplace—where he was surrounded by beautiful design traditions and listened to age-old stories told by his grandfather—“I always thought that the past was maybe better than now,” the artist observes. But he remains encouraged by the future. “In a thousand years, I never thought I would come to the United States and start painting tiles and plates,” he says, brightening. “When you think about your past, you see a lot of small things happen that attach together to bring you here. Now I know why.”

For more information, visit mannapottery.com.


What I find really intriguing,” artist Rania Hassan says about her gracefully hand-knitted sculptures, “is that from a single thread, you can make anything. It doesn’t matter what that is, it’s one line of thread.”

Standing in her Washington row house on the main floor that often doubles as a studio, Hassan has assembled miniature models for her artworks, which may take shape in mammoth size. For an exhibit at Washington’s Kreeger Museum, the artist suspended a knitted web of gossamer-thin fibers in a stairwell between three floors. The piece, reaching 26 feet tall, required 40,000 stitches that Hassan knitted by hand. On site for the installation, she stretched and pivoted the airy artwork, securing it by fiber tendrils to the staircase’s solid bronze posts.

Hassan translated knitting concepts into welded steel for Marker, now prominently displayed on Connecticut Avenue at K Street, NW. The sculpture’s monumental, circular form rises 15 feet from a bed of colorful plantings. Painted knots and loops on its pierced surface reference threads coming together and unraveling; its swirling lines stand open to the sky. A joint project of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative—which brings art about women’s histories and contemporary experiences to public spaces—and DC’s Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, the vibrant piece is coated in blazing pink, suggesting a crown or the color of knitted hats worn at women’s marches.

These artworks tie into Hassan’s underlying theme of a single thread that takes many forms while binding all parts together. “My work is about connections—how we’re all connected through community, time and memory,” she observes. Ideas about continuity and identity also weave through, the artist adds, since “the stitches we use have been used by so many generations before.”

Many have turned to knitting or crocheting as comforting activities during the pandemic. However, hand-knitting has ignited Hassan’s art for more than 15 years—and her connections to fiber go back even further. Born in New York to a family from Lebanon, the future artist watched as her grandmother crocheted intricate patterns for table coverings and other beautifully useful items. She learned to knit from her mother, who stitched and finished objects in impeccable floral motifs—all now treasured by the artist.

After graduating from the American University of Beirut in 1997, Hassan pursued oil painting. A few years after joining her family in Washington in 2000, she rediscovered knitting through friends and connected online to knitting communities around the world which, she remembers, “were an inspiration.”

Her artwork soon incorporated more than fiber. “I came to this as a painter,” she explains. “My work focused on connecting those two elements.” The dimensions of her art also expanded in response to commissions for specific sites. Her largest piece appeared in 2019 at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. As serene and see-through as a waterfall, the refined, mesh-like installation descended 40 feet from black-steel trusses overhead. Called Paths VII, this elegant structure funneled down to a narrow spindle pendulum, its tip poised just above a rising mound of gold leaf. Typical of Hassan’s artworks, the sculpture was hand-knitted of natural fibers and metal filaments, some only one-eighth the thickness of a single hair.

“I’ve always used really fine threads you wouldn’t necessarily knit with,” the artist remarks, noting too that metals “add a bit of structure that helps them hold their shape and give a little sheen.”

In her DC studio, Hassan explains the process behind Liminality, her piece for the Kreeger. She pulls out a model of the staircase where her sculpture now resides. Dangling in the center, ordinary string represents her concept of “what that shape would look like and how the points would converge,” she says. The next step was a plastic-string version of the sculpture made with a 3D printing pen.

Later, paper cutouts helped Hassan determine that the flat, knitted piece would take the form of a circle with another half-circle on top, to be extended vertically. After knitting a swatch, she figured out the size of needles and the spacing of stitches.

“I scaled it up from there,” Hassan says, with an ease that belies the extensive calculations involved. After manually documenting the smallest edge (348 stitches) to the widest circumference (1,067 stitches), she produced a massive computer spreadsheet that she referenced while knitting to track every line.

“My work is very much about the calculations I use in my structures—they’re definitely more organic than the mathematics they come from,” the artist observes. She hopes viewers encountering her knitted sculptures experience the same surprise they feel when discovering “a cool spider’s web,” she says. “It has a big presence, but it’s so intricate and delicate that you have to be really paying attention to notice it. That’s how I think of my work.”

Rania Hassan’s Liminality is on view at the Kreeger through November 2021; kreegermuseum.org. Her steel Marker can be seen through Spring 2022 at Connecticut Avenue and K Street, NW. raniahassan.com

Like an alchemist at work, artist Robin Rose stirs a cauldron of hot beeswax in his inner sanctum beside Washington’s Rock Creek Park. He mixes in damar crystals derived from natural tree resin, adds carnauba wax made from the leaves of a Brazilian palm, then blends in powdered pigment of a soft rose-madder hue. “One thousand one, one thousand two,” Rose intones, expressing the brief time it takes for the hot wax to harden.

With a sure, steady hand, he glides the edge of a brush across a linen panel, repeating the movement in a staccato style to form thin and weightier horizontal lines and splatters. A delicate salmon-colored abstraction emerges, gently molded in wax relief. As he brushes the surface with a pearlescent coat, he observes, “I’m allowing these topographical points to capture the paint and build up the surface, in the same way that sedimentary rock builds up on the bottom of the ocean, as sand piles up until all the layers fuse together.”

Rose turns the painting to determine its ideal orientation. Suddenly it seems right; scattered dots take on the appearance of bubbles rising underwater. The painter decides to wait before tackling the next stages—building up layers, then melting, scraping or carving them down to rebuild again. “I started the painting so I could mutate it,” he explains.

This quick, intense technique is encaustic, an ancient painting method that predates European oil painting by at least a thousand years. Instead of mixing pigments with oil, the binder is beeswax, and the drying time is seconds rather than possibly weeks as it is with oil. “I’m capturing that real-time experience,” says the artist. “It’s a very different way to paint.”

Luminous colors and sculptural dimensions distinguish the encaustic process. Rose carries it further. After nearly a half-century practicing this formidable art, his abstractions communicate a primal sense of earth, water and air, as if seeing nature’s patterns and richness magnified. At the same time, an elusive mystery pervades each piece: Why do those gemlike and earthy hues appear to shift color as the light changes? Are the shining surfaces opaque or translucent? What is that spectral haze rising among the crisp, white-on-white waves? “I want my paintings to be enigmas, releasing their information very slowly,” the artist suggests.

What’s clear is that Rose brings boundless experience to the task. If ripples in his paintings resemble sound waves, that’s not accidental, since he sees an internal musical mechanism at work. “When I’m painting, I know there’s a certain conveyance of rhythm, there’s a beat,” he says, blue eyes sparkling. “I’ve always done both—painted and played music.”

During high school in Ocala, Florida, Rose was in a rock-and-roll band. Soon after arriving in Washington in 1976, he played guitar and synthesizer as a member of the Urban Verbs, a new-wave group that recorded two albums with Warner. His basement studio is bounded by a collection of vinyl records, played on a vintage turntable as he paints. While the largest work he ever produced was a commission for IBM—a pair of 16-by-16-foot paintings—one of his favored formats now is a 16-by-16-inch square—about the size of an album cover.

Even today, Rose associates his art with music. He compares the layers of encaustic to multi-track recording, where separate tracks for each instrument are combined. Plus, he notes, “encaustic is additive, just like music. I can keep coming back to experience it anew.”

Water themes also splash against the shores of his art. As an only child, Rose was immersed in nature. “I loved scuba diving in rivers, looking for artifacts,” he says. “I was always collecting something—fossils, sharks’ teeth, rocks.”

While attending Florida State University, Rose started out experimenting with reverse painting on the backs of Lucite panels, following a high-school hobby of lacquering cars, surfboards and water skis in glowing colors. He went on to receive a master’s degree in fine arts at FSU under Karl Zerbe, who is credited with reviving encaustic art in the U.S. His student still uses the formula Zerbe perfected in the 1930s.

These days, Rose may be found painting in his cabin studio near the ocean in Rehoboth. There during the tumultuous early months of covid, he experienced a kind of mystical epiphany. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there was a word in my head,” the artist remembers. The first one that came to him was “breath.” Over the next three intense days, Rose completed a two-part painting based on that word. Of its cool, Caribbean light-blue color, he says, “It’s purifying. You can almost breathe it.”

On subsequent nights, other words appeared: Nestle, Dissonance, Lull, Spin and more, until the last, Release. All were created between March 12, 2020, and January 20, 2021, the date of the presidential inaugural. “The word was telling me what the painting wanted to be,” Rose explains. Hemphill recently exhibited the series of 19 works—not a coincidence, the artist believes, given covid-19 and other symbolic meanings of that number in the Bible, Koran and numerology.

He reflects on the long narrative that is encaustic painting, dating back to ancient portraits painted on wood panels attached to mummies in Egypt’s Fayum region. “Those painted masks were like a calling card to the afterlife,” notes Rose, whose own work imparts a timeless quality. “It’s kind of like, when did my paintings occur,” he muses, perhaps in response to the beat of a distant drummer. “Ten thousand years ago or yesterday?”

Robin Rose’s art is available through Hemphill; hemphillfinearts.com. For more information, visit robinroseart.com.

Nature in Flux - Standing on the beach in Montauk, New York, Jowita Wyszomirska was contemplating the weather.

A strong wind had whipped up the waves. Clouds moved over the sun. Reaching into a folder, the artist removed a sheet of heavy paper she had pre-coated to make it sensitive to light. How long should she expose it to UV rays before washing the paper off? What imprints of blue would remain? Minutes later, she dragged remnants of plants found hanging from a nearby ridge across the paper, threw on some sand and plunged it into the waves.

The artist welcomed the roll of chance. “I’m always amazed by the drips and runs and how this happens, really without me,” Wyszomirska says modestly. “I have some control, but there’s always another set of agents at work.”

In the cyanotype process—an early alternative to photography, also used for blueprints—the paper is covered with a solution of two light-sensitive chemicals. Wherever water hits, the reaction to sunlight stops. If the paper is not thoroughly submerged, the emulsion continues to react. Depending on the length of exposure to light, blues of different intensities remain as the paper changes. “I’ll see it and think, ‘Wow, yes! I want this!’” the artist exclaims. “I’m always trying to make that magic happen again.”

Wyszomirska’s sojourn by the water’s edge is just the first step. Back in her studio in an old industrial mill in Baltimore, she adds her own handwork to the exposed paper using acrylic paints, ink and sometimes sodium bicarbonate for a whitening effect. As part of her unfolding process, Wyszomirska researches weather data from regions where she has been working. After pinning one of her cyanotypes to a studio wall, she projects NOAA satellite maps over it, tracing wind patterns with graphite or colored pencils as the imagery moves across the page. She also selects shapes from these digital files to be laser-cut and later used as hanging elements in her large installations; the remaining pieces become stencils for drawing or painting on the cyanotypes as layers build. “It’s like a dance or balancing act, letting things happen on the paper,” she says.

The series that began in Montauk on a residency at the Andy Warhol Preserve and continued in Cape Henlopen, Delaware, was shown recently at Washington’s Gallery Neptune & Brown. These mid-size works on paper typically measure 30 inches wide by 22 inches high, with larger pieces up to 55 inches tall. All share an exalted beauty and a fresh, if disturbing, immediacy. Explosive powers reign. In some, random lines and bursts of gold surge like lightning flashes against velvety blues. Dark hues shatter with torrential force, overflowing onto a base of white paper veiled with liquid drips and atmospheric daubs. This breeching of boundaries between dark above and light below suggests a horizon line where distinctions between sky and ocean are dissolving.

“I think about climate change all the time,” the artist says, referring to her driving theme. “I’m responding to nature that I see and love, and the beauty of it.” However, while working, she adds, “I don’t think about those ideas. It’s very intuitive. Everything you have and everything you know—the good, the bad—all goes into that work.”

Growing up, Wyszomirska remembers mainly drawing and reading. When her family arrived in Chicago from a small town in Poland in 1993, she was 13 and didn’t speak English. “The art teachers in school encouraged me at a time when communication was challenging,” she recalls.Wyszomirska majored in painting at Illinois State University. Not sure what should come next, she took a job building exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, then moved on to the aquarium, where she fabricated large-scale models and exhibits. “It gave me the skill of working in three dimensions and using sculptural objects in my work,” she notes.

Wyszomirska moved with her partner, now husband, to Baltimore in 2010. Exploring the city by bike, she found a studio and started working full-time on her art. During an early show when she was doing tiny drawings, someone asked if she’d consider going bigger. Trying it, she explains, “I discovered how much I liked the physicality of working large.” Recent installations—abstract views of pounding waves drawn and painted on suspended panels up to 10 feet tall—encourage viewers to walk through, with the intent, she says, “to give a physical sense of the power of ongoing changes between the land and sea, and feel how in flux that constantly is.”

Since receiving a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Maryland in 2016, Wyszomirska has taught drawing there. Then, four years ago while experimenting with different materials, she happened upon /////////////////////////////////////////////////Nature in Flux - cyanotype. “It opens up the process so much for me. It compels me to respond to chance,” she affirms.

As Wyszomirska balances slow, intimate studio work with freer, large installations, she relies on direct connections with nature—whether hiking an Alaskan glacier on an artist residency in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park or discovering a stream near her studio in Druid Hill Park. Her aim “is to capture the incredible moment that’s happening in nature. It’s all about that constant search,” she observes, adding cheeringly,

Nature in Flux - “That’s also the fun of it.”

Jowita Wyszomirska’s art is available through Gallery Neptune & Brown; galleryneptunebrown.com. For more information, visit jowitawyszomirska.work

Reaching Out - In artist Faith Wilson’s enchanting cosmos, chairs wander aloft in space.

Silhouetted blackbirds stand solo or in rows, sometimes upside down. It is a world in flux and a heartening one, where bright stars hover and uplifting words glide by—love, joy, be alive. It might be a metaphor for our own topsy-turvy times. In fact, Wilson has been arranging such elements in painted floorcloths for more than two decades.

“My work has always been intimate, expressing my own life experiences or my thoughts,” says the artist, who has spent most of her years in or near Chestertown, Maryland. “I have a romantic vision of the past and the lives we have led. Certain leitmotifs have carried through.”

In her personal lexicon, a simple chair becomes a comforting place to eat, work, talk to others or daydream. Common blackbirds take their cue from Maryland poet Susan Argo, who called them the punks of the bird world. “Having grown up with a punk background in my 20s,” Wilson fondly recalls, “I love that comparison.” Like the swaying grasses and gentle waters in her work, birds signal “our spiritual connection to nature,” she notes, adding, “All of these images are almost waking dreams, transitions between here and there.”

It may seem a paradox that the artist’s universe of wistful reverie inhabits humble floorcloths—utilitarian and highly durable coverings intended to be walked on. Yet that practical blend demonstrates the importance she places on handcraft in our lives. “Your grandmother’s quilt or a bowl someone carved aren’t just objects, they’re objects with meaning. Someone touched them,” explains the self-taught artist. “I’m trying to make something functional and interesting. You can’t
help but put yourself into that.”

Wilson’s intuitive style is grounded in her early years. Raised in Latin America and California, she was surrounded by art. Her father, Lex Wilson, an abstract-expressionist painter, was also a potter and photographer. Her mother, Katherine, a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, collected paintings mostly by contemporary Latin American artists.

After graduating from high school at 16, Faith Wilson was presented with two choices: go to college or get a job. “I wanted to think of a third alternative—that turned out to be weaving tapestry. I fell in love with the materials,” she remembers. Hitchhiking around Europe and in Central America, she gravitated to places where weaving was happening. When she returned to the U.S. in 1975, Wilson decided to join her sister, who was living in Chestertown. As it turned out, that sibling, Marilee Schumann, became a potter and sculptor. Both now show their art at Create Gallery in Chestertown. In recent years, Wilson also has exhibited at the Philadelphia and Smithsonian craft shows.

Along the way, the artist worked with mixed media on wall pieces. She transitioned to making floorcloths almost by chance. While married to a decorative painter, she recalls, “I learned a lot of decorative techniques and started experimenting with materials we had on hand. My first pieces were actually painted drop cloths.”

Wilson still applies those same techniques, which bring depth of color and nuanced pattern to each one-of-a-kind piece. To start, she stretches heavy canvas over plywood and covers both sides with a base coat of paint. Several layers of color mixed with translucent glazes are brushed on. Typically, five layers are built up and then partially removed with rags, folded paper or possibly the artist’s own hands. “That process is always fun and interesting,” says Wilson, who may place images on a subsurface, meant “to be barely seen, to be subconscious.”

In addition, she sometimes paints circles freehand, or stencils on moons, grasses or words. “I make all the stencils myself, so I can repeat the motifs and have a clean-edged look,” she says, observing that the words are less about their meaning than that she finds text “visually beautiful.” Her newest floorcloths introduce bold color fields that revisit her early appreciation for the paintings of post-World War II artists, especially Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns.

“Part of the satisfaction in making floorcloths,” Wilson says, is “they really can transform a space.” One recent commission proves the point. That large piece, designed for the dining room of Haitian-art collectors living in Charlottesville, references work by developing-world artists as well as her own motifs—from its central emblem, inspired by a Haitian bowl, to its checkerboard border of marching birds.

Asked how she felt about covering up that charming artwork with furniture, Wilson responds without hesitation: “That’s what it’s all about. Go ahead and put your table and chairs on it.” Calling floorcloths “one of the really true American crafts,” she describes how in Colonial times in Chestertown, floorcloths were made from the canvases of leftover sails, to replace expensive rugs imported from Europe. “At the end of the day, what gives our lives and our homes meaning?” the artist ponders. “I want to make something beautiful. I want to make something original. And I want to make something useful.”

Reaching Out - Faith Wilson’s floorcloths are available at Create Gallery in Chestertown (createartcraftdesign.com) and through her website: faithwilsonart.com.





Broad Aperture - Christopher Baer steps back to examine one of his large paintings—a riotous field of chartreuse with hints of peach, lavender and pink dappled through—and observes, “This is, in a sense, the abstraction of spring for me.”

The brilliant colors of spring, and summer too, appear year-round in Baer’s Washington, DC, studio. On one canvas, a blaze of yellow is tempered by earthy undertones; on another, hot pink dominates, while flecks of aqua, blue and purple crisscross, orange notes rise and a single red streak descends. “The idea,” says the painter, “is to create a set of dynamics that keeps the viewer’s eye engaged. A piece of art should hold your attention for longer than just a glance. It should pull you in again and again.”

Other paintings produced over the past two decades have taken a similar approach: Blocks of blue may interact with areas of black or white; horizontal lines pulsate; or snowy tones blanket the canvas, sculpting the surface with paint. “I don’t have a formula in my mind as I work,” Baer reveals. “Some pieces are more about the texture of paint, rather than the color. There’s a back-and-forth thought process going on until the composition is resolved.”

Born in DC and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Baer discovered painting in his formative years. After family visits to Cape Cod, his parents returned with works from a studio started by artist Edwin Reeves Euler, a relative, in Provincetown; they served as early inspirations. “Being creative and using painting as an outlet never felt like a choice; it’s a thread that has run throughout my life,” says Baer. As a high school student at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes in Alexandria, he dedicated all spare time to sharpening his art skills and even sacrificed playing sports—against the urging of friends and the coach.

Baer’s achievement in art was recognized with a Virginia Governor’s School scholarship for an intensive summer program at University of Richmond. Later, he went on to study at Rhode Island School of Design, receiving a bachelor’s degree in industrial design in 1995.

That training has helped him simplify complex ideas in his work. Displayed in his home’s living area, an early still life and landscape illustrate the artist’s drift toward abstraction. While the subjects are easy to recognize, their forms are pared down to two-dimensional planes of color. Baer compares the flattened color fields to “looking at the world through a broader aperture,” as in aerial views. In fact, the artist keeps on hand a digital archive of photos he has taken on airplanes. Images of structured farmland and rugged mountain ranges seen from above, he says, “have had a big impact on me.”

“A piece of art should hold your attention for longer than just a glance.”

—Christopher Baer

Also informing his work are paintings by post-World War II abstract expressionists, especially Richard Diebenkorn, whose “Ocean Park” series lyrically explored the landscape and changing atmospheric effects around his Santa Monica, California, studio. “I love the rigor with which he kept going further and further in a series—negotiating between the illusion of depth and flatness on the picture plane at the advent of modern painting,” notes Baer. “He really captured my imagination, especially when I was younger and found that dynamic between the depth and flatness on the picture plane was possible.”

Baer’s tribute to “Ocean Park” came with “Palisades,” his first series also named for the place where he lives and works. These large canvases extend almost five-feet square. Built up in multiple layers using broad strokes, they evoke a sense of spaciousness along with what the artist calls “artifacts,” as lower layers poke through.

Starting out, Baer sets down big color tones with a large palette knife in free, sweeping gestures. He prefers oil paint for its translucence and depth, often mixing the paint with a cold-wax medium to make it lighter and more flexible, “like cake icing,” he says. He then overlays up to six layers of paint in large swaths. “It’s really so satisfying,” says the artist, describing his process. “I try to think of it holistically, working on all parts at once in a continuous dialogue between points of interest and rest for the eye.”

The ongoing “Palisades” series, started in 2004, was followed by three others—“White on White,” which explored gradations in a single tone; and “Line Theory,” composed of stacked, linear rows, often in throbbing colors that fill the entire canvas or board. Baer’s most recent series, “Shining Invitation,” places a single or group of circles on the painting’s surface.

Considering one example, in which a circular outline is inscribed equally over powder-blue and white panels, Baer explains, “I started to think about how good and evil, black and white are wrapped up in one thing. There’s a unity represented in these works; we’re all connected and part of a whole,” he reflects. “It’s the simplest representation of how I understand the universe, the choices we make.”
It’s also a painting that viewers may choose to return to for further contemplation.

Broad Aperture - Christopher Baer’s art is available through Addison/Ripley Fine Art; addisonripleyfineart.com


History Revived - In the mood to escape the current moment without leaving the nation’s capital?

Ready to return to a reimagined past studded with grand architecture, intimate interludes and a glorious bird’s-eye view across the 19th-century city? If so, then Peter Waddell—the maestro history-painter of Washington, DC—can illustriously lead you there.

To sample the artist’s visual enchantment, take a stroll south of Dupont Circle where a vivid mural fills the wall of a townhouse on Sunderland Place, NW. This public artwork shows the first two mansions built at Dupont Circle—the British Legation and Stewart’s Castle—as scenery on the stage of a colossal toy theater. The 60-by-60-foot painting is easy to see; its stage emerges from behind elegantly tasseled, trompe l’oeil drapes.

“I love the idea of pulling back the curtain on history,” Waddell says with gusto and in the broad accent of his native New Zealand. His smaller vignettes depicting local history and architecture can be found around town on the fronts of cast-iron call boxes once used to summon police and the fire department. In Kalorama, one of several call-box paintings by Waddell illustrates the six former presidents who have lived in the neighborhood, including Barack Obama, with their homes as a backdrop. Waddell likes creating public artwork, he says, “mostly out of love and my desire to amuse the public—and to help people think about the past. Knowing history is so important.”

The painter sets about recreating the past from his picturesque garret studio, located atop a stucco garage on the grounds of Tudor Place in Georgetown. As its artist-in-residence, Waddell has drawn and painted many views of the historic landmark. At the same time, he has fulfilled commissions for, among others, Mount Vernon, the U.S. Capitol and the White House Historical Association.

His series of 14 paintings for the latter illustrates views of the White House over its first century. Each scene and architectural rendering demonstrates the artist’s virtuoso handling of oil paint to capture subtleties of light and meticulous details. In one painting, Waddell portrayed the splendor of the Red Room at dusk during Chester A. Arthur’s presidency; the soft glow of gaslight delineates deep folds in the velvet curtains, burnishes the gilding on fireplace candelabras and gently highlights the fashionable flounces and trains of ladies’ gowns. The cumulative effect of these details, rich in color and texture, produces a dramatic hyper-reality, crystalizing commemorative views and narratives.

“I put tremendous effort into the actual craft of painting, so I’ll be able to do what I set out to do,” says the artist, who started out painting in a modern Expressionist style after attending art school in New Zealand. “It never occurred to me that I would end up painting with minute brushes. But as I went on, there were more and more details I wanted to include in the paintings, and they required smaller brushes,” he remarks. “Even on very large canvases, I’m working on a minute scale.”

In the White House paintings, Waddell imagines views that were never definitively drawn, painted or photographed in their own time. “People often ask for pictures of things that don’t exist,” he notes. “They want some time or place in history recreated.” To achieve that goal, Waddell may examine diaries, drawings, household inventories and invoices, or explore the buildings themselves if they’re still there. “I think of my paintings as historical documents,” he says, “but that doesn’t stand in the way of making things beautiful.”

The painter’s representation of gaps in historical imagery may have reached a pinnacle in two ambitious paintings for patron Albert H. Small and his permanent Washingtoniana Collection at The George Washington University Museum. For the first, The Indispensable Plan, Waddell notes, “I set about to show what DC would have looked like if Pierre L’Enfant’s plan had been fully realized.”

Jackie Strecker, his research assistant for the project and now the collection’s assistant curator, adds, “It was groundbreaking—the first time anyone has tried to visualize L’Enfant’s city as more than just a map.”

Together, Waddell and Strecker examined the original 1791 plan at the Library of Congress. “It was full of fantastic details,” recalls the artist. L’Enfant’s vision for canals, public spaces, military installations and government buildings found their proper places in the artist’s panoramic view across the imagined city.

It took Waddell a year and a half to create this and a companion piece, The Village Monumental, which shows how the city had developed by 1825, the year of L’Enfant’s death. Viewers will be able to see both works at The George Washington University Museum whenever it reopens.

From his first visit to Washington while on vacation with his father, the artist was drawn to the city and its history. His father, a cabinetmaker and American Civil War buff, and his mother, a theatrical costumer and librarian, passed on their respect for art and culture. When barely more than a toddler, Peter first accompanied them to the impressive municipal theater in their small coastal town of Hastings, New Zealand. “I was absolutely transfixed,” he remembers. Not long after, he appeared on that stage as a child actor—and also witnessed scenery painting for the first time.
Waddell immigrated to Washington in 1992. Once here, he was inspired to transition from the fine art of painting landscapes to historical views. Reflecting on the direction his art has taken, the painter observes, “I like to say art is about the physical—the external world—and the internal world of imagination and dreams and memory. It’s also about other art; there’s a long tradition of architectural and history painting.”

Asked about another practitioner in that great tradition, Piranesi—the Italian artist and architect who reimagined views of classical Rome—Waddell replies modestly, without making comparisons: “He was so good. That idea of being able to create a whole world out of a blank piece of paper. It’s magical.”

History Revived - For more information on the artist, visit peterwaddell.com. To see Waddell’s restored call boxes in Kalorama, go to sheridankaloramacallbox.org.




Reclaimed Style - Wendy Umanoff’s first big lighting commission was a dream assignment.

Asked to design a chandelier for The Valentine museum store in Richmond, she searched through the museum’s archives. Among historical objects donated by local families, Umanoff gravitated toward the toys. “I wanted it to be playful, an inviting focus for people walking in,” she recalls.

The chandelier she designed in 2014 continues to charm. Like a lighthearted scaffold, it furnishes a perch for painted-wood cardinals—alighting on top, surrounded by swirls of crystal and seen through a metal frame resembling a wire cage. The piece hints at Umanoff’s characteristic style with its blend of vintage and new parts and pieces assembled as in an airy, illuminated sculpture. “My sensibility is eclectic,” says the designer. “I love combining reclaimed and industrial pieces with modern.”

In The Valentine’s whimsical chandelier, repurposed valve handles circle the central post like rings tossed around a stake. The designer duplicated 1940s bartending tools; their twisted-metal rods with spring attachments reminded her of pull toys. Typical of Umanoff’s custom designs, all parts come together in harmony to suit the destination.

“Richmond is so rich in historical buildings and history,” says the designer, describing how the chandelier’s re-use of salvaged materials “speaks about the city’s renewal, and how much it continues to change.”

A resident of Richmond for 20 years, Umanoff refers to its “amazing resources,” including the skilled artisans who fabricate her lighting. To create her visions, she collaborates with local metalsmiths and a blacksmith, woodworkers, powder-coaters and glassblowers. Recently, she approached fine artists to paint small sconces made of reclaimed parts for a project to benefit local nonprofits during the pandemic.

Umanoff also uses a professional picker who gathers salvaged finds that inspire many of her one-of-a-kind and limited-edition designs. She has imaginatively repurposed all kinds of industrial and other materials—from auto rotors that serve as pendants to real birds’ nests preserved and transformed into chandeliers. One current project will refashion a wooden yoke used to harness farm animals as a fixture to be suspended above a client’s kitchen island. “It’s going to be so much fun,” she says.

Having one foot in the past comes naturally to Umanoff. Her father, Arthur Umanoff, was a noted mid-century industrial designer whose furniture designs have recently been rediscovered. Growing up in the modernist, wood-and-glass house he conceived in Westchester County, New York, she remembers her father sketching on tablecloths during dinner, and making her own lighting sketches while she visited his office. “Now I’m always drawing to figure out the best way to build and hang lighting,” she notes.

Umanoff made the circuit to lighting almost by chance. After majoring in sculpture at Parsons School of Design, she worked for many years styling store displays and photography shoots in New York and California. Moving to Richmond after marrying, she styled photos and wrote a column about repurposing everyday objects for the city’s R Home magazine. For one column, she recycled bed springs and pulleys into lighting. Later displayed at Strawberry Fields Flowers & Finds, the fixtures were noticed by buyers from Shades of Light, a largely online lighting source based in Richmond. That happened 10 years ago; Umanoff has been designing for that purveyor ever since.

To display her wares and, as she says, “begin conversations with clients,” she shares space in Richmond’s historic Scott’s Addition with several craftspeople, including the proprietor of Phoenix Handcraft, who forged The Valentine shop chandelier.

Umanoff’s own loft apartment, a living and work space, is also located in a converted industrial building. There, at an old mahogany desk, she enjoys doing her own shop drawings by hand. New and vintage furnishings comfortably comingle, among them an occasional table designed by her father in the 1960s and a bank of mid-century metal cabinets from his office.

“I love the open space and moving things around within it,” says Umanoff, who recently replaced a pair of black pendants made from double pulleys in her home. “Maybe it’s a reaction to covid, but I was ready for something softer and more playful.”

In place of those fixtures, she has hung oversized versions of abstracted flowers, their white petals splayed out as in an overhead fan. “I think they create a lot more dimension and whimsy,” Umanoff says of the new design, based on a tiny incense holder she found while cleaning out a drawer. As she adds with a chuckle, “Where inspiration will come from, you never know.”

Visit Umanoff’s online lighting shop at umanoffdesign.com.

Reclaimed Style - Her work is also available at Shades of Light; shadesoflight.com/categories/umanoff-collection.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, Jomo Tariku liked to sketch the furniture and artifacts that his father, a military attaché for the Ethiopian government, collected from Africa and around the world. He drew the hand-carved Asian tables and Persian rugs in the living room, the Scandinavian dining room set and the African masks, carved ivory tusks and copper trays from Zambia, the Congo, Zaire and Kenya. “Our house was like a bazaar, very eclectic,” recalls Tariku, who never imagined that his exact representations of items at home would lead to a career as a furniture designer.

Among the mix, one piece made a lasting impression: the three-legged African stool. The legacy of this useful object, he says, “seeped into my psyche. Those craftspeople had more influence on my work than anyone else.” Today, three-legged African stools are sought-after accent pieces, pictured on the pages of luxury-home magazines around the world. Some of the designs may well be his.

Born in Kenya, raised in Ethiopia and now based in Springfield, Virginia, Tariku designs furniture rooted in his African heritage. At the same time, the bold outlines of his polished pieces distill familiar forms, cutting across cultures with contemporary authority. “I’m trying to interpret what an African-based furniture design would be, always with the goal of clean lines,” he says.

Like the everyday stools of his youth, Tariku’s pieces are made of wood—solid ash and walnut from the U.S., as well as mahogany and high-quality Baltic birch plywood. Ebonized or natural finishes often interplay light against dark. In his lathe-turned Mukecha stools, rows of black rings may alternate with white or other bright colors. “I like the contrast,” he notes.

Tariku’s signature Nyala chair was inspired by the Nyala antelope native to the Ethiopian mountains. While that graceful creature has four legs, the designer’s chair has just three, each elegantly tapered and outwardly curved. Its hand-carved backrest, resembling smooth animal horns, bends gently inward at the perfect height to double as an armrest. Minus the backrest, the chair becomes a refined, three-legged stool.

“I kept looking at images of this beautiful animal,” says Tariku, describing his approach to this and other designs. “It started as a sketch; I kept drawing for more than a month or two.” Looking back, he recounts, “The sketching part was easy. Finding a builder took much longer.”

Tariku has a small wood shop in the garage of his family townhouse “to work out my ideas,” he says, but does not build his pieces full-scale. For more than two years, he had been looking for someone to construct the Nyala chair, which he hoped to introduce at the 2018 Salone del Mobile Satellite show in Milan. Happily, a few months before the opening, he met master wood craftsman David Bohnhoff at Richmond’s Craft + Design show. Looking through Tariku’s sketchbook, Bohnhoff stopped at the Nyala chair and said, “I’d like to take on that challenge.” Tariku agreed enthusiastically, and the two have collaborated on fabricating the designer’s chairs ever since; woodworkers in Rockville, Baltimore and Texas currently build his less complicated stools.

Before construction begins, Tariku uses 3-D modeling to help visualize his concepts, construction methods, ergonomics and the overall design balance of each piece. “Until you make the real thing, it’s hard to know,” he says. In fact, four prototypes of the Nyala chair were required before he and Bohnhoff were happy with it.

Tariku studied industrial design at the University of Kansas. Until entering, he had never heard of the field, intending to major in fine art. His furniture designs bridge both. “I don’t want my pieces to be only beautiful. They have to be comfortable too. They shouldn’t say ‘don’t sit on me—I’m art,’” observes the designer, who also works as a data scientist at the World Bank.

Tariku feels the time is right to extend the reach of his modern pieces. That sense is buoyed by his participation in the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a collective formed in 2018 to increase black representation in the design world. The Guild has promoted its members’ work with exhibitions in New York, Houston and High Point, North Carolina.

The art and design of those with African origins, he says, “brings richness” to the design universe. Until now, his chairs and stools have been based on sub-Saharan African influences. He hopes to broaden those references to parts of northern Africa, and to produce a full line of contemporary African-style furniture—the subject of his college thesis.

Tariku looks forward to a time when he can present his work at shows in Ghana and Nigeria, where he has exhibited before. “Do I want to? Oh, yes,” he beams. “All that’s coming.”

For more information, visit jomofurniture.com.

A long a shaded garden path beside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, six rustic structures beckon visitors—some get off their scooters to take photos. Those stepping inside discover even greater reason to pause within these exhilarating wood enclosures.

As if in a rugged cathedral, golden-hued boards rise in staggered formation toward multiple, 14-foot-tall peaks. Walls step in and bulge out, suggesting the movement of some organic creature. Slits, peepholes and larger openings pierce the tight joints, allowing light to penetrate. The narrow boundaries encourage close-up viewing of variations in tone, texture, grain and knot patterns. These wood qualities become exaggerated on the exterior as the rough bark of raw-milled lumber projects to create a jagged, primeval profile.

“I love wood because each piece is different—its color, grain and smell. Like every person, each piece is one-of-a-kind,” says artist Foon Sham, who designed and constructed this buoyant work. Called “Arches of Life” and made entirely of pine from Boyds, Maryland, the piece is among several large-scale installations by Sham now on the Smithsonian campus as part of its outdoor “Habitat” exhibit—open for viewing at a safe social distance through December.

Exactly what kind of habitat is this? An accompanying panel describes how fallen trees take on new life as protective shelters for animals. But in its own short life, this multi-part piece has also expressed other ideas. Built in 2016 and titled “Escape,” the sculpture was then a single, 62-foot-long work representing the artist’s response to its setting on the grounds of the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the site of a former federal prison.

“There were escape tunnels under the prison,” Sham explains by phone from his studio, also in Lorton. As prisoners might have tallied the days until their release on cell-block walls, Sham wrote in pencil each section’s completed construction date on interior boards. The sculpture also represents a larger story of immigration, of escaping one country for another. Its craggy roofline follows map contours of the U.S./Mexico border and suggests mountain ranges of the American West.

The work reflects elements of its creator’s own history. As a student, Sham arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1975. “The tunnel is a metaphor for the long journey to my American dream,” the artist observes. “It’s been a journey of hard work, continuing for 35 years.” Repeated openings in the sculpture’s walls indicate other possibilities. “There’s always a chance to get out; most artists do that many times in their lives,” he says. “This is an attempt to keep straight on, to reach the end of the tunnel—the target.”

Born in Macao, China, and raised in Hong Kong, Sham had little opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Although he started drawing at age 10, the culture and education system directed students along more dependable career paths—medicine, law or computer science. Sham took painting classes at night and on weekends when, he recalls, “Learning to paint meant copying the Chinese masters. I spent four years copying. I never made a painting on my own.”

Entering the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Sham took an introductory sculpture class and was baffled by the first assignment. “We were asked to do a self-portrait in any size and any material,” he remembers. “I was lost. My training was copying.” Living at the time with friends whose son was a carpenter, Sham picked up a band saw and some scraps of redwood, looked in the mirror and began assembling pieces into a composite head. It was the first time he had ever cut wood. “There was little opportunity to work with wood in Hong Kong. It’s a forest of buildings,” he says, chuckling.

Despite Sham’s misgivings, his portrait met with hearty approval from the teacher and class. “It changed my life,” he reveals. “That was my first opportunity to think about what I wanted to do as an artist—to follow my own DNA.”

It was the first step in his future career as a sculptor—and a professor of art. Since 1993, Sham has taught sculpture at University of Maryland while also fulfilling commissions, pursuing his own art and winning awards. Last year alone, he created three large commissions, received an achievement award and a grant from ArtsFairfax and exhibited smaller works and drawings at DC’s Gallery Neptune & Brown. Awash in luminous hues, the wood pieces on display were inspired by the colorful dress and landscape he found on a summer residency at the Arkad Centre d’Art in Auvillar, France.

While some of Sham’s works are scaled to interior spaces, others have attained monumental size. “Escape Tower,” the tallest at 36 feet, nearly touched the roof above the three-story atrium at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. Weighing three-and-a-half tons, it was created for the museum’s 2017 “Escape” exhibit of Sham’s work.

A more recent piece also proved complex. Commissioned by the Smithsonian, “Mushroom” is composed of 1,760 wood pieces reclaimed from trees that fell or were cut down during construction on the Smithsonian’s grounds: elm, oak, cypress, birch and katsura. The 12-foot-high sculpture was designed in 15 sections, each carefully color-coded and alphabetized for reassembly at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, where it’s now on view as part of the “Habitat” show.

Sham often uses local woods but notes, “I have been chasing wood all over the world.” He has worked with camphor wood in China, and built sculptures from woods milled locally in Australia, Hungary, France and Norway during art residencies in those countries. The sculptor keeps jars of sawdust in his studio as a reminder of the distinctive colors and scents of different species.

“I personally like the smell of pine,” Sham says about our region’s fast-growing, readily available wood. However, he points out, when used for outdoor pieces, it requires regular applications of preservative to extend its life beyond 10 years. He often turns to two imported woods that resist the forces of nature for 30 years or more. “Ridge,” a walk-through sculpture in Arlington’s Oakland Park, was constructed of kebony, a treated pine from Norway; it was also sourced for his 28-foot-tall sculpture in the new REI store in North Bethesda. And recently, Sham awaited a shipment from Guyana of greenheart, a hard, dense wood intended for four new sculptures at the corners of 19th & L Streets in DC’s Golden Triangle district.

In many of his sculptures, Sham combines different woods. Plus, he adds, “You can mix wood with steel, Plexiglas, concrete, paper and cast iron,” all of which he has done. A commission currently underway interweaves brick-shaped pine pieces with real books, which were all donated. Scheduled for exhibit at the National Building Museum from November 27 through January 10, 2021, this 26-foot-square sculpture called “Maze of Knowledge” is based on childhood memories, explains the sculptor, recalling a fort near his early home in Macao. “There were different routes, multiple openings. I want as many people as possible to walk through this sculpture.”

Sham credits one aspect of his Chinese heritage for his approach. “I’m always chopping up wood into little pieces—like in stir-fry cooking,” he says good-naturedly, comparing the mix of colors and textures in both.

Looking back, he also traces his method to that first self-portrait. “It’s still my way of working. I construct by adding, building up small blocks into a giant mass to create the structure I want,” he explains. Sham remains exhilarated by shaping art in three dimensions. “You can look at or walk all the way around a sculpture, and sometimes go inside,” he observes with satisfaction. “Think about it: How many ways can you do a sculpture? There are so many possibilities. You will never get tired, never get short of ideas. There is no limit.”

Foon Sham is represented in the DC area by Gallery Neptune & Brown; galleryneptunebrown.com. Find more at foonsham.com. The Smithsonian’s “Habitat” exhibit continues through December 2020; gardens.si.edu.


During extended weeks at home, some have found comfort in returning to the earth—looking at our back and front yards, balconies and rooftops in a new way. I’ve always felt most at ease in places with sidewalks; yet over the decades, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of digging, planting and pruning—striving to reclaim from the always-encroaching wild an environment of modest beauty, rather than one serving a useful purpose.

That perspective changed this year. At the urging of a gardening friend, I took the plunge—as so many have before—finding beauty in growing vegetables and herbs in raised beds. There are abundant benefits to gardening off the ground: not having to bend down as far; starting out with enriched soil; choosing among containers from humble pots and planters to custom-designed raised beds you can construct or commission; or simply elevating and enclosing an existing garden bed.

For an apprentice, raised beds are the perfect way to start small. Best of all, for farm-to-table, you can’t beat stepping outside your own kitchen for fresh lettuce or basil to serve in minutes—clipped at eye level.

Growing your own holds special appeal in times of limited access to fresh produce. That was the case during both world wars, when the government promoted “victory gardens” and families rallied to plant crops at home, in public parks, even in schoolyards. By the end of World War II, victory gardens accounted for 40 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S.

Back then, government pamphlets instructed homeowners on how to cultivate edible plants. For today’s beginners, I asked two experts for advice: Amanda Helin, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden; and Carly Mercer of Love & Carrots, which helps clients plant and maintain vegetable gardens. To raise a garden bed, Helin advises mounding at least six inches of compost within walls—or even better, 18 inches of compost mixed with topsoil—and digging it in deeply with a garden fork; or, for a container, simply filling it with 12 or more inches of commercial potting mix. Convert grass to a raised bed by layering five sheets of newspaper, piling on compost and topsoil, and eventually digging it all together. “Adding leaf compost is a great way to go for really rich veggie garden soil,” she says.

At least six hours of direct sunlight daily are necessary for a vegetable garden to thrive. “Think about commercial agriculture in an open field,” says Helin. “That’s ideal.” Mercer suggests placing tall crops on the north side of a bed, so that shorter ones like carrots, beans and salad greens are not cast in shade as the sun moves across the sky.

Allow space for a plant’s mature size. Tomatoes, for example, can reach five or six feet tall. “If you plant five tomatoes in a space where one should grow, you’ll get five pretty unhealthy plants,” Mercer warns. “If you put one in that space, you’ll get one robust and very productive tomato plant.” She adds that tomatoes also need pruning for good air circulation along with staking, caging or trellising.

Raised beds require more water than those in the ground. In dry, hot summer weather, that may mean watering two or three times a day, according to Mercer, who recommends drip-irrigation systems to deliver water directly to the plant’s roots, where it’s needed.

When it comes to keeping out critters and pests, a 24-inch-tall bed will prevent rabbits from jumping in, while only fencing deters deer. To protect lower-growing crops, Mercer recommends netting.

Plan ahead. Mercer points out that late August is ideal for planting cool-weather vegetables from seed, such as beets, carrots, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard; or starting an herb garden, with potted oregano, rosemary, thyme, chives, parsley and cilantro available at garden centers.

“Fall is a great time to plant crops that you can enjoy into winter,” agrees Helin, naming broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, spinach and bok choy.

In my own Maryland backyard, raised planters are blooming mid-season with lettuce, chard and cherry tomatoes starting to form, as well as a towering trellis of peas beside parsley, cilantro and dill. Tending and watching the plants as they grow, this suburban novice has discovered joy each day, marveling at nature’s miracles and grateful for the link to our edible roots.



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