Cheerful and eloquent, Cheryl White’s fingers flutter through a dust-laden sunlight filtering in from the adjacent cafe windows. We are in the early days of a hurricane warning and, in lieu of an in-person visit, she animates a verbal walk-through of the soon-to-be-opened Glass Wheel Studio, her innovative new art space in the burgeoning NEON Arts District of downtown Norfolk. The building resides at 128 West Olney Road, just a short walk from the Chrysler Museum where Cheryl previously served as Curatorial Coordinator for seven years. Glass Wheel Studio breaks new ground in the city as an integrated glass arts facility featuring both gallery and working studio space.
Known to quip on social media that art is the “love of her life,” Cheryl radiates with what is clearly maternal pride when speaking of this project. She first became loosely involved with the concept in the spring of 2014, then spent the past twelve months pouring over building plans, vetting local artists as studio residents, and traveling to other glass galleries across the country in search of artists to represent. "I just got to travel around to all these glass studios and sort of put my face in front of people," Cheryl beams, "The response was good, ‘Oh, you’re starting something.’ Yes, I’m starting something, and I like your art."
Though driven by a combustive dedication, she has stressed, humbly, repeatedly, that the real story here is not her role as director, but rather the art, the artists, and how this gallery can help open up a dialogue with the contemporary art world at large. A local girl with a deep appreciation for her roots, Cheryl tells me she is honored to bring this project to life in the town she loves. She feels herself to be in service of this “amazing community of people who deserve to have a bigger dialogue, a presence.”
When I meet Cheryl on-site a week later, she reminds me to wear closed toe shoes and offers me a hard hat. The newly renovated 8,500 square foot building, formerly the Bell Motor Company Showroom, boasts a three-story facade now emblazoned with a dynamic, free-form mural by Alex Brewer (known in the graffiti community as HENSE). A step into the atrium, amid construction detritus, various lengths of cable, and the smart, efficient sounds of a crew finalizing seven months of work, reveals Progression, an installation by Robin M. Rogers. The bright, angular entrance immediately draws the eyes skyward to three illuminated geodesic domes set in mirrored and dichroic glass.
Through a doorway, we find a long, neat, white cube gallery: roughly 1,500 square feet of bare wall awaiting to be adorned with their inaugural exhibition, Provenance. Featuring works by Jon Goldberg, Natalie Abrams, and Liz Berk, the show’s title alludes to the practice of documenting an artifact’s history of ownership. One of the more dramatic pieces will be a 20-foot-long neon mural installation from Berk last seen at the Neon Museum in Los Angeles in 2004. Of her role as curator, Cheryl speaks on the evolving state of glass in the art world. Glass Wheel boasts a distinctly contemporary focus with pieces that reach beyond the construct of craft (printmaking or photography on glass). She nods toward the Post-Studio Glass Movement – work that is less about technique and more about pure concept – shifting away from conventional glass vessels and into abstract shapes and blended mediums.
Upstairs, beyond another rotating gallery space, reside thirteen studios for resident artists along with workspaces outfitted with kilns, miter saws, and other communal tools. Cheryl emphasizes that residents will come from both academic and non-academic traditions, providing a diverse experience for all. Studio artists will take part in regular critiques and have an opportunity to exhibit their work several times a year. Cheryl also makes her art world connections available to these artists, arguably one of the most valuable aspects of residency. Her years of experience in museums and galleries bring with them a grounded practicality for curatorial conversations and resources for securing exhibitions. Cheryl hopes this immersive studio program will maximize each artist’s potential vision, fostering an environment designed “to push that, to crack something open.”
Walking away from Glass Wheel Studio onto the main drag of the NEON District, past sprawling technicolor murals, music venues, and public art installations, I take one last look over my shoulder at the monumental words scrawled on a swath of red high up on the building’s east elevation. Embedded within the letters are glowing pink zigzags in the shape of an erratic heartbeat, matching that of an artist at work, striving to alchemize some deep human longing into something palpable, relatable, moving. Aptly mounted above the studio artist entrance, these letters, formed in neon by Hannah Kirkpatrick in the shape of her handwriting, read simply, “Labor of Love.”
Glass Wheel Studio’s first exhibit, Provenance, will open on Saturday, November 14 and will be on display through January 17. For more information, visit glasswheelstudio.com.
Photography by Christina René Bishop