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Healy Draws on Local Character

With paintings and drawings of Old Town, artist explores his adopted home

Alison Warren comes to Old Town to look at the historic buildings, to study the architecture. So it’s natural that she would want to take a look at Todd Healy ’s work.

”I have visited Alexandria many times and love the old buildings,” said Alison Warren. “A friend sent me Mr. Healy ’s calendar last year as a gift and I fell in love with it. The detail in his work is exquisite. You can almost see the history.”

That is what Healy hopes to convey, with his pen-and-ink drawings and his watercolors. “I remember going home to Virginia Beach after a trip to Alexandria and telling my wife about it,” he said. “We love Williamsburg – the historic part. It has always spoken to us. I told her that I had been to this wonderful city, Alexandria, and that it was like Williamsburg but you could actually live here.”

“DIFFERENT BUILDINGS SPEAK to me at different times,” Healy said, though he doesn’t claim to know why. “I can walk past a building for years and not want to draw it and then, one day, I walk past it and see something that I’ve never seen before.”

Architectural details are important, as is the history of the building. “But I always try to draw more than just the bricks,” Healy said. “I want to give people a sense of who lived in these houses and what their life was like – you could say that I am looking beyond the doors and windows and seeing a home where real people lived.” His favorite building to draw is the Craik House at 210 Duke Street.

Charles Ingram recently moved to the area and saw one of Healy ’s prints at the home of a friend. “I don’t know the area very well, but his work really does say Alexandria,” Ingram said.

Why use pen-and-ink so often? “Mostly because it was what I could afford,” Healy said. “Also, my rapidograph pen never failed me.” He began color calendars in 2000. “I guess I was bored,” he said. “The water colors are just a different way of showing some of the buildings.”

HEALY MOVED TO Alexandria from Virginia Beach in 1975 and has been drawing its buildings ever since. But his love of art and interest in becoming an artist began long before that.

“I guess the first thing that I remember drawing was a portrait of our family dog,” he said. “I was in second grade and was excited that the drawing actually looked like the dog. Looking back, I’m not so sure just how much it really looked like the dog. But that was really the beginning of my interest in becoming an artist.”

His interest in art was encouraged, to a point. Healy ’s father, a Navy pilot, was also an artist who worked for Approach Magazine. “There was certainly a lot of art in our house,” he said. “In that respect, I was encouraged and supported. But, I also always knew that I had to have a real job where I could earn money.”

Initially, he thought the answer might be becoming an architect. “The problem with that was the math,” Healy said. “I could draw the building with no problem but I couldn’t get it to stand up. I decided that architecture probably wasn’t such a good idea.”

He sold his first drawing when he was 23 years old but didn’t sell anything else for quite some time. After moving to Alexandria, he began to draw the city’s historic structures. “I was in some shows and finally sold a series of six of my drawings,” he said.

He had a variety of jobs, including working for National Airlines loading and unloading planes. “I needed a job to pay the bills and to support my family but I never thought of that as my career,” he said.

He worked with Senior Services for a number of years, illustrating a calendar that the organization used as a fundraiser. In 1990, after being laid off from his job, Healy struck out on his own and began to try and turn his passion for art into a career that could help support his family.

HEALY FOUND a paying job in art, as artist in residence at Gallery Lafayette on King Street, in Gadsby’s Arcade across from City Hall.

He also found someone to help nurture his talents, in gallery owner Alice Gamble. “She was my mentor and really gave me the freedom to draw for 10 hours a day,” he said.

In 1997 he purchased the gallery from Gamble, and now runs the business. “We do everything from matting to framing,” he said. “People come to us because of the quality of our work and because this is an artist-owned business.”

Some support comes from corporate clients, but for the most part, Healy said, “We are supported by the people of this area. They bring photographs and diplomas to us as well as valuable oil paintings. Many of them show up with a stack of pictures and ask when the job will be finished. They leave the choice of matting and framing to us.”

In addition to Healy ’s work, the gallery seeks artwork related to the local area. This includes drawings of Mt. Vernon and different views of the city from different periods. “We carry a lot of gifts such as mugs and Christmas cards but they all contain drawings that are of local landmarks,” he said.

Because he is now responsible for the operation of the gallery, Healy said that he does not draw as much as he did in the past. “There are just a lot of other things that go into running a business,” he said. He tries to return the favor that Gamble once did for him, as he encourages young people who are interested in art to “keep drawing.”

“Not everything you do has to be perfect,” he said, advice that he doesn’t always take himself. “The more you draw, the better you will get. Also, remember that success takes time. I could never have accomplished what I have without the love and support of a wonderful family.”