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Artists Seize Town Center

The 12th annual Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival is set for this weekend.

An avid photographer, and a retired asset manager and financial planner, Robert Heier has been trying unsuccessfully for the last five years to get into the acclaimed Reston arts festival.

Heier's patience has paid off. This year, for the first time, Heier will not have to buy a $5 ticket for the show. Instead, he will be one of only five Reston-based artists in a show that features more than 180 artists from as far away as California. Heier will feature his computer enhanced photographs that "transform realistic images into contemporary prints."

For the last 12 years, Heier has been planning his annual summer vacations to Europe around the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival. "That's how strongly I feel about it. It's a great honor to be featured this year," he said. "To get in is not so much a vindication but an affirmation."

The two-day festival at the Reston Town Center, which kicks off Saturday, May 17, features original artwork, a children's art zone, a new community art wall, a sculpture garden, wine tastings and jazz music. Sponsored by GRACE, the Greater Reston Arts Council, this year's event is the 12th installment for what organizers say is the top-rated fine arts festival on the East Coast and the "largest outdoor art festival in the Washington metropolitan region."

More than 60,000 visitors are expected to descend on the town center for the event.

<b>AND WHILE HEIER</b> prepares for his first festival, two other local artists, veterans of the festival, are readying for yet another two days of fun, surprises and "chaos." Connie Slack, who specializes in oil and acrylic paintings, has participated in all 12 Reston festivals. "I was there when we had to scrape to get 35 or 40 artists," she said, laughing. "I remember those first couple of years, we just about had to beg people to join us. A few years later, the quality had improved so much that some of the early artists didn't get in."

A Reston resident since 1975, Slack credits the Reston community for its continued support of the festival and of the arts, in general. From the Reston Chorale to GRACE to the Reston Community Players, Slack says that Reston has a lot of different outlets to enjoy arts in "all of their breadth."

"They like art, they understand and appreciate art and they are affluent enough to buy art," she said. "That's great for the artists."

Slack said the fine arts festival fits perfectly into the on-the-go lifestyle of Northern Virginia. "Everyone is so busy around here," she said, "so they love to have art brought to them. The festival does that."

Like Slack, Mary LaRue Wells was one of the original fine arts festival pioneers. A fixture at the festival's first six events, Wells is making her first appearance in six years and she can't wait. "It's so exciting to be back," said the painter who specializes in surrealistic animal and nature prints. "It's just amazing how much this event has grown. The lineup is very impressive and very varied."

Accustomed to gallery shows, the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival is the only such outdoor festival Wells takes part in throughout the year. A 32-year resident of Reston, Wells feels it is important to support arts in Reston. "It's very nice to be back in my hometown, my backyard," she said.

<b>WHETHER YOU ARE</b> a seasoned veteran or new to the event, the artists insist that there is something for everyone at the town center. "It's not about the art, though art is certainly the backdrop," Heier said. "When it comes down to it, it is a family thing, a day of enjoyment."

Heier said that he thinks some people have the wrong impression about a festival devoted to fine arts. "People think it is some — quote — high class — unquote — event," he said. "Really, it's fun. You can buy or not buy. It doesn't matter."

If you are planning on buying some art, however, Slack has a few words of advice. "Buy early," she said.

The regular buyers have learned that many of the best pieces are purchased on Saturday, she said. "Don't wait until Sunday," she said. "Even last year when it was cold and raining, people were out there shopping. They've learned."

Slack says she looks forward to the event every year and that there is always something new. "You will just walk around and say, 'Wow, look at that,'" she said. "It's just a wonderful festive atmosphere. There is always something that you haven't seen before."

It's the surprises that keeps Heier coming back, as well. "Seeing art is like meeting new people," he explained. "Sometimes you like who you meet and other times it leaves you cold. You have an emotional response to art and sometimes it just speaks to you. You just never know what to expect."

Even though she will be stuck in her booth most of the time, Wells plans on getting out and meeting with old friends, making new ones and, of course, seeing the art. "You always see something that catches your eye," she said. "It is just inspirational."