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Turning King Street Into a 6-Block Gallery

In 4th year, Alexandria Arts festival makes national impact.

A couple embraces each other on a couch in their living room, a bottle of champagne on the coffee table and glasses in their hands. That they're wearing only bathrobes adds considerable uncertainty as to when and why they're celebrating; that they're invisible except for their robes sclouds the photograph's intent even further.

The black-and-white image is part of photo artist Daniele Piasecki's series called "The Colorful Life of Robeo and Baby Blue Juliet," a whimsical collection of snapshots featuring a "family" of bathrobes in everyday situations — from reclining on a couch to riding a bicycle. Piasecki, who lived in Alexandria after moving from France in 1992, calls the series a dedication to love and special moments in life. “People really relate to them," said Piasecki, who has since relocated to West Virginia.

She'll return to Old Town — along with hundreds of other artists — on Sept. 9 and 10 for the 4th Annual Alexandria Festival of the Arts, which serves as the kick-off event for Alexandria's Fall for the Arts season. The free event spans six blocks on King Street, from Washington Street east to Union Street, which will be transformed into an outdoor gallery featuring over 200 sculptors, painters, glass artists and photographers from around the country.

One of them will be Piasecki, who returns to the festival for the second time and will be showing the "Robeo and Juliet" series. In the past, she had worked with landscapes and real-life objects — doorways, windows — in international locales like Puerto Rico. She decided to begin this new series after seeing the positive response to a shot of bathrobes hanging together naturally in an apartment, but appearing to embrace each other. That led to intricately posed shots featuring her title characters.

“Each photo is like starting from scratch every time. It’s a new situation. I don’t have one position that works for them," she said. "I use everything I can use to make the pose of the situation as natural as possible.”

Piasecki's work was shown in a solo exhibit at the Glenview Mansion Art Gallery in Rockville earlier this summer.

WHILE LOCAL artists like painters Martha D.D. Brumbaugh and Patricia Palermino will take part in the festival, many other artists are traveling from across America to take part in the burgeoning event, produced by Howard Alan Events, a Florida-based company that puts together arts festivals.

One of those artists is Ernest Porcelli from Brooklyn, NY, whose work with stained glass has appeared everywhere from the windows of the Chapel of Hope House Ministry on Long Island to the movie "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Porcelli is a Vietnam veteran, who spent six months as a combat photographer. After returning home, he was "floundering around" before a friend suggested taking a stained glass class. Porcelli, who had a background in visual arts, quickly took to it. "From the first time I started cutting glass, I said ‘This is it…I can do this. I could see the totality where it could take me," he said.

Part of its appeal was a chance for Porcelli to "drop out of society" and work for himself. “I didn’t need corporate America behind me. I’m 60-years old and I’m still an angry veteran. I really think we got a raw deal," he said. After selling the third piece he ever made in 1971, he became a professional stained-glass artist.

“I’m still learning stuff," he said. "Glass is such a great medium — there’s so many different things you can do with it.”

Working out of the Art Glass Studio at 543 Nevins Street in Brooklyn, he uses techniques ranging from painting to acid etching and sandblasting to achieve the look he desires in his art. He's done commissioned work as well as restoration work, including some delicate artistry on 19th century Queen Anne-style leaded glass windows.

He said stained glass art, like many other forms, has become a big money business.

“There’s no more middle class out there buying art. You might as well go high-end. So I’m creating one-of-a-kind pieces," he said.

Porcelli draws from both his education and work experience in his art. “It’s working with composition. Basically, I had a great high school art teacher who taught me the basics of art. I remember taking a mechanical drawing class and saying, ‘Who the hell is ever going to use this again?’ But you can’t do a stained glass window without mechanical drawing," he said.

But his time in Vietnam, even after all these years, remains perhaps the most transforming experience of his life.

"I think what I create is from the pain," he said. "Being drafted transformed my life. I call it a bum trip but a beautiful experience, because you really got to be in touch with yourself in Vietnam."

THE SYMBOL for the 2006 Alexandria Festival of the Arts is "Brio," a bronze sculpture of a dancing figure that can be found in Market Square. The sculpture by Alexandria artist Jimilu Mason is used on all festival promotional materials as a symbol of the city's commitment to public displays of art.

In four years, the festival has grown to be "one of the most prestigious in the country," according to Hillary Reynolds, director of public relations for Howard Alan Events.

Reynolds said over 1,000 artists enter their work for consideration; juries cut that number down to around 200 artists who pay a nominal fee to appear at the festival. Alan Events then builds the booths, coordinates the artists, and works with the city to pull off the massive event.

Reynolds said the festival provides an opportunity for art lovers to interact with artists in a way they typically cannot in a gallery show.

THE ALEXANDRIA Festival of the Arts will be held on Saturday, Sept. 9 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sunday, Sept. 10 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free event will be held in conjunction with the 11th Annual Alexandria Arts Safari on Saturday, Sept. 9, held from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Torpedo Factory Art Center on Union Street