The evolution of Marian Van Landingham has taken many stages. From congressional staffer to artistic visionary to senior legislator, she has been one of Alexandria’s preeminent public figures for decades. Now, after retiring from the House of Delegates and finding herself free of cancer, she has returned to the Torpedo Factory to paint scenes from her recent trip to Portugal.
“These are pathways. They are meant to draw you in,” she said, examining paintings in her third-floor studio. “The best ones have a sense of mystery.”
The paintings are human scale, six-foot windows into an unreal world where a staircase might lead you away or a hidden trail might take you to an unexpected place. They invite you to wonder about destinations known and unknown. They prompt you to consider what’s around the next corner, beckoning the viewer to move from the seen to the unseen.
“I gravitate toward the older, Medieval places,” she said. “Since time immemorial, people have been following trails and wondering what’s around the next corner.”
For Van Landingham, the next corner is the Schlesinger Concert Hall on the campus of the Northern Virginia Community College. Several of her newest pieces will be displayed for a March 25 performance of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. Titled “Bel Canto,” the performance will feature works from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Aaron Copland and Giuseppe Verdi.
“Marian’s work is a perfect complement for the Bel Canto because of the Mediterranean feel of her work,” said Marsha Staiger, curator of the exhibit. “So this was a no-brainer.”
Van Landingham's artwork emphasizes pathways, suggesting a world beyond the one that is immediately apparent — capturing the light and shadows of timeless moments that might have been otherwise overlooked by the careless eye. She has worked in this theme since the early 1990s, painting scenes from her trips to Sicily and Provence.
“It takes you places,” said Tanya Davis, president of the Torpedo Factory Artist’s Association. “You want to walk right into them.”
A NATIVE OF Albany, Ga., Van Landingham graduated from Druid Hills High School in Atlanta in 1955. Although she had a strong interest in art, Van Landingham studied political science at Emory University — earning a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a master’s degree in 1960. She worked in public relations for a while, but was soon attracted by the lure of Washington life.
In 1967, she moved to Shirlington to take a position as an information specialist at the National Air Pollution Agency — a forerunner to the Environmental Protection Agency. Soon afterward, she took a job as press aide and speechwriter for Rep. Phil Landrum, D-Ga., where she saw the process of legislation firsthand.
“I’ve always been interested in politics,” she said. “So this was a natural fit for me.”
In 1972, she moved to a house on Cameron Street — beginning her long association with Alexandria. At that time, she was president of the Art League, a group of Northern Virginia artists who were looking for studio space. The organization had outgrown its space in Arlington, and Van Landingham had been charged with the difficult task of finding a new home for the group.
But it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, finding the Art League’s new home would become one of the biggest challenges of Van Landingham’s life. It was a struggle that would eventually change the face of Old Town, revitalizing an old military plant into a thriving community of artists.
THE TORPEDO PLANT opened in 1919, just as the War to End All Wars was drawing to a conclusion. During World War II, it produced 9,920 torpedoes. The station employed 5,000 to 6,000 munitions workers, many of whom lived in temporary housing at Chinquapin Village. But the end of war also brought an end to the plant, and thousands of workers were laid off when it closed in 1947.
The building then took on a second life as the Federal Records Center, a storage facility housing Nazi documents, military records, diplomatic communications and materials that had been seized by American forces in Europe. The postwar years saw the collection grow as more documents were added, including North Korean records and classified documents from the Nazi trials at Nuremberg. The records center played a crucial role in prosecuting Nazi leaders, and almost all historians who have written about the Nuremberg trials have used the collection that was once housed in Alexandria.
In the late 1960s, the federal government decided that it didn’t need the facility. It declared the property surplus and sold it to the city. Many residents wanted to tear it down, opening up the waterfront area for public use. But one woman had a different idea.
ENTER VAN LANDINGHAM. As programs director for the city’s Bicentennial Commission, she presented a plan to City Council that would redevelop the old building into artist studios. The plan called for a space where visitors could observe the creative process in motion, a series of studios where artists could work and display their art simultaneously.
“I have to give her credit for recognizing its worth,” said Vice Mayor Del Pepper. “I don’t know what she saw in it, but I’m so glad she saw it.”
In 1974, the old plant was run-down, beat up and falling apart. It was filthy, and those who entered the building would exit with a thick layer of dust. The city’s General Services Department estimated that a minimal renovation would cost $140,000, and some were concerned that the city would get stuck with supporting the ongoing operation of the endeavor. Others were opposed to the idea of doing anything with the building.
“Many citizens fought this,” Van Landingham said. “They wanted a park.”
To prove to the City Council that this was an idea that could work, Van Landingham decided to use a visual representation. She collected rent checks from all the artists who wanted space in the new facility and posted them on a bulletin board. On Feb. 26, 1974, she brought the display to City Hall, where council members voted unanimously to approve the plan.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center was launched, and Van Landingham became its first director.
THE BATTLE TO CREATE the art studio on the waterfront catapulted Van Landingham onto the public stage. In 1979, she resigned from her position as director to run for City Council. She persuaded former Mayor Charles Bentley to come out of retirement to run against Mayor Frank Mann, who was perceived to be an enemy of the artists. Bentley won the election, but Van Landingham did not. She was about 800 votes shy of winning a seat to the City Council. But she caught the bug.
A few years later, in 1981, the Alexandria Democratic Committee asked her to run for the House of Delegate — opposing Del. David Speck, who was then a Republican. She won that election and began a career in the House of Delegates that would continue for 23 years. In Richmond, she became known as a staunch ally for the city’s interests and a trailblazing, strong-willed woman. She was the first woman to chair the Privileges and Elections Committee, and she rose to prominence as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.
“Marian’s list of accomplishments goes on and on,” said former City Manager Vola Lawson. “But she was famous for her budget amendments.”
Lawson said that Van Landingham’s work in Richmond brought funding to homeless shelters, historic properties, youth programs, rape-crisis centers, consumers services, community service boards and telecommunication devices for people who were deaf. She praised Van Landingham’s efforts to bring technology into the schools, develop emergency plans for natural disasters or terrorist attacks and study the effect of Virginia’s Standards of Learning on students who speak English as a second language.
BUT HER CAREER was threatened by lingering health problems. A 2003 operation to remove colon cancer was followed by chemotherapy and treatment. She tried to juggle the fast-paced world of Virginia politics with the burden of fighting cancer, installing a “swooning couch” off the House floor so she could rest between sessions. But, as her prognosis grew increasingly grim, she decided not to seek reelection in 2005.
Facing more chemotherapy, Van Landingham decided to take a trip to Portugal. Previous trips to Italy and France had inspired many of her other works of art, and she wanted to explore Lisbon.
“It was supposed to be a brief respite before the treatment began,” she said. “But when I got back, I got some shocking news.”
In January, her doctor told Van Landingham that she was cancer free. So she did what she has done for years: she returned to her studio, overlooking the Potomac River on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory. She’s there most afternoons with her two miniature longhair Dachshunds: Fife, 8, and Skipper, 3. Pictures from her trip to Portugal clutter her studio, inspiring her art and forming the foundation for her recent paintings.
“I look for design everywhere I go,” she said, examining her photo of a Lisbon fortress. “I hope I’m improving on the design and kind of making it my own.”
FOR VAN Landingham, the chance to create art has been a welcome distraction to the demanding schedule of public life. She says that it uses a different part of her brain, one that shouldn’t be neglected in the onslaught of words and ideas that characterize modern life. Writing about her own work for a 2004 exhibit at the Athenaeum, Van Landingham explained her attraction to pathways as one of contemplative meditation.
“There is a need for wordless quiet,” she wrote. “I find it on a path in painting.”