For most of the first 30 years of her life, Estelle Vernon didn’t consider herself an artist. After graduating from Syracuse University she worked at the National Institutes of Health as a clinical audiologist for five years.
Burned out and uninspired by her job, Vernon was at a crossroads.
“It was time to make a change,” said Vernon.
Vernon had always felt drawn to art, but never had much exposure to it; while a student at Syracuse University she could not take art classes because she was not enrolled as an art major. Yet a metal-working art class that she had taken as a senior at Northwood High School in Silver Spring had left an impression on her, and she dreamed of making jewelry.
Vernon thought long and hard, then she leapt.
She quit her job and enrolled in art classes at Montgomery College. Nearly 30 years later Vernon still sees that decision as the best she’s ever made.
Today she splits her time between her home in Potomac and the studio she shares with two other jewelers at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Vernon said.
VERNON IS ONE OF SEVEN Potomac artists who either have galleries or an exhibit at the Torpedo Factory. The galleries for all artists at the Torpedo Factory double as studios, allowing visitors to browse art and watch its creation at the same time, and is open to the public seven days a week.
“It’s just nice for people to be able to come in and really be able to talk to the artist,” said Vernon, who has worked in the Torpedo Factory since 2001. “The average person has no idea what [the artist] went through to get to a particular point; talking to the artist to find out what they were thinking, if anything, makes it mean more to the observer.”
A green torpedo in the main hall of the art center is the focal point of a display on the building’s history. Built in 1918, the building was part of a factory complex that manufactured torpedo casings through World War II. It then became a storage facility for the federal government, housing everything from dinosaur bones from the Smithsonian to documents from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
The city of Alexandria bought the building in 1969; it was renovated and opened for its current purpose in 1974. In addition to housing the studios and galleries of more than 150 artists, the Torpedo Factory is also the home of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, the Art League School, and several galleries and workshops.
To be eligible to lease studio space artists must pass a jury review of their work, said Claire Moledoux, director of communications for the Torpedo Factory. Once that has been accomplished the artists must wait for a permanent space to open up; in the meantime they can display their work when other artists go on vacation.
“It’s a wonderful place to work,” said Jill Cohen. A resident of the Montgomery Square neighborhood, Cohen is a portrait painter and has worked in the Torpedo Factory since 1979. Being surrounded by other artists as she works is invaluable, Cohen said.
“You can go to other artists, you can turn to them and say, ‘I’m stuck, what should I do?’” The affirmation isn’t bad either. “Every day I’m told something that I’ve done is wonderful,” Cohen said.
THOUGH NO LONGER a production facility of the weapons of war, Tory Cowles said that the work that goes on within the Torpedo Factory’s walls still shakes people.
“Art allows your mind to go free,” Cowles said. Cowles, an abstract painter, is drawn to bright colors and different shapes and textures. Her newest piece has yellow, purple and black acrylic paint plastered over strips of an old pillow case, shreds of cardboard, and the remnants of a DSW shopping bag on top of the canvas. The possibilities of abstract art is what Cowles enjoys the most about her work.
“My [paintings] pick you up and throw you,” said Cowles.
Pam Zilly, a photographer who lives in Cabin John, is drawn to balance and special harmony in her pictures. Sometimes she seeks it out and other times it comes to her.
One late afternoon a few years ago, Zilly was walking the towpath along the C&O Canal at Swain’s Lock when she saw a group of Boy Scouts walking down to the water. As they did, Zilly was struck by the image she saw in her mind, so she pulled out her camera.
“Every single kid has a different position,” said Zilly of the photo that now hangs in her studio. “One is standing with his arms out and it [makes] the same shape as the light on the water behind him.”
Such moments take on a life of their own, said Zilly, who worked for 27 years as a commercial photographer. Four years ago she was juried into the art center and she has shared a permanent space with another artist for the last two years.
“At some point your brain takes over,” Zilly said.
At other times, Zilly will try to set up a shot to get the balance she’s looking for, only to realize that it isn’t there.
“Sometimes I’ll spend 20 minutes and just walk away because I don’t find it.”
“THEY SPEND A LOT of time on the Beltway,” said Joan Kasprzak of her raku pottery pieces. Kasprzak has a kiln at home in which she fires her works, then she brings them across the Potomac River to her studio to paint them, then she takes them back home and puts them in her trash can. The trash can is filled with leafs that Kasprzak sets on fire, the heat of the fire reacting with the paint on her pottery.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ll get when I put them in,” said Kasprzak, who was the Torpedo Gallery’s artist of the year in 1998.
Alvena McCormick, a landscape painter who lives on Tuckerman Road in Potomac, has worked at the Torpedo Factory for 28 years.
“It’s been a really long pull, but I love it,” McCormick said.
The artistic process is often difficult and requires sacrifice of personal time and plenty of energy, but in the end is more than worth it, McCormick said.
“I think when you have a passion for something you find a way.”