Downtown art store, Larkin Arts, offers more than just art supplies.
STORY | REBECCA JOSEPHSON
PHOTO | MARSHAL RIGGS
What would winning the lottery be like – paying off student loans, backpacking around Europe, buying a new car? Or would it be the smell of drying paint, the scratching of pencils, the snap of a camera, children putting brush to canvas, art hanging on the walls? The latter was the answer for Valerie Smith, founder and co-owner of Larkin Arts Arts with her husband, Scott Whitten.
“In 2001, I imagined that Larkin Arts Arts would be a giant teaching studio space, with a perpetual artist-in-residency program and classes in all media,” Smith says. “There are portions of that original dream that still drive what we do today and where we will eventually arrive.”
Though it took until 2012 to truly make Smith’s dream a reality, today, Larkin Arts Arts is thriving as the art hub of downtown Harrisonburg.
“It’s not just a store, it’s a four-part business. It’s a school, gallery, store and studios,” Sarah Hade, a JMU alumna (’15), studio artist and gallery director, says. “They all kind of feed off each other, so when one part is super successful, everything else benefits.”
For both Hade and Erin Murray, a studio artist and teacher, the studios provide the perfect opportunity of this exchange between parts of the business. The studios at Larkin Arts Arts are spaces that artists can rent out for their own individual work. These artists are only feet away from Larkin Arts’s gallery and store – providing the artist’s opportunity to network and visitors the chance to watch artists at work.
“Understand that we are real working members of the community,” Murray says. “This is what I do. This is my full time job.”
Murray says the opportunities and the space having a studio gives has allowed her the chance to grow.
“I’m producing more work than I ever have, so I feel that this is where I want to be right now,” Murray says.
Smith regards the school to be her true passion; however, both it and the gallery have become an essential part of Larkin Arts’s interaction with the community.
“In addition to providing high-quality supplies and art instruction, part of our goal is to build community by offering events like gallery openings where artists and art enthusiasts convene monthly to admire and celebrate new work on display,” Smith says.
Because of this, First Fridays have become an important part of Larkin Arts. Not only does the store maintain the gallery within their space, it also has a satellite gallery in the entrance of The Golden Pony. Just because someone isn’t an artist doesn’t mean they shouldn’t stop in.
“If you don’t know anything about art, or you don’t consider yourself an art person, we are happy to take you through the gallery and explain the artist and tell you a little about them, take you through the studios,” Hade says.
Smith encourages all JMU students to come visit the galleries, if nothing else.
“Experiencing and appreciating different perspectives is an essential part of the college experience,” Smith says. “Larkin has become a significant cultural destination by providing a place for everyone in our community to experience the exceptional talent that can be found in our area and beyond.”
Larkin Arts has worked hard to create a welcoming atmosphere for everyone who wants to visit the store, galleries, studio or classroom.
“People that are not already involved in the arts are very hesitant to become involved in the arts because they’re afraid they’re not allowed to be here,” Murray says. “We try to create an environment where any person is allowed to come in.”
Part of this environment is the comfortable space Larkin Arts has created for both the community and for networking.
“We have literally created a living room in the middle of our store,” Smith says in reference to the arm chairs and table occupying a section of the store.
Smith is particularly excited about helping and providing for emerging artists.
“Whether it is exhibiting artwork in the galleries or on commission in our store, providing working studio spaces, networking artists with other businesses and individuals who want to hire them, or hosting shows where we are able to give away prizes, I am absolutely thrilled to find a way to support artists with not just exposure, but with financial means,” Smith says.
Smith’s favorite part about owning and running the business is this atmosphere and inspiration Larkin Arts provides.
“It is amazing that every day I am surrounded by inspiring people, spaces and artwork,” Smith says. “Our center is visually enchanting and our employees, studio artists, community artists and customers that come in and out never cease to delight me with conversation and inspiration.”
One of the notable points of growth for the store is the supply kits Larkin Arts puts together for JMU art students at the beginning of each semester.
Larkin Arts’s growth is showing in number, too. The galleries are booked out through the end of the year, and just recently, the submissions for their annual juried show shot up by nearly 50 pieces.
“Last year I think we had 174, and this year we had 224 pieces come in, and we accepted them within the span of 5 hours,” Hade says
Smith is excited about the potential for growth Larkin Arts has. She’s still dreaming and creating as she was back in 2001.
“I would like to see more artist studio spaces, larger and well ventilated, so we can host sculptors and artists of all types,” Smith says.
In addition to space, Smith hopes to provide art classes for underprivileged youth in the area.
“I had a dream back in 2011 to create the Larkin Art Bus and provide the much needed transportation to get kids from school or home to our school and back,” Smith says. “I would love for that to become a reality.”
Smith says that reaching toward her passions and dreams by creating Larkin Arts has made her grow as a person.
“I think owning Larkin Arts has made my heart grow,” Smith says. “My husband and I have worked without pay every day since we opened and, while we hope that one day our hard work will pay off for us financially, I know we wouldn’t regret it either way.”