Oasis: Art in the heart of downtown

Oasis

It’s just a corner shop a block from Court Square, with display windows full of art of all mediums. But it’s an OASIS. Literally.

36 artist members display their work at OASIS Fine Art and Craft on South Main Street, including mediums such as pottery, photography, jewelry, woodwork, glassware, fibers, and more.

In the 13 years OASIS has been open, a community of artists has developed and shared their work and talents with Harrisonburg and beyond. Even with new galleries and art spaces opening in the downtown scene, they’ve held their ground and stayed true to their original vision.

It’s a gem of Downtown Harrisonburg, and it’s more than just an art gallery. Every piece displayed is also for sale.

“What they wanted was a place to display art, and to educate people about art,” said full-time member Brenda Fairweather about the opening of OASIS in 2000. “It was more about the displaying of art, not so much the selling of art. So it’s evolved into what you experience when you come in today.”

Several of the founding members have passed away, but their vision still carries on as the heartbeat of OASIS. Current members seek to engage with every customer that comes in, assisting them in finding pieces of interest, or explaining the vision behind the art and the story of its creation.

“You can’t walk by that window and not be intrigued,” Fairweather said. “Or if you’re sitting at that light there, it’s just phenomenal.”

Members apply for exhibit shows during an open application process, and a committee decides on the year’s schedule, with each selected artist getting a month to display their show. The show for the month of March is entitled “Phobia Artistry,” by Janet Marshman. The display visualizes phobias from chromatophobia, the fear of color, to botonophobia, the fear of plants.

Instrumental music by local artists plays lightly throughout the space as a background accompaniment to the visual art filling up shelves and walls and even the upper mezzanine of the gallery. Warm light spills in from the corner windows, joining with the gallery lighting to showcase all that’s inside.

“We try not to have a lot of blind spots,” Fairweather said.

Members of OASIS are classified on different levels: full-time, part-time and associate. The levels include varied levels of dues and different requirements for volunteering in the gallery, but all artists can display their work equally throughout the space. Full-time members are required to work two days a month at the gallery.

The membership levels also determine the breakdown of money when a piece sells, but each artist sets his or own prices. Full-time members receive 80 percent of the sale, while OASIS receives 20 percent. For part-time members, it’s a 70/30 split, and for associates, a 60/40 split.

“Many of our artists have other full-time jobs and they can’t dedicate their time to building their business,” Fairweather said. “We do have a few members where it is their business—building their art.”

Fairweather’s baskets and pottery are currently in 10 other shops and galleries across the state.

“This was the first gallery I applied to and was accepted in. OASIS is special to me. It kind of launched what I have today.”

She has been a member at OASIS for about six or seven years. She only volunteers to work at OASIS, since many of the other galleries either don’t offer the option to their members, or are located too far away for it to be possible.

“That’s what it is for us here—the folks in West Virginia and Maryland, it’s too far away for them to come down and work, so they’re just associate members,” Fairweather said.

Compared to OASIS, artists are much less involved in other galleries, and just receive a check in the mail the month after a piece sells. OASIS offers its members a chance to play a much bigger role in the life and business of their art or craft.

For many of the members, their art is inspired and sourced locally.

Pete Johnson, a woodworker, has created pieces from a white oak tree in Augusta County called the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree.

“The story goes that Stonewall Jackson and his men camped near that tree and that’s where he did some of his prayers. The tree just gave up the ghost, so some of the local wood-turners organizations went out and salvaged the tree,” Fairweather said. “We couldn’t keep it in stock when we first started selling it.”

Fairweather took herself on a solitary retreat recently To Smith Mountain Lake to work on weaving new baskets.

No two baskets look alike, and they are woven together from a variety of materials such as grapevine, reed, seagrass, thrift store neckties, yarn, and other things she finds.

Her most popular basket sells for $29, which falls into the average mid-range cost of products at OASIS.

Cards made by various painters and photographers are some of the most popular products sold, as well as one of the least expensive items they carry. Each card is about $4 each. Many pieces of jewelry, pottery and baskets are in the $25 to $50 middle price range, while paintings and framed photographs range upwards of $100.

“I actually sold a basket last month for $189,” Fairweather said. “That’s very unusual. Those kinds of things are really exciting.”

Fairweather has several new baskets from her weaving retreat ready to be included in her current displays, and customers in the store are eager to touch and see them before she even has put them out.

The inventory of all the artist members is monitored by exhibit chair Judy Ligon. She notifies artists if their inventory has been inactive for too long and requests that they take pieces out or shift things around to try to attract more business.

Debra Fischer is the sole paid staff member at OASIS, and ironically, the only non-artist there. She plays a role in organizing the store and keeping things looking fresh and updated. Fischer’s husband, Steve, a wood-turner and wood-carver, is a former member of OASIS.

Debra fills in at OASIS around the schedules of the artist members, and works part-time at less than 30 hours a month.

“I don’t like to just sit and do nothing, so I’ll go around and I’ll clean the counters, I’ll rearrange things, put things here and there every so often, just because that’s the type of person I am,” Fischer said. “I like to interact with people. Every artist that works here is going to be a little bit different in what they want to do. Everybody does have a certain task. When my husband and I were members, I ran the Facebook page of OASIS.”

Connecting with the local and distant communities of tourists and artists is one of the main goals of OASIS. Many pieces are sold to locals and tourists stopping through from Massanutten, but occasionally pieces travel across the country or around the world.

“I once sold some baskets to the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium,” Fairweather said. “It’s amazing how from here you have this international connection.”

The main tourist season, according to Fischer, is from June to mid-fall, when JMU classes aren’t in session.

“There’s enough students that still stay a round that we feel that nice atmosphere coming through the doors,” Fischer said. “When JMU has their homecoming, they bring in a lot of business too, because they’re bringing their parents down, like ‘Mom, I want these earrings!’ Mom and dad have the money, and that makes perfect sense.”

Even locally, OASIS has connections with up and coming additions to the art community. Larkin Arts, which opened August 2012, is a more recent art addition to downtown Harrisonburg.  OASIS could see this as a threat to business, but the gallery doesn’t feel threatened.

“They have classroom space, gallery space, supplies, and studios. They cover it all, where we don’t,” Fairweather said. “We welcome their presence in the neighborhood because now instead of just one place to go, there’s two or three or four or five or six. It’s going to be more appealing to visitors to come if there’s more variety.”

According to one of the owners of Larkin Arts, Valerie Smith, the team behind the gallery saw a unique need in the community for art supplies, education and studio space, and created a place that specifically serves that need.

“OASIS has been a pillar of the arts for years and we are so happy they have held anchor in downtown Harrisonburg during a time when it was likely hard to do so,” Smith said.

She agreed with Fairweather in that “the more galleries there are, the more art there is in a downtown district such as ours, the better it is for everyone.”

It’s something they hold in high importance not just for themselves, but for the city of Harrisonburg.

“A thriving arts culture is a great barometer for a thriving city,” Smith said.

Smith and her husband, Scott Whitten, both hold other jobs in the local community—Smith as an art teacher at Skyline Middle School, and Whitten as a bartender at Blue Nile.

The main goals of OASIS and Larkin Arts are different, despite their art audience being mostly the same.

“I am very happy to be connected to [OASIS] through the local arts scene. I think we serve many of the same people, but are different enough that we complement one another and provide variety in a flourishing downtown culture.”

OASIS is a space full of art and handcrafted creations, a warm and welcoming invitation to experience local and unique art and support the artists who make it. It’s not just a gallery with the pieces on distant display—OASIS wants you to come in, look around, learn more, and hopefully take some art home with you