Tucked away in a corner of downtown Harrisonburg is the funky world of Larkin Arts. A typical brick-and-mortar building in between law offices and the courthouse, the interior is coated with color. Stepping inside, customers are greeted with a gentle stream of indie music and oil paints lined up like military men on shelves.
In addition to the supply store, Larkin Arts is a utopia that houses studio spaces for local artists, exhibition galleries and even offers art classes for kids and beginners.
For Valerie Smith, one of the co-owners of Larkin Arts, art isn’t just a hobby or career—it’s a life-saver.
“It allowed me to take all of the negative experiences and all of the negativity that was curling around inside of me and I just got it all out,” Smith says. “And when all that nastiness doesn’t live inside of you, you make room for all of the positive influences and positive feelings.”
Despite a passion for drawing beginning at a young age, Smith’s journey to earn a degree in studio art from JMU was anything but picturesque.
“I lived a very sheltered childhood. I was not allowed to go to college actually,” Smith said. “My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses and at that time, it was not allowed. I definitely was doing something the church did not approve of by going to college.”
Without her high school art teacher, Smith would never have known anything about JMU. Year after year, Smith was selected as one of eight students from her high school to come to the university to take art classes.
Several years and one art education degree later, Smith was teaching art in public schools — but she wanted something more. Traversing the highways in her blue 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, Smith filled the silence with her dreams.
“Lots of time to think and one thing I liked thinking about…and I would encourage every single human to have the same thought process…truly think about what you would do if you won the lottery,” Smith said.
Dismissing her initial thoughts of buying houses abroad, Smith knew she would invest in her passion for art. Larkin Arts was born in 2006 as a one-room operation that offered art enrichment classes.
Larkin has since grown and now houses five in-house artists as well as Meridian, a comic book and board game shop.
Inside the last studio on the right sits piles of wood: pine, birch, driftwood and other treasures from the side of the road or deep in the Shenandoah woods, Loring Gibson’s studio looks more like a woodshop than anything else.
Gibson’s studio is overflowing with wood-burnt and carved pieces.
“I’ve always loved Tiki culture, anything from the Polynesian stuff to post World War II,” said Gibson.
Following his 9-to-5 job, Gibson seeks refuge in the wood he finds. Each piece is sanded, burnt, cut and carved with its own story to tell.
“I like to carve what’s in the wood, I just follow the way it goes,” said Gibson. “I’ve carved everything from old telephone poles to trees that have fallen.”
Depending on what moves him, Gibson can spend anywhere from a couple hours to a couple months on a piece. While deadlines and commissioned pieces keep him on track, Gibson is still exploring the fairly recent techniques.
“I kept seeing wine corks as a new kind of material,” said Gibson. “And then it occurred to me to use a wood burner and then I saw a log in the woods and it all started.”
Hoping to make art his sole 9-to-5, Gibson knew he needed more space. Knowing both owners of Larkin, Val and Scott, his new home practically fell into his lap.
“There was this really cool synchronicity because I love those two and I love this spot,” said Gibson. “…it was a match.”
In the first room, bookshelves replace easels. On these shelves, you’ll find books that contain visual scenes rather than words. Meridian is home to more than just these graphic novels; they also sells art books and board games. The owners of Meridian Books and Games, Vince and Morgan Paixão, opened the store the same year they got engaged and married.
“We wanted to open up a business and we thought it would be a nice addition to downtown, there’s not a whole of retail spaces right now,” said Vince.
Having only been in business for six months, the Paixãos hope to become a permanent fixture in the Harrisonburg art culture.
“[We want] to continue to be a part of the downtown community and continue to offer something different,” Vince said.
The overflowing shelves are missing one specific item.
“We don’t have any video games,” said Morgan. “We were very firm about that. We’re more interested in interactions where people were away from screens.”
While this may turn away some customers, the Paixãos see new faces everyday.
“We really wanted our store to be something for everyone,” said Morgan. “We wanted it to be this inviting space that wasn’t so genred it made people feel left out.”
While Morgan and Vince are relatively new faces in Larkin Arts, they have already seen the mark that the organization has painted on Harrisonburg.
“They’re [Larkin Arts] a central hub for a lot of local artists,” Vince said. “I would definitely say they’ve had a big impact on the local community.”