Whether you’re from Virginia or just passing through, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Virginia is for Lovers.” Nestled into the branding of Virginia as a place for romance, discovery of nature, and escape are the LOVEworks: people-sized (or bigger) installations of the word “love” created by local artists tucked away in destinations across the state. The nearest one? Right here in downtown Harrisonburg!
I had the opportunity to sit down with Nicole Martorana, one of the designers and creators behind the LOVEworks Harrisonburg and get the scoop on Harrisonburg’s “love”able art attraction. (Side note: Nicole is also the Promotions Manager for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and one of the creative forces behind the super helpful downtown maps you’ll find in your room, among many other brilliant projects.) Enjoy – and don’t miss the opportunity to go take your picture with the sculpture! (Yes, it’s a thing. Snap it, share it, hashtag it.)
There are a limited number of these LOVEworks pieces. How did Harrisonburg (and you!) get involved?
Brenda Black, Harrisonburg’s Tourism Manager, brought me into a meeting last November. The state was running a new campaign and offering a grant to help communities create their own LOVEworks. My main work is with downtown revitalization, but I’m also an artist — I graduated from JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design with a focus in digital video though I also like to work with mixed media, photography, and other mediums. I’ve wanted to bring public art to Harrisonburg for a while, so I jumped at the chance to participate!
You had some great partners, too.
Yes! Two friends and fellow artists: Mike Herr and Jeff Guinn. Mike works as a local building contractor (Herr & Company — his dad actually built my family’s house!), and he has a creative mind and the construction background to help make this project possible. He is also really invested in the community. Jeff, who I’ve known since we were young, has always been very creative, innovative, and is really active in the local art scene. He has a lot of experience in working with mixed media, found objects, welding, and similar mediums. He also owns a local business, The Mark-It, that specializes in custom apparel and screen printing. All of us value collaboration and the local arts community, and had personal experience growing up in the area.
How did you start concepting and gathering inspiration?
First, we looked at what other communities were doing — some visualized their letters as different pieces of related themes, whereas others used one theme throughout the whole sculpture. For example, one LOVEworks on the James River in Richmond built each letter to represent a type of recreation (canoeing, fishing, etc). At Veritas Vineyards, the LOVEworks is constructed entirely out of wine corks.
For Harrisonburg, we talked about what focus areas we thought would best represent the community and then determined how to visually show these themes and what was feasible for construction. With so many projects, it’s easy to have all these grand plans, but the challenge is in figuring out what is actually possible and realistic … Originally, we had wanted to create a sculpture that was incredibly interactive, with lots of moving parts, and that encouraged people to engage as much as possible. For example, we originally planned to have each letter have a built-in bench and to have recreation equipment on the letter V with which people could play. Our hope is that, over time, we can continue adding elements to the sculpture to make it more interactive and keep it fresh and engaging.
So tell us how this piece represents Harrisonburg, Virginia…
Each letter tells part of our story as a community:
L: Here we sought to represent our incredibly diverse community. People don’t always realize how truly diverse we are here. We asked community members to share any objects they had in their homes that represented their heritage, laid them out in a collage style, and had them photographed by Paul Somers then reproduced by Signs USA into panels for each side.
O: Historically, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County community is a huge agricultural region. At one point, I believe we were known as the poultry capital of the world. I think our community has always been steeped in this respect for the land and eating locally — not just because it’s hip but because it’s important and part of who we are. We used this beautiful cedar wood to represent local barns, and the etchings on the front side are by local artist Brady Schwendemen. We created a planter bed on the top of the letter with native plantings by The Natural Garden, which will continue to grow over the frame. Over time, the drainage from the planter bed will create oxidation on the steel frame, again representative of the aging that happens to barns.
V: This letter signifies outdoor recreation. We tossed around a lot of ideas — using snowboards, fishing rods, etc. — but decided to focus on using re-purposed bike frames. The frames are welded together and spray painted blaze orange as a nod to the hunting community. Harrisonburg has received a number of bicycle-related accolades, we’re one of 11 Appalachian Trail Communities in the state, we’re close to the Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, we have hiking, hunting, canoeing, and fishing — the list goes on. For all of these reasons, we felt that outdoor recreation was such a big part of our heritage and something we wanted to represent in the LOVEworks sculpture.
E: We also wanted to make sure we dedicated a letter to the art scene. Not only were we the first Arts & Cultural District in Virginia, but we also have a growing grassroots arts movement. There are weekly concerts, open mic nights, poetry readings, and an emergence of public murals … there’s a lot happening and growing in the community and we wanted this letter to really bring that to life. The surface is a patchwork of chalkboard paint and whiteboard panels, and the metal surfaces are magnetic. We wanted it to be something that people could interact with, host art exhibits on, and share posters for upcoming concerts, etc.
I love the mix of textures and materials you’ve chosen. Does any letter stand out as a favorite? (I’ll tell you mine! It’s the “O” – that beautiful wood juxtaposed against the steel with the peek of green growth at the top. It’s perfectly contrasted against that bright and energetic “V.”)
I don’t know if I do! I don’t think so… they’re all really different and make you think about all the ways each focus area is evident in our community. It’s really opened my eyes even more to what we have here. [Editor’s Note: After listening to Nicole’s explanation of each of the different letters, I don’t think I’d be able to choose one either.]
Did you face any surprising challenges with the project?
The first challenge was working with a very tight timeline. We had just three months to finalize the concept and create the piece. Though it was at times stressful, we were very dedicated and worked hard to complete the sculpture on time.
The biggest challenge though was with the placement of the sculpture. We knew we wanted to locate it near the Turner Pavilion because of the many visitors to the Farmers Market and events held there throughout the year, but that space is in a state of transition. So, we settled on this grassy space, where it will tie in nicely with the Art in the Park events from the Arts Council of the Valley. We did a lot of testing — we still had a number of obstacles in regards to the exact placement of the sculpture — a hitching post, power lines, trees, and the city’s floodplain. We also needed to consider how far away someone would have to stand from the sculpture to get a good picture that included all of the letters, without having to stand in the street or parking lot. We wanted to make sure people could safely enjoy the sculpture.
Do you encourage people to interact with it? How?
There is nothing I love more than going to the farmers market or an event at the pavilion and seeing people taking pictures with the sculpture, eating lunch at the picnic tables nearby, or going up to it to take a closer look. We definitely want people to share their photos with LOVEworks Harrisonburg on our social media and with the state’s social media. We’re also inviting artists to sign up to use the “E” as an exhibit space for First Fridays Downtown and for community groups to consider using it as a backdrop for theater, dance, or music performances. I love seeing people discover it and take photos with it — parents with children, college students, community members. I just like seeing how happy they are! Whenever the weather is nice enough, I’ll go eat my lunch at the picnic tables and I hope other people are able to enjoy it this way too. Sometimes it’s just a nice, quiet place to relax and take a break from the day.
What do you hope people take away from the piece?
I hope that they keep coming back to it, bring their friends and family, and keep sharing it. It’s not only something for our community, but for visitors from throughout the state and country. It’s a great way for people to think about where they’re from and why they love where they are.
Any future plans for the piece or future Harrisonburg artworks?
The next step for LOVEworks is to install an informational sign with an overview of the project, descriptions of each letter, and links to our social media accounts. We’ll also do general touch-ups to keep it looking fresh. We’ll continue to evolve with it over the coming year and see how the community interacts with it.
Jeff, Mike, and I were really excited to participate in the project and hope that this can be the impetus behind other creative projects and public artwork in the community. We love collaborating, so we’re always looking for other projects on which we can work with the community!
How to find it: Follow signs to the Historic Downtown Harrisonburg District. LOVEworks Harrisonburg is located behind the Arts Council of the Valley facing the Turner Pavilion. It’s a 15-minute walk from the Inn, or, if you choose to drive, there’s plenty of parking right there. Insider’s Tip: it’s about a 5-minute jaunt from Clementine, so if you choose to dine downtown, go ahead and take a little walk after dinner… it makes a great excuse to enjoy that complimentary dessert (wink).
Share your experience! When you post a picture on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, use #LOVEworksHarrisonburg, #LOVEworksHburg, and #LOVEVA — and make sure you share it with us, too! We’ll add your pictures to an album on our Facebook page.
[photo credit: Nicole Martorana]