Due west from Washington, DC, past the sprawl, congestion, and HOV lanes, you will drive right into Rappahannock County, Virginia—a 21st-century Brigadoon. Rappahannock, the last populated bastion before Skyline Drive, has thus far escaped being swallowed up by the modern world. Its rolling vistas dotted with cattle, horses, farms, and orchards are reminiscent of posters of the bucolic Irish countryside. The Blue Ridge Mountains cradle the county on the horizon.
One of the smallest counties in the state with a population of less than 8,000, Rappahannock has no traffic lights, franchise stores, malls, universally available cell phone service or any other icon of the city or even suburban life. The county seat is Washington, Virginia, known locally as Little Washington; it was laid out by George himself.
Years ago, it was the fresh-picked apples sold at orchard-run roadside stands that attracted tourists passing through on their way to the mountains. Now, rather than just a diversionary stop on the way to somewhere else, the county has become a destination. Today, though Rappahannock is only slightly more gentrified than the mountain community it was, a new product is attracting visitors: art. The local art scene has exploded and the world outside has taken notice.
Like Taos, Mendocino or Rockport, Massachusetts, before it, Rappahannock has attracted artists and artisans who have migrated there and established a culture of creativity. There are probably as many sought-after artists working in tiny Rappahannock as there are in many average-sized cities in the US. The artists working and exhibiting within its boundaries affectionately call their adopted home the “SoHo of the South.” The cloistering of this unusually large and diverse group seems to have created a synergistic energy upon which artists thrive. In this one small community are painters steeped in traditionalism and those with a contemporary bent. Portraitists, landscapists, potters, creators of three-dimensional works and artists and artisans working in all manner of natural elements from straw to iron are producing unique, high-level, first-market pieces that are snatched up by savvy buyers from all over the country. Many of these artists show at major galleries in cities throughout the US.
The plethora of artists has spawned nine galleries within Sperryville and Washington—villages that are only five miles apart from each other. There is also a spate of antique and gift shops now operating nearby—mostly all opened within the past 10 years. Homeowners and designers in the tri-state area and beyond have come to recognize that if one is looking for art, one could easily furnish an entire house with pieces by the artists of Rappahannock County.
During the past 30 years, there have been changes in the county, but they are subtle and relatively unobtrusive—more in style than in substance. Several high-end inns and bed and breakfasts opened, and all the following suit are a number of burgeoning wineries competing for awards and attention. Some moderately priced restaurants are beginning to be a draw. To bring the picture full circle, The Inn at Little Washington, a focal point for well-heeled foodies, has enthusiastically followed the trend and opened its own art gallery as well.
To put the Rappahannock art scene in perspective, there are no more art galleries than orchards, antique shops or gas stations, and more artists than fresh produce stands. Knowing a great and growing market when they see it, the artists and gallery owners of Rappahannock launched the Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour in 2005, attracting 1,500 visitors to county galleries and private studios. This year the tour will take place on November 4 and 5. For more information about the art weekend, visit the Rappahannock Association for Arts and the Community Web site at www.raac.org.
Esther and Franklin Schmidt are writers and photographers based in Woodville, Virginia.
Rappahannock Gallery Guide
The highlight of an art expedition to Rappahannock County is the galleries. Some of the artists prefer to make an appointment with interested parties to view their work in their studios. If the artists you’re interested in aren’t showing at one of the galleries, you’re welcome to contact them and make an appointment.
Geneva Welch, Washington (540) 675-3332; www.Genevawelch.com
Glassworks Gallery, Sperryville (540) 987-8474; www.glassworksgallery.com
Long View Gallery, Sperryville (540) 987-1000, www.longviewgallery.com
Middle Street Gallery, Washington (540) 675-3440; www.middlestreetgallery.org
Packing Shed Gallery, Washington (540) 675-3410; www.packingshedgallery.com
R. H. Ballard Art, Rug & Home, Washington (540) 675-1411; www.rhbarts.com
While You’re There
An art shopping day trip to Rappahannock County can offer more than just galleries and studios. Between gallery visits, one can explore its rural back roads, take a hike on nearby mountain trails or even go fishing. In the end, eventually, everyone gets hungry. In Sperryville, a great lunch and dinner can be had at Thornton River Grille. Apple Hill Bakery offers sandwiches, freshly baked bread and pastries. And Burgers and Things are good for a quick sandwich.
In “Little” Washington, the Inn does not serve lunch, but you’ll find tasty sandwiches and country fare at the Country Café, right next to the Post Office. In Flint Hill, Griffin Tavern and the next-door Flint Hill Public House offer lunch and dinner.
For overnighting, there are several lovely inns and bed and breakfasts: a partial list would include The Inn at Little Washington, The Middleton Inn and the newly revamped Gay Street Inn, all in Washington. In Sperryville, try the Hopkins Ordinary or a few miles outside of Sperryville, The Conyers House Inn and Stables. There are no motels or hotels in Rappahannock County.
For a more information on food and lodging, visit the Rappahannock County Web site: www.rappahannock.com. For more information on bed and breakfasts, visit the Rappahannock County Bed & Breakfast Guild website: www.bnb-n-va.com.