At Home With Art in Southeast
By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2005; Page DZ01
Juanita Britton was on her way to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Southeast Washington when she and two friends took a detour. Britton drove up Morris Road SE, past the Fort Stanton swimming pool and the Anacostia Museum, stopping at the top of the hill. There she set eyes on a washed-out-looking house with a "for sale" sign.
Suddenly, Britton, then a spokeswoman for the District's Department of Housing and Community Development, was struck with a vision: Buy that house and turn it into a cultural cottage. Her friends couldn't stomach the thought, their eyes drawn instead to a nearby public housing complex.
"They said, 'No way. You'll be too close to Woodland Terrace,' " Britton recalled. But she saw a house that would offer a window on the world of art and provide an extension of the Smithsonian's neighboring Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.
In less than three years, Britton has not only upgraded the pale green house on Bruce Place SE, but she's also removed the security bars from the front windows and made it into an attraction that draws visitors from across the Anacostia River, as well as the Atlantic Ocean.
Welcome to the Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique, the brainchild of a woman who has combined her entrepreneurial skills with her love of travel. Britton and her mother, Georgiann Austin, oversee the gallery and boutique. Britton, 48, has toured more than 22 countries buying African art and collecting artifacts to sell -- acquiring a collection too bountiful not to share with others.
The gallery and boutique presented an opportunity, Britton said, to educate the community about African and African American artists while providing an intimate setting and unique shopping experience that the Anacostia Museum doesn't offer. The gallery was a natural move after Britton's house attracted a steady stream of passersby.
Until last month, the gallery doubled as Britton's home. It didn't take much effort to make it into full-scale art gallery, though.
Before she moved out, Britton decorated her home from floor to ceiling with art, furniture and artifacts from India, Indonesia, Mali, Grenada, Brazil, Kenya, Liberia and places in between.
Britton asked Anacostia Museum officials to urge that their guests stop by her house and placed a huge multicolored vase on her front porch to signal when she was accepting visitors for coffeecake and conversation.
"I always told the museum, 'You can send people over to look at my house,' " Britton said. "I wanted people . . . to know you can live with a lot of art."
Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said Britton's efforts to create a bridge between the art gallery and the Anacostia Museum have given life to an area craving cultural enrichment. "When you walk in the house, it's not like a museum. It's intimate and personal," said Jackson, who was Britton's boss for several years. "It's good that we can get energized with a common house that has been converted into a boutique with artifacts from the cradle of history.
"There are cultural opportunities that are hidden gems throughout our city. We have to mine them, dust them off and showcase them."
From the minute a newcomer arrives in the neighborhood, Britton's house stands out among the other single-family homes. The pillars are brightly painted in patterns adopted from the Ndebele, an ethnic group from northeastern South Africa known for their colorful use of geometric shapes.
Inside, the vestibule is painted purple -- the color of royalty, Britton said -- and the artist gallery is lime green. Stamps with the Adinkra symbols of Ghana, representing affluence or power and God's supremacy, form a border around the hardwood floors. On the steps of the staircase are the words of Britton's philosophy: "Start, today, risk, inspiration, love, happiness and success."
The gallery is made up of six brightly painted rooms, three downstairs and three upstairs. The first-floor gallery features paintings, portraits, masks, figurines and cloth dolls, priced from $2 to $7,000.
Even the kitchen is filled with American history memorabilia, mementos and miniature statues. Occupying the second floor are Britton's office, Beverly B. Johnson's Bae's Place clothing boutique and an interior designer's miniature showroom.
Kay Wyrick of San Jose purchased earrings, mud cloth and a duffel bag during a visit with her sister, who had raved about the gallery after attending its grand opening last month. Connoisseurs of art from the African diaspora, they strongly support black-owned businesses.
"I am impressed with the owner's vision and foresight for this place," Wyrick said. "The artworks and craft goods are beautiful, and there are many affordable pieces. I had a fantastic time shopping there."
In addition to the indoor shopping, Britton has an outdoor attraction. She had trees cleared from the rear of her back yard so she could design an "ancestral garden" where visitors can paint the names of deceased loved ones on slate rock. Many of the rocks just list names, such as Eunice, Bertha and George, while others have messages, such as "R.I.P. Daddy."
The yard is separated from the garden by a five-foot-long bamboo bridge made in Thailand and a makeshift barrier of driftwood. The pathway is lined with lava rocks from Washington state's Mount St. Helens. Animal statues made from iron stand at attention, including warthogs, cranes and a seven-foot, 150-pound crocodile shipped from Zimbabwe.
Carol Claggett of Heavenly Stitches, a family-ownedmanufacturer of custom-made home decor and clothing, was one of the vendors who attended the gallery's grand opening and the garden's dedication.
"I was just amazed," Claggett said. "I think the garden impressed me more than anything. I would sit over there. It was very peaceful. So unique. I had never seen anything like that."
The stream of passersby increased after Britton's house was featured on "Living With Soul," a TV One cable show highlighting the interior designs of African American homes.
"When I painted the pillars, people didn't know if it was a day care, group home or an extension of the museum," Britton said. "They would stop by and say, 'Is this the house that was on TV?' or 'Your house is pretty.' I wanted to do anything to bring some energy and to better showcase Southeast."
There are drawbacks, Britton acknowledges, to living and doing business in Southeast Washington, particularly in Ward 8, which has the highest crime rate and worst poverty in the city. But that didn't stop her. She's purchased four properties east of the Anacostia River, including her current home in Congress Heights. Her gallery hasn't been hit by crime, and business is picking up.
The owner of an international travel service and a marketing firm and a co-owner of nine airport retail stores, Britton said her clients at times have been advised not to come to Southeast Washington.
"People would say they're not going to bring them over here. That's ridiculous," Britton said. "Would I live someplace that's not a good place to live?"
Britton, a Detroit native who received her master's degree from Howard University, said she's a risk-taker who isn't deterred by the statistics. She has insurance, an alarm and the power of prayer protecting her gallery, she said. She has also befriended many youngsters from Woodland Terrace, who visit the gallery and affectionately call her "Miss Busy Bee," her business moniker.
Besides, the gallery is not a major moneymaker for Britton, who earns only about 25 percent of the profits from the merchandise sold there. Even if she sells the $7,000 original painting, the artist will get the lion's share.
"I believe it's a cultural diamond in the rough," Britton said. "If it turns out to be a windfall, I welcome it."