Arts Beat

At Locker 50B, A Little Gallery Goes a Long Way

Virginia Samsel got the gallery's walls and floor from a dollhouse shop.
Virginia Samsel got the gallery's walls and floor from a dollhouse shop. (Photos By Rachel Beckman -- The Washington Post)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

RICHMOND -- It's easy to whiz by Locker 50B, oblivious to one of Richmond's most interesting contemporary art galleries. Even people who know to go to the fine arts building at Virginia Commonwealth University struggle to find it.

That's because the gallery, now in its fifth year, is housed in a locker. And not even a full-length locker -- a cubbyhole. A basketball would fill the space, which measures 12 by 14 by 19 inches.

"A lot of people feel like they stumble upon it, almost," gallery director and curator Virginia Samsel says. "We don't have a lot of signage. We're thinking up ways where we can have it be a little more visible without having flashing lights. But just so people do realize it's supposed to be there."

Since Samsel launched the gallery in 2002, she has held more than 50 exhibitions and displayed the works of about 200 artists, including students, professors, alumni and visiting artists such as James Siena, the New York-based abstract painter.

Step on the weight-sensitive welcome mat in front of the locker and the gallery's string of LED lights turns on. Peer through the Plexiglas window into the cubby to see the current exhibition, "Palpability," a group show of eraser-size sculptures, a painting and a self-portrait in pencil. The gallery is outfitted with white walls and hardwood floors, which Samsel bought at a dollhouse shop.

Samsel, 24, says she has always "worked small." She grew up in an artistic home -- mom was a graphics designer, dad was a cartographer -- and young Samsel liked to draw, crochet and sculpt tiny animals out of clay. When she was a VCU sophomore, a whole semester's worth of paintings and sculptures fitted into her supply locker. Friends joked that it was like a mini-art gallery, so Samsel decided to convert it into one.

Samsel graduated from VCU in 2004 and handed the gallery off to other students. It fell into disrepair, so last August VCU adopted Locker 50B as an official project of the university's art department and hired Samsel part time to run the space.

The dozen or so exhibitions a year get their own promotional cards and opening receptions. But forget vegetable crudites and wine: Samsel assigns each show a color and serves only food and drinks that fit the theme. "Palpability's" reception was purple-themed, so she served grape Kool-Aid, Nerds candy and purple Welch's Fruit Snacks.

"That's, like, typically Virginia Samsel," says Richard Roth, chairman of the VCU painting and printmaking department. "She's kind of an ironic person. The whole gallery is an ironic takeoff [on] the gallery."

The next show, opening July 13, is a group exhibition of student work from the VCUarts Summer Intensive Program. Samsel expects to display 16 students' work at a time, surpassing her previous record of a group show of 14.

Andy Kozlowski teaches the summer class. He also displayed tiny wooden crates in a Locker 50B show last fall.

"I want them to try and work miniature to begin with," he says. "We could make something big and scale it down digitally, but it really works best when the ideas are designed to be that size."


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