Jamie Donaldson wanted to be different.
He didn't want to set up shop right in the middle of Leesburg's historic district--the popular place for galleries--because neither he nor his artwork are "exactly traditional."
So over the last seven months, Donaldson--a fine arts student and telecommunications recruiter by day--spent his nights and weekends turning a dingy shop almost hidden by a battery store and a thrift shop on South King Street into a bright, 1,200-square-foot studio and gallery. The Art House, which is on the edge of the district, opened this weekend with works from more than a half-dozen artists on display.
"There's some stale stuff going on, I just wanted to add some colors," said Donaldson, 25. "I want to show what's going on now in art, not what happened 100 years ago.
"My stuff is right on the realm, right on the edge" he added, pointing to a set of photographs of a nude woman. "No one else in town would show nudes. I don't understand why not. I've seen a lot of crazy stuff, and that's pretty mild."
The Art House is one of two Leesburg galleries--Krypton Gallery is the other--offering nontraditional work by artists from Loudoun County, Maryland and West Virginia. Still, the owners of several other Leesburg galleries have welcomed the Art House with open arms. They say a more diverse market is needed to make the historic district "an art destination."
"When people think of Leesburg, they don't immediately think, 'Oh, art,' " said Gale Waldron, editor of Loudoun Arts, a 1 1/2-year-old magazine that features local artists as well as writers, poets and musicians. "For that to happen, we need more galleries in Leesburg, so people have a reason to stop here."
Loudoun communities such as Waterford have become havens where artists work, but Leesburg--with more galleries than Middleburg and less insistence on horse and hunt scenes--is often considered the place to sell.
"There is so much tourism traffic on the weekends in Leesburg that it is the natural place . . . for a show," said Bonnie Wolfe, chairman of the county's Economic Development Commission.
Several gallery owners said their business hinges on browsers who become repeat buyers--those who see something they like and rely on the owner to bring in other works that suit their taste. They said the First Friday Gallery Walks--in which downtown antiques shops, art galleries and restaurants stay open late on the first Friday of each month--have been quite successful at bringing in browsers.
The gallery owners, along with town officials, said they would be waiting to see whether Leesburg can support another gallery, especially one given to abstracts.
"Every place you turn, there's an art gallery in town," said John Henry King, the town's economic development director. "Ultimately, it's the market that can determine how many it can support. You can't just have a number of people coming in to see an exhibit; you have to sell, too."
Julie Doiron, who has run the Potomac Gallery on King Street for seven years and founded the First Friday Gallery Walks two years ago, said Leesburg is a niche market.
"The majority of buyers out here are more traditional," she said. "They're into realism. They want to be able to look at it and know what they're looking at. That's what Loudouners want."
Across the street from Doiron's shop, Terri Rosenthal runs the Krypton Gallery from a storefront adjoining her daughter's comic book shop. Rosenthal, who lives in Purcellville, said business at her gallery has been "brisk" since she opened in March. The works range from the traditional--sailboat scenes--to the unusual--dragons made of aluminum foil and paintings of the inside of a human brain.
"The Leesburg area is very conservative and very traditional," said Rosenthal, as she pointed to a mixed media collection in a back room: "Victoria's Other Secrets," made from foil, wire and paper and spray-painted light green and silver. "This is very different for them. You don't want to shock them too much."
For Donaldson, there is a certain sense of relaxation and humor in offering something off the beaten path. He puts in eight-hour days as a recruiter for OSP Consultants, his father's Sterling-based telecommunications company, and takes classes full time at Shepherd College in West Virginia. With two young children--5 and 2--he said he doesn't sleep a lot.
Because of his schedule, the gallery initially will be open only by appointment--then on weekends and one weekday. Eventually he hopes to open full time--and that would be a far cry from his days of trading paintings for the use of a studio.
His eyes opened wider and he smiled as he showed off his dream gallery. He shares the rented space with a friend of his father's who plans to use the back part to do wood and furniture carvings.
"I'm really enjoying the energy from this place," Donaldson said. "I was sitting here the other night and looking around the place and thinking I've got one of the best offices in Leesburg."
One of his own paintings features black framed houses, purple stick figures, a red watering can and orange, boxy-looking cars. He calls it "Average Day in Leesburg."
"It could be kind of sarcastic," he said. "I just like mixing things up. I like to have it real simple but with neat colors and layers."
Another, called "Infinite Voyage," shows his 1974 green Volkswagen heading toward a yellow crown. He said it represents a summer trip he took to Canada with his wife, Christine. They live in Leesburg.
The painting "shows the past, present and future," he said. "You just keep on trucking through time, traveling through time. It's like driving toward a crown. That's the symbol of power, but not really getting there.
"I'm still chasing the crown," he said with a laugh.