Warrenton artist Judith McKellar was intrigued when she first read about parging, a technique to create bas-relief used by the ancient Romans, rediscovered in Renaissance Italy and brought to England by King Henry VIII. The parging material, a mixture of limestone plaster and sand, was easily affordable, but sculpting with it was becoming a lost art. McKellar thought about it for years and decided to give it a try.
"I kept experimenting and trying more things with it, and I liked the stuff," said McKellar, 55, one of 162 artists chosen to demonstrate their skills at this year's Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit, the 61st annual celebration of the historic mill town's heritage and crafts. "Then I went to some shows, sold some pieces and decided I would make some more of it."
The parging technique was often used to decorate such fine homes as Italian villas and British manors. When the neoclassic style became popular before the American Revolution, well-to-do colonists commissioned local masons to adorn their homes with the parging material, which was also known as "stucco" -- although not to be confused with the modern construction material.
"People don't realize that so much of the Italian relief work was done with the stucco as opposed to being carved in marble," said McKellar, who transforms the material into horses, trees and landscapes.
This will be McKellar's second year at what is commonly called the Waterford Fair, which opens Friday. She and her colleagues -- potters, furniture makers and portrait painters, among others -- are required to dress in period costume and spend at least half their exhibition time demonstrating their craft, using hand tools similar to those from the 19th century.
"It is our mission to teach people about life in olden times," said Fran Holmbraker, head of the fair's organizing committee.
During the three-day fair, which is expected to draw 30,000 visitors, exhibitors and volunteers, Waterford's roads will be closed to cars. The old mill will be filled with three floors of crafts, several of the 19th-century homes will be open for tours and judged photo and art exhibitions will be displayed.
Exhibitors rent space for $400 and up, and the money -- along with proceeds from admission tickets -- goes to the Waterford Foundation, which is dedicated to maintaining the village's buildings and surrounding open space, designated a national historic landmark in 1970. In December, the foundation achieved one of its main goals from last year by purchasing Phillips Farm, a 144-acre property adjacent to the village, to preserve it from development.
"It [preservation] is a cause I really believe in, in Waterford and elsewhere," said McKellar, who was born in Fairfax County and was making clay figurines by the age of 5. She earned a fine arts degree from the University of Arizona, where she majored in sculpture. She moved to Fauquier County 18 years ago -- "to get away from the urban sprawl" -- and worked in clerical jobs for the Fairfax property assessment office. She has devoted herself full time to her art for six years.
McKellar has a studio in the garage of her brick and wood rambler, which is tucked on a hillside where she kept dozens of sheep until two years ago when her parging business left her with no time to care for the animals. She still has raw wool from her favorite ewe, Cameo, which she spins on one of her three wheels, although she confesses she is not much of a knitter.
McKellar often makes a sketch of an image before taking up plastilene clay, red clay mixed with oil, to translate the drawing into a shape. She uses wooden pottery tools that look like miniature spatulas and metal waxwork devices that look like dental instruments.
Molding is usually done in the morning, since afternoons are often taken up by all the less creative tasks required of an artist: applying for fairs, ordering materials and handling the business aspects of her vocation.
When the model is ready, McKellar uses a trowel to apply and form a flexible mold. She can usually produce about 50 pieces before the mold starts to break apart.
"By that time, I'm more than ready to make something new," said McKellar, who also tears up the original clay model to use in another creation.
After the material has dried for several days, she stains each piece, usually in soft earth tones of gray, teal and sepia. Recent creations include a spiral of tangled vines, a throng of galloping wild horses and a Victorian-style garden tile that looks like the ones once used to edge English country gardens. Her final work is a fusion of many mediums -- drawing, sculpture, painting and printmaking -- and can be placed over a doorway, above a fireplace or wherever else suits the client's fancy.
This month, McKellar has been working on a clay model of two horses "lazying around, enjoying the afternoon." With this piece she is experimenting with a new technique, making the edges of the piece jagged as though they had broken off a larger relief, perhaps from a theoretical Italian villa.
The Waterford Homes Tour and Crafts Exhibit will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, rain or shine. Tickets are $15 at the gate or $13 in advance, $13 for seniors older than 60 and free for 12 and younger. For advance ticket locations and other information, go to www.waterfordva.org or call 540-882-3018.