On typical Saturdays in the town of Millwood, Va., volunteers set the 18th-century Burwell-Morgan Mill to work grinding corn, wheat, rye or other grains. They demonstrate the centuries-old method of food production, weighing and bagging the flour, grits or cornmeal for sale, often enlisting visitors to help.
But for three weeks in the spring, and again in the fall, the stones grind to a halt, the water rushing to the water wheel is cut off, and it’s showtime of a different sort.
That’s when Art at the Mill opens.
Over three weekends, more than a thousand original artworks go on display, by more than 300 artists who have painted, sculpted, carved, shaped or otherwise created works in oil, watercolor, stained glass, pottery, wood and other media.
Last November, I headed south to join Washington friends who routinely meet in the Shenandoah Valley town for a weekend excursion to picnic, buy art and hang out.
Once I got off Interstate 66 and started passing signs for farms and wineries, I felt the grit and cares of city life start to wash away. When I turned down a two-lane road and heard the crunch of gravel under my tires as I pulled into the mill’s parking area, the transformation was complete. I had arrived in “the country.”
I entered the cool stone-walled relic, where several friends and other potential buyers were already, well, milling around, crisscrossing the worn wooden floorboards and stepping up planked stairs to walkways surrounding the grinding equipment.
Pieces of framed art, pottery and sculpture were on display everywhere. On standing easels. On stone walls between windows. On wooden benches and atop barrels. On temporary walls upstairs.
The sun beamed in from wood-paned windows on all sides, randomly spotlighting the floor and walls of the structure, which was built by Hessian prisoners of the Revolutionary War, with the help, many presume, of local slaves.
One friend had already completed her purchase. “Let me show you what I bought,” she said, pulling open the tape on her small brown paper package to show me a still life with apples. The next time I saw it, it was hanging in the kitchen of her new apartment in Adams Morgan, and I was coveting it.
The mill’s second floor had the feel of “Gallery of the Louvre,” the Samuel F.B. Morse painting depicting framed art hanging floor to ceiling, filling every possible space.
But here and there, empty nails indicated where the paintings had been removed for purchase. Throughout the show, Snow Fielding, a local artist and volunteer who has been hanging the show’s pieces for about 15 years, rearranged and filled the spaces.
Fielding also happens to own the sister mill down the road, at Carter Hall, which landowner Nathaniel Burwell had built when the commercial mill got so busy that it couldn’t process all the grain necessary to serve his 5,000-acre property. The other partner in the Burwell-Morgan business partnership was Daniel Morgan, a successful general who had served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
This being horse country, many of the pieces in the show revolved around equine and rural themes. But others covered a variety of subjects, from abstracts to still lifes of flowers and fruit to portraits, both serious and whimsical.
And, in the way that visitors to Rouen, France, might head for the cathedral that Monet painted at different times of day to capture different kinds of light, buyers in Millwood can drive the local roads and see what the artists here have painted in all seasons — local landscapes and farms at dusk, at dawn and in the full light of day. Sometimes in snow. Other times on breezy summer days.
We spent more than an hour grouping in twos and threes in front of various paintings to discuss what we liked or were thinking of buying, then regrouping with others at different spots.
I liked many paintings, but I was particularly captivated by one of a red barn on a snowy day. Yet I wavered. Would I want a snowy scene on my wall in July?
It cost a few hundred dollars. I walked away. Then I came back. And then I walked away again.
I’ve gone to Art at the Mill twice, but I have yet to reach for my credit card. I’ve stood by as friends purchased pieces that cost from a couple of hundred dollars to more than a thousand — a portion of the price being tax-deductible because it supports the Clarke County Historical Association.
In any case, a visit to Art at the Mill is larger than the art, more of a triptych than a single scene. The area also offers one-of-a-kind gourmet treasures, antiques, Civil and Revolutionary war history — and calm.
When I emerged from the mill, I crossed the road to Locke Modern Country Store, next door to a small art gallery that opened in September, also selling works by local artists.
Selecting food at the high-end country store was almost as difficult as deciding which were my favorite pieces at the art show. Tart raspberry-ale-infused cheese or Guatemalan chocolate? Fresh chicken pot pie or butternut, bacon and blue cheese tart? A four-pack assortment of Belgian beer or a bottle of wine from a nearby winery?
I bought a hunk of cheese and some bread to contribute to the afternoon picnic that’s part of my friends’ years-long Art-at-the-Mill tradition.
Alongside the mill is a meadow with picnic tables set beside a creek that winds past small houses remaining from the days when Millwood was a center of commerce. Private residences now, one once housed the miller and the other the tanner. Stagecoaches traveling along old Route 50 would stop to pay a toll.
For the picnic, my friends had set up a patchwork of blankets on the grass. I contributed my goods to the many offerings in the center and opened the two lawn chairs I’d brought — one for me, another for anyone else who showed up.
Eventually, about a dozen of us arrived, and we lazily whiled away the afternoon, talking, watching a couple of dogs play and stuffing ourselves on the overabundance of food.
A few weeks ago, in advance of this spring’s show, I drove back out to Millwood. Volunteer millers had started up the stone wheels for the season, which runs from spring until Thanksgiving. They were grinding wheat and corn into flour, grits and cornmeal. A volunteer walked me around, explaining the process, and we went upstairs to where the art would soon hang.
The walls were mostly empty, although I was surprised to see a few works remaining from last year. Including that painting of the red barn on a snowy day. Why hadn’t it sold? Would it go back up this year? Would it be there when I arrived at the end of the month?
Perhaps this spring, I’ll finally make my move and take home a piece of the area. Something bigger and longer-lasting than cheese.
Perlman is a freelance travel writer who blogs at boldlygosolo.com.