Finding His Voice

Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

It’s a fall day, early afternoon, and Justin Kauflin is in the small music room of his family’s Virginia Beach home, sitting at the piano, searching for a sound.

His hands glide across the keys like water over stones, fast but not rushed. His face is in a grimace.

The music is beautiful. And unmistakably jazz. But it’s not perfect. As Kauflin finishes, he delivers an apology. “It’s just something I’m working on,” he says. “It’s not ready yet.”

Music has always spoken to Kauflin. As a small child, he reached up to the family piano and tapped along until familiar melodies emerged. Then came music lessons: first violin, then piano.  By the time he started at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, it was clear he had a gift.

Still, gifts require development, and he impressed parents and teachers alike with a work ethic rarely found in someone so young. But lately the 27-year-old has pushed himself harder than ever.

This fall he heads to Los Angeles to begin the months-long work of recording a CD with Quincy Jones, the legendary producer, conductor and arranger who has worked with some of the biggest names in music. And for the first time in his life, Kauflin is being asked not to interpret someone else’s music but to make a serious attempt at writing his own.

So here he is, sitting at the piano, searching for something original and special and entirely his own, searching for his voice.

Of course, in a way, Kauflin has been doing that for 16 years – ever since he lost his sight.

Kauflin was diagnosed young with familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, a hereditary disorder that can cause progressive vision loss. He was completely blind by the age of 11.

It’s easy to imagine that children in that circumstance might feel sorry for themselves and question an unfair world. But Phyllis Kauflin’s son was different. “The first thing he did was come to me and say, ‘I need to find something to do for a job,’ ” she says.

He was the middle of five children, all of whom were musical. And despite a lifetime of poor vision, he had already showed tremendous promise at the piano. He learned music quickly, by ear, and remembered anything he heard.

“His brain is like a computer,” his mother says. In fact, years later he would shock teachers by doing calculus and AP physics without a calculator.

Immediately after losing his sight, Kauflin dedicated himself to the piano. The decision was in some part pragmatic – unable to play sports and video games, he filled his time with practice. “Everybody was rollerblading and running around, so I naturally found myself at the piano, really for lack of anything better to do. In a weird way, losing my sight helped me realize how important music was for me.”

He auditioned for the governor’s school. The instructors thought he would be a good fit for jazz. Classical required too much sight reading; jazz was an oral tradition with a lot of skilled improvisation.

“This is something I can do,” he thought.

Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

When Justin Kauflin lost his sight at 11, the decision to focus on piano was a natural;
he’d already shown he has a gift. Developing that gift has been arduous,
an exploration yielding jazz, studio time
with Quincy Jones – and a vital faith.

Jae Sinnett was teaching jazz at the governor’s magnet school when he first met Kauflin.

The experienced jazz drummer says the young man was mature beyond his years and hungry to learn. Kauflin would listen to Sinnett’s radio show – Sinnett in Session on WHRV – and try to learn the music on the spot.

“He would call me up and ask me to listen. Then he would play over the phone the song I just had on air. It was amazing.”

Kauflin did well in high school and continued his music education at The William Paterson University of New Jersey. There he met Clark Terry, a jazz trumpeter who played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Terry, now 93, is a legend for several reasons, not the least of which is his role as Quincy Jones’ first instructor.

Terry was a sort of adjunct professor at the university. Kauflin and his friends started going to Terry’s home to play music and learn about jazz from a master. “Those are the kinds of opportunities you just can’t pass up,” Kauflin says.

After school he moved to Brooklyn in hopes of making a living there as a musician. But he found life in the city tough and filled with anxiety. Something as simple and necessary as a subway ride could be frightening.

Making matters worse, getting gigs was tough. People assumed Kauflin’s blindness made it harder for him to learn their music. “I would tell them, ‘Just give me the chord changes. It will take me five
minutes.’ But it was a pretty constant issue,” he says.

After three years of watching his money dwindle, he returned home to his family in Virginia Beach and started performing in the area, sometimes with
Sinnett. He kept in touch with Terry, who had moved to Arkansas to be with family. Last August he flew down to visit his old friend and met Jones, who was also there visiting. Kauflin spent the day with the two legends.

A few months later Jones invited Kauflin and other young performers on tour. The jazz great was celebrating his 80th birthday and using the occasion to host a series of concerts in Switzerland, South Korea and Japan. Kauflin so impressed Jones that the producer invited him out to the West Coast to do some studio work on some of Kauflin’s originals.

It’s a big opportunity and an even bigger challenge for the young musician.

“That’s his next great step,” Sinnett says. “He is explosive as a player, but now he has to look deep inside himself and find another level. He has to find out what he wants to say with his music. And that is maybe the toughest thing to do for a musician, even a really good one like Justin.”

Which is why Kauflin has been working so hard lately. He knows what he wants to say; he’s just working out how to say it.

He says you have to live a full life to make music. And though young, Kauflin has faced his share of challenges. But when he thinks about his life, he sees the hand of God at work.

“Would I be a musician now if I had not lost my sight?” he says. “Probably not. And now I would not know what to do without it. Faith has been very important to me. A source of comfort and strength. I want my music to reflect that. I want it to be a prayer I can share with people.”

 

Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

At 27, Justin Kauflin – here with Candy – knows two pieces of his puzzle:
jazz piano, and faith. He’s working on a third: how to express that faith.

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Justin Kauflin Performance Videos

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Click here for a full hour video from The Justin Kauflin Trio at The Kennedy Center: http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/videos/?id=M4556

 

Pioneer Of The Past

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

A passion for old things and old ways carried a young gunsmith to frontiers of craftsmanship – and the work of passing it on.

by JOANNE KIMBERLIN
photography by ADAM EWING

It happens somewhere between the head, the heart and the hands. The magic that transforms a chunk of wood into an heirloom, a puddle of paint into a treasure, an ordinary man into a master.

Wallace Gusler – craftsman, artist, author, historian – has been percolating for 72 years. Known best as the maestro of the American long rifle, he spent decades as Colonial Williamsburg’s master gunsmith, becoming the first person in modern times to build one the old way – by hand, from stock to barrel.

A 1968 documentary, Gunsmith of Williamsburg, shows Gusler hard at work, a dark-haired young man in Colonial garb, forging, filing and chiseling.

The man who answers the door at his home today has a silver ponytail and sells his custom-made firearms for up to $50,000. But his interests and expertise have branched like a seasoned oak. A conversation with Gusler trots the globe and leaps through history – Early American furniture, stone-age tools, Colonial wallpaper, back-country dulcimers, British tea ware, Chinese burial artifacts, African masks, English gardens, Greek sculpture, classical paintings, pot-bellied stoves.

He’s quick to confess that he has no formal training in any of those areas. In fact, he was kicked out of high school for lack of attendance – the “boot diploma,” as he says, with a grin. Instead, Gusler is the embodiment of what can happen when a thirsty mind stays open for business.

The next time he stepped into a class, he was at the front of the room, lecturing at a university.

Wallace Gusler and the old ways are entwined, a relationship distilled in the hollows of Virginia’s Appalachians. He grew up in Roanoke County, in the shadow of Fort Lewis Mountain, roaming the ruins of its namesake fort, built during the French and Indian Wars. His pockets were filled with arrowheads, his imagination with the frontier.

His father was a timber man, and times were lean on the family’s small plot of land. “We were poor,” he says. “Everyone around us was. We plowed with a mule. Raised hogs. Grew our own vegetables. It was an 18th century way of life.”

It’s hard to say what changed Gusler’s course – tweaked his soul into something different from the more practical stock he hails from. Maybe it was the rheumatic fever. Around age 10, the illness confined him to bed or the porch for nearly a year, where he occupied his hands with model airplanes, his eyes with the flight of birds or the shapes of clouds.

He only knows that by the time he was well, he wasn’t the same kid. He took to running, long distances through the hills. And he noticed more – the small things – the smell of wood as it came off his father’s mill, the swirl of its grains, the hues of its fibers. “No one else at the saw mill gave a tinker’s dam,” he says, “but I was fascinated. ‘Why are some trees like this and others like that?’ I still love a good piece of wood.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Gusler lays sterling wire into channels of a hand-carved
gunstock. He prefers wood cured at least 20 years;
it’s more stable.

He worked on his first gun around age 12 – an old .32-caliber squirrel rifle that belonged to his father and refused to fire. Two years later, he built his own, a flintlock pistol with a stock carved from cherry.

“I picked the brains of the old-timers,” he says, “the guys who had really shot. They were characters – old shopkeepers, and drunks who lived in chicken coops because their wives wouldn’t let them in the house. They were just more interesting than the teetotalers at the Baptist church. They had incredible recall. I learned about guns from them.”

The budding gunsmith converted a coop at home into his own humble workshop, and began building a reputation for himself. Firearms came in for repair and their owners lingered, swapping hunting tales into the night.

Gusler found himself drawn to the older guns, the long rifles of the pioneers. To him, they were stewards of a golden age – time capsules of endurance, courage, independence.

At 16, he killed his first buck with an 1830 model – sealing the deal on a lifelong love affair.

School suffered. “I missed 64 days in the 10th grade and they asked me to leave,” Gusler says. “It just wasn’t my thing. It seemed like they didn’t want you to think – really think – and besides, I was more interested in hunting and making rifles. That, and running. I never missed a track practice.”

By then, he’d burrowed through enough dusty barrels and backrooms to amass an inventory of antique gun parts and nurture his taste for all things old. Always short on cash, he remembers one of his first non-gun purchases – an Indian ax head he bought on layaway for $5.

“And I’ve been in debt ever since,” he sighs.

The best gunsmiths can work both wood and metal, and as Gusler’s skills developed, word of his craftsmanship spread – an ever-widening circle that landed him a job at Colonial Williamsburg as a 20-year-old in 1962.

“I started in the blacksmith shop,” he says. “They had no budget for a gunsmith back then. There I was, my first day in costume – just a shy mountain boy – and someone led me outside and pointed to a cauldron and asked if I knew what it was used for. And, of course, I knew, because where I came from, we were still using things like that for making apple butter. From that moment on, I was right at home.”

Working on the inlay. Gusler, thrown out of high school for poor
attendance, rapidly became a recognized expert in gunsmithing.
Colonial Williamsburg hired him at age 20.

At Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living-history museum in the United States, Gusler was able to immerse himself in the yesteryear.

He founded its gunsmith shop, researched the evolution of the Virginia long rifle and re-created the techniques of gunsmiths past.

He became an expert at conservation and restoration, and moved on to become a curator, expanding his wheelhouse to include not just firearms but furniture, clocks, musical instruments, paintings, textiles, and on and on.

When the real thing no longer existed, he helped the foundation get it right, crafting accurate reproductions for the Governor’s Palace, including two elaborate cast-iron stoves.

Along the way, this high-school dropout wrote catalogs, magazine articles and books, taught carving at the Smithsonian Institution and rifle making at Kentucky universities, and served as an adjunct lecturer at the College of William and Mary, a position he held for nearly 20 years.

“I’m not saying I’m on any of their posters or any-thing,” he jokes. “I’m not exactly an example of how they’d like you to get your education.”

In 2003, after 40 years of job titles, frequent flier miles, designing, exhibiting and labeling – lots and lots of labeling – Wallace Gusler retired. Now he runs his own consulting business, teaches when he feels like it, works when he feels like it, and putters around a lakeside house on the outskirts of Williamsburg where he lives with his wife. Liza, a history major Gusler met at Colonial Williamsburg, shares his passion for fine wood, antiques and art. Their home overflows with interesting objects from across the world. In typical family fashion, none of their four grown children is particularly partial to any of it. “You know how it is when you grow up around something,” Gusler says. “You want to be different. They’re sick of all this stuff.”

Gusler’s handiwork is everywhere, in the moldings, arches, staircase. Out back, he created an extravagant garden with an engineered stream and rock outcroppings reminiscent of his roots in the Shenandoah Valley. And then there are his sculptures – mostly nude female forms, a testament to his appreciation for beauty, plus a dose of ribald humor.  One is complete with pubic hair, wisps made of 14-karat gold.

Liza calls his man-cave, located on the second floor, the “voodoo room.” Leather chairs and a large TV – he’s into sports – compete for space with ancient throwing knives, warrior shields, stone artifacts, and reams of books and periodicals. His collections extend on up the next stairwell to his workshop, where one thing is noticeably absent.

“I’ve probably made 300 guns in my life,” he says, “but don’t have a one of them.”

A work-in-progress sits cradled in a wooden vise – a rifle stock made from curly ash, waiting for the mornings when his hands feel steady enough to finish its intricate scrollwork and engraving.

Restoration jobs take up the other hours. The desktop of a walnut secretary lies on a work bench, missing a chunk of wood where a hinge ripped out. Gusler dates the desk to around 1772, and he’s
repairing it with a piece of walnut he’s had on hand for nearly 50 years.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The tools on Gusler’s workbench are a mix of hand-made and modern-made.
The planes and mallet are from a dogwood that was dying in his yard;
he put corncob handles on other tools to remind
him of Appalachia, his home.

“Sometimes it pays to be a pack rat,” he says, showing how the slivers of age-darkened wood he’s cut and glued into the wound closely match the color of the original.

When he’s done, he’ll replace the hinge, using 18th century handmade screws he bought from an antique shop as a teenager. “They were going out of business and I bought every one they had,” he said. “I’ve been using them all my life.”

Next, he’ll remove the tiny dots of paint spattered on the desk at some point during its centuries of service. “Furniture has phases,” he says, “a time when it’s new and cared for, a middle age when it’s disrespected, and, if it survives, an old age when it’s treasured again. I only erase the signs of abuse, not of use. Those are beautiful. They’re character.”

On a nearby table, he’s “aging” a new hinge so it’ll blend in with the old ones on another piece of furniture. He dips it from a bowl containing a solution of black gunpowder and other ingredients. He shows how he’ll etch it with the date of his restoration, so no one will mistake it for an original.

“I hate fakes,” he says.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The most elaborate gun Wallace Gusler has crafted: an American long rifle
custom made for acouple in Staunton. Its value: more than $100,000.
He used a curly maple stock cut in the ’60s and detailed it
with 10,000 to 12,000 pieces of wire, set one by one.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Authenticity is important in Gusler’s universe. Old things “have something from the time and the maker in them,” he says, “and over the years, they acquire something from every handler. They have a patina – a feeling that’s almost spiritual.”

He’s not a fan of organized religion, and says he’s “not intelligent enough to understand God. But I do know that humans are the only creatures with an understanding of their own demise. The things we leave behind, it’s like they’ve passed through the barrier of death.”

He says he’s “soul-searched, asked myself why the old times have dictated so much of my life. It’s not like I think things were so great back then. Daily life is so much easier now.”

He wonders if it’s the where and when of his youth – Fort Lewis, and black-and-white TV, with heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the frontier – any frontier. I would have gone to space if I could. I would have loved that. But since I couldn’t, I guess I decided to live as much as possible on the frontier of knowledge, to try to further the understanding of the obscure – the lost.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

At work relief-carving a stock of curly maple. Upright before him:
African knives made of iron and wood in the late 19th century.
Old things, he says, “have something from the time and the maker in them, and …
acquire something from every handler.”

One of his favorite sayings: “There is no royal road to learning.” In other words: No substitute for sweat and enthusiasm.

“And when you’re learning things for yourself, it never ceases to knock you off your pedestal. What you think you know is often all wrong.”

Knowing our roots lends all kinds of perspective. Gusler remembers when his salt-of-the-earth parents came to visit their now-successful son in Williamsburg. He was showing them his fancy garden, thick with shapely shrubs and  exotic trees.

“My mom looked at me and said, ‘When are you going to plant something you can eat?’ ”

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Sam Abell

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1975, Sylvania, Ohio: Thad and Sam Abell. Sam learned photography and composition from his dad; from mother Harriett, whose “taste, style and aspirations governed our household,” what to photograph.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Having turned away from his quest at National Geographic
for an America of nostalgia, a renowned photographer
now seeks to see America as it really is.

by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
photography by HYUNSOO LEO KIM
archive photographs courtesy of SAM ABELL

Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America.

That’s what obedient children did at the Abell household when adults stopped by for adult conversations – they sat quietly in the family room, daydreaming as they studied the cloth map that had been encased inside a glass coffee table, the map their mother had made in 1942 when she was pregnant with the first of her two boys.

Within the border of each state she had stitched a symbol of beauty, or history, or ingenuity – America as she imagined it. A prickly cactus in Arizona. Golden wheat stalks in Kansas. A cowboy riding a horse in Texas. Smoke rising from a thriving steel mill in the Abells’ home state, Ohio. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1959, Painesville, Ohio: Sam Abell’s groundbreaking photograph of his father.
“For the first time,” Abell says, “someone other than me
noticed a photograph I’d made and gave me a prize for it.”

For the better part of four decades, Sam Abell carried a camera across America in search of those idyllic images. He photographed ranchers roping steer in Montana, bison grazing through snow in North Dakota, a lone fisherman obscured by fog on the Mississippi River. The photos are iconic, expertly composed. They hang on walls in museums and fill the pages of books and magazines.

The images Abell spent decades chasing depict America as he dreamed it would be in all those hours gazing at his mother’s map. They are photographs of the wild and untouched New World.

And they are mostly superficial.

The realization hit Abell without warning a decade ago. He had been among the most celebrated documentary photographers of the late 20th century, yet he had spent most of his career making images that more closely resembled scenes from the 18th century.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1976, Georgia: the Okefenokee Swamp. ABOVE, 1986, Montana: Compose and wait.

“I was treasure hunting,” Abell says of his work for National Geographic. “I was on the beach with a metal detector looking for a ring, the whole while disregarding the ocean and the sky and the sand. I went to great lengths to escape the authentic, modern world around me, searching instead for a hidden vestige of another era.”

Sam Abell had spent his career photographing America the way his mother imagined it.

Now he’s searching for the real story.

The views from Abell’s eighth-floor downtown Charlottesville studio perfectly symbolize his late artistic awakening. Out one window is the historic Court Square where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once argued cases. Antique black lampposts stand along brick sidewalks and streets. A tree-covered mountain range is on the horizon.

Out another window, on the opposite side of the studio, is a municipal parking deck. Cars whip along an asphalt street painted with double yellow lines. A thicket of power lines obstructs the view of a narrow sidewalk where two restaurant workers are taking a smoke break.

 The first scene is what drew Abell, who will soon turn 69, to Virginia many years ago. He and his wife live in Crozet, on a plot of land near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he traveled the world searching for images of natural beauty, cultural meaning and historic significance, he chose to plant roots in a place that seemed to embody all of those things. He moved here when he started at National Geographic in the 1970s and never left.

“Virginia,” Abell says, “has a hold on people, including me, that comes from a gathering together of very important things: History, culture, geography, climate, landscape. Charlottesville is a coming together of the best of all those things.”

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

A man looks up, freshly chastised for riding a horse too hot in the cold.
The horse shivers, the dog hears.

It’s one of the places he remembers visiting with his family as a boy during one of their many road trips across America. He vividly recalls standing in the garden at Monticello with his older brother. They each held up a nickel in the direction of Jefferson’s grand estate and closed one eye, trying to see if the picture on the coin matched the building before them.

Abell family vacations were elaborate history lessons. The family of four studied the American landscape as it flashed by their car windows. They traveled scenic back roads and took rest breaks at Civil War battlefields. “My parents were both teachers, and so when we traveled, it was not about sunbathing and it was not about mountain climbing or fishing or rafting. It was about American history.”

Dad always carried a camera. The developed film reel would arrive in the mail about two weeks after they returned each summer. The slide shows documenting those trips were in Technicolor, and they featured a smiling family against the backdrop of America.

But with each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore the changing landscape.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1983, Moscow: Pears ripening in a window overlooking Red Square; Abell waited for the curtain
to lift in the breeze. National Geographic named this image, for a piece on Tolstoy,
one of its 50 best images ever.

Abell was working on a project about Lewis and Clark when he heard the words that would reshape the way he sees the world.

It was 2001, and this was to be his final assignment for National Geographic. He met with the writer, historian Stephen Ambrose, in Helena, Montana, to discuss the project.

“Sam, I’ve got the easiest job to do on this project,” Ambrose said. “All I have to do is retell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting and boating trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job. You have to pretend that nothing’s changed in America for 200 years.”

That offhand comment was a resounding wakeup call. Abell realized, quite suddenly, that he had been fictionalizing America. He had spent years traveling through the modern world – in a car, or on foot, or in a boat – disregarding almost everything he saw “in search of fragments that were beholden of another time, another way of life.”

He thought of  a months-long assignment from years back for a travel story in the vast Australian wilderness. It was boring. He barely saw anything worth photographing. But he managed to capture a few breathtaking shots, and those are the images that ran in the magazine. He thought, “My God, people are going to come here and they’re going to say, ‘Where is it?!’ ” Had he been doing the same thing in America?

That conversation with Ambrose sparked an idea – one that Abell first had as a photography student at the University of Kentucky but that he had lost sight of, having landed at National
Geographic
. It’s perhaps the most celebrated photographic magazine in the world, but its style skews toward beauty over realism. His dream job led him away from his roots.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

One of Sam Abell’s National Geographic covers.

He had grown to love his craft while studying the work of Walker Evans (American Photographs, 1938) and Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958), two photographers known for their blunt and honest portrayal of America and its people. As a student, he had dreamed of picking up where they left off.

Retirement offered a fresh shot. Abell wrapped up the Lewis and Clark assignment and immediately went to work on a new long-term project that would become his obsession – one that bears little resemblance to his celebrated portfolio.

“It’s a rebound project,” he says. “It’s also a reaction against romancing America. I don’t have regrets about that. I was capable of doing
that. I was good at doing that. I made the romance meaningful, not candy. My photographs always tried to have an intelligence about them and a soul that went beyond the
surface of the picture. But now I wanted to take up all those things
I had passed by while searching for the exception.”

Abell settled down in Virginia for its lush landscape and history. But lately it’s that parking deck he’s been looking at for inspiration.

The subjects of Abell’s photography have changed dramatically, but his approach is rooted in many of the same foundational techniques his father taught him as a boy in Sylvania, Ohio.

 Abell won an award in a national high school photography contest in 1960 for a black-and-white picture of his father standing at a train station. His old man had offered a few pointers – get a low angle, “look for strong diagonals,” and then wait for a train to move into the frame. Years later, someone paid $10,000 for a copy of the image that resulted from that impromptu lesson.

Abell is known for composing his images from the back to front, a painstaking and counterintuitive approach that requires as much patience as it does vision. First he searches for a dynamic background and attempts to build meaning into every layer. Once he has composed the image, he waits for the subject to move into the shot.

On assignment for National Geographic, that often meant several hours or even days camped out in the same spot, waiting for the right light to reflect off a river or for wildlife to move into his frame. Abell once spent a year and a half making an image of bison skulls on a prairie for a story on the life of Charles M. Russell, the cowboy artist of Montana. After he found a pile of discarded skulls, he made multiple trips to the scene, waiting for the right elements. Finally he captured a live bison passing through the background on a snowy day. The project was complete.

Compose … and wait.

Lately Abell has been employing that unconventional approach while photographing people at fast-food restaurants, smokers standing outside department stores and business people staring at cell phones while walking down busy sidewalks. He carries his camera always as he travels the country to lead photography workshops and lectures.

“I’m always on assignment,” he says while sipping a coffee outside a café in Charlottesville. “I’m on assignment right now.”

For now he’s calling the project “Modern American History,” drawing inspiration from a college professor who once told him that the main theme of American literature is to come to terms with what we – the arriving peoples – have done to the New World. “I wrote that down and I never forgot it.”

The working collection includes images of people riding trains through rolling countryside, but instead of looking out the window, they’re staring at screens in their hands. It includes shots from the Lewis and Clark Trail, but instead of framing out the power lines, highways and truck stops, those modern creations are the subject.

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2009, Seattle: Part of Abell’s new, and unpublished, work showing America as it is.
The young woman is waiting for the bus, texting.

Abell has become obsessed with photographing product distribution centers – “the most constructed building of the past 50 years,” he says – and self-storage facilities, where people indefinitely stash the stuff that won’t fit inside their homes.

The man who earned fame photographing real-life cowboys spent a recent trip to Dallas marveling at the massive Cowboys Stadium, a gargantuan building capable of hosting more than 100,000 spectators and home to the world’s largest high-definition screen. “This stadium is an architectural temple to football, surrounded by an ocean of automobiles,” he says. “This is modern America on steroids.”

Themes of Abell’s post-retirement project include: automobiles and how they have shaped the modern landscape, the mass consumption of processed food, the triumph of mass marketing in all aspects of life, the influence of consumer electronics on behavior, and industrial, commercialized patriotism.

 Abell, who plans to publish the project in 2015, says he’s trying his best to remain neutral.

“I think the thing that would doom this is if I were trying to make a statement, either condemning or celebrating modern American culture,” he says. “That’s not my goal. My hope is to present an authentic portrait of this country as it exists in our time, in an effort to continue the conversation that was started by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. My strongest statement, I think, is a question, not an answer. And that is: Was there another way?”

Press him hard enough, though – ask him to contrast his recent work with the images he chased during his storied career – and it’s obvious that Abell believes the answer to that question must be, “Yes.”

Abell isn’t jaded, he says. He’s simply documenting the world around him as it is, not searching for beauty in the margins but instead searching for meaning in the authentic world before him.

His mother’s old needlepoint map hangs in a frame in his Charlottesville studio, alongside cherished photographs from his many travels – all reminders of how far he’s come in pursuit of an interesting life. Once in a while he’ll pull the map off the wall, set it on the table and daydream about the images his mother stitched so many years ago.

He turns from the map and points to his computer screen; it’s open to the gallery of his latest work. The cursor hangs over a photo of a young couple at a beach in Florida. They’re tourists driving along a boardwalk in a convertible. They’re seeing the ocean for the first time, and they’re both seeing it – separately – through the screens of matching digital cameras.

Abell looks at the photo and thinks of his mother, who died in 1981, long before the rise of smartphones and social media and widespread instant gratification. She grew up in an era with fewer distractions and simpler dreams. Hers was for her boys to travel the country she loved – to visit every state on that map – and to see the images of Americana that colored her imagination.

Her younger son wonders what she would think of his most recent pursuits. “She wouldn’t recognize the America in these photos.”

2013, Charlottesville: Abell, in looking at this country as it is now, seeks to continue
the conversation begun by Walker Evans and Robert Frank: “Was there another way?”

Archival images copyright National Geographic and Sam Abell.

A Living Legacy

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Virginia’s first and only sheep dairy is the product
of the unexpected, the gifted, and the bonds of generations.

by KRISTIN DAVIS
photography by TODD WRIGHT

Rapidan, VIRGINIA – Everona Dairy’s three hired milkers are up before the dawn. They corral woolly bundles of baaing ewes into the milking yard, a kind of waiting room before the animals take turns in the milking parlor. This is when the phone will start ringing or there is a knock at the door, signaling some problem in the parlor, situated just up a dirt path from where the Wentz family makes its home.

Of course, some days never really end, like in the spring when most of the ewes give birth. During the busiest time, Carolyn or Brian Wentz might grab a few hours of sleep in a room off the barn built for lambing season. There is a second surge of births in late summer and early fall and at least one new lamb in the months in between. That means a steady supply of fresh milk – and a constant supply of the artisanal sheep cheese churned out here for nearly two decades. But it also means constant work.

“Sometimes,” Carolyn says with a laugh, “it feels like 27 hours a day, nine days a week.”

But the work is rewarding, and there is no commute here in these soft-sloping hills of red dirt and thick grass in Virginia’s foothills.

Everona, the first – and only – sheep dairy in the state, got its start because a woman doctor moved here from Michigan in the ’70s. Because she happened to get a puppy who needed something to do. Because she was as good with her hands as she was with her mind, and because she was determined – as is her granddaughter, who looks to her elder’s legacy. Everona now produces close to 30 kinds of cheese, all handmade, no dyes, no fake flavors, no preservatives, its customers ranging from locals to the White House.

Saturday is 10-year-old Sadie Wentz’ morning to sleep in. But she is out of the house by 10, headed in leggings and cowboy boots to look in on her flock.

Fourteen sheep with dark faces and muddy white fleece crowd together at the far end of their pen, eyeing the intruders. Sadie, the elder of Carolyn and Brian’s two children, leans over the fence and points out Coconut and Chocolate. They are indistinguishable to anyone but her. Sadie raised them up from lambs as part of a 4-H project, then used a portion of her earnings to invest in more.

It is Sadie’s first foray into the business side of her family’s legacy. Like Everona’s milk-producing Friesians calling out from a nearby barn, these ewes represent just the beginning. Sadie plans to sell her flock’s offspring to fellow 4-Hers and use the earnings to help put herself through college someday.

It’s a plan her grandmother long encouraged. Patricia Elliott was a pioneer of sorts, founding Virginia’s only sheep dairy some 20 years ago while running a full-time medical practice out of her home.

Sadie steps onto a field soft from manure and the night’s rain and expertly takes hold of Chocolate, demonstrating how she showed him at the Orange County fair a few months earlier. When lambing season begins, she’ll have to spend enough time with the new arrivals to make sure they are just as docile, before they are sold, after a year, as milk producers or meat.

Sadie understands what her dad, Brian, explains: If you watch your animals every day, you will know them. And you will know when something is wrong.

Brian learned that fundamental lesson from his mother, who two decades ago bought a border collie that changed their lives.

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Circle carries on the work of a puppy adopted in 1992 by Dr. Patricia Elliott.

Patricia Elliott saw the dog at a local wine and fiber festival in 1992.

A man was giving demonstrations of his border collie, an innate herder bred for centuries to corral sheep. Elliott went home with one of his puppies. Not long after, she decided that the dog needed some sheep to keep it properly entertained – and that the sheep ought to earn their keep. That’s when she started hand-milking her ewes inside a shed just beyond her house.

She used the sheep’s milk to make soap and cheese. If you’d known her, says her daughter-in-law, Carolyn, that wouldn’t surprise you. Elliott loved baking desserts and breads. Sometimes she even milled her own wheat. She was as down-to-earth as she was bright.

Elliott, a Michigan native and the daughter of a college dean, graduated from high school at 16. By 21, she’d earned a master’s degree in zoology and set her sights on medical school. It was an unusual path for a woman in those days, particularly a woman with a family. Elliott already had two children when she started medical school and had two more along the way. That didn’t slow her down. She graduated in 1958 and went on to open her family practice, treating patients whether they could afford it or not. She started a crisis hotline and a free medical clinic for the area’s seasonal workers. She bore three more children, seven in all, whom she brought to work so she could breastfeed between patients.

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Dr. Elliot’s portrait is in the hand of son Brian Wentz,
who works with his daughter Sadie, wife Carolyn
and son Oscar.

Elliott moved to Virginia in 1974, settling in a house in the rolling hills of Rapidan, a tiny, unincorporated community about 35 miles northeast of Charlottesville. Here, in what has since become the heart of Virginia wine country, thick grass sprouts from rich, red dirt. It happened to be the ideal
setting for a sheep farm.

For years, Elliott balanced her family practice with the job of Orange County medical examiner. She delivered babies in her office, made house calls and performed autopsies at all hours. There hardly seemed time for another occupation. If you had told her this, Carolyn says with a laugh, it only would have made her that much more determined to prove you wrong.

Elliott shared her first batch of sheep cheese with friends and neighbors, who operated a bed and breakfast. They wanted to know how they could buy it to serve to guests. Elliott went back and made more. Soon, she was selling her homestead artisanal cheese to a handful of local restaurants.

“Every year, it got a little bigger,” Brian says, until finally, “it blew up.”

Sheep’s milk, Elliott had seen, is ideal for cheese making because it has more fat than cow’s milk. Its high protein makes it easier to digest, and the cheese is creamier, richer and milder – yet more flavorful. Nonetheless, sheep dairies are still uncommon in the United States. Before Everona, they were uncharted in Virginia. Elliott traveled to Wisconsin and Greece to learn more about the art of aged artisanal sheep cheese.

She got another border collie. She traded hand-milking for a portable pump and, finally, a commercial milking parlor constructed within walking distance of her home. She bought the first of 200 Friesian dairy sheep and recruited son Brian to help around the farm. He worked as a heavy-equipment operator in Northern Virginia by day and cleared fields and built fences and tended the animals during the evenings and on weekends.

As the operation grew, Elliott and an assistant cheesemaker churned out new recipes to feed the ever-increasing demand, for cheese served in local wineries and the White House and high-end restaurants around the country. There are no dyes, no artificial flavors or preservatives – just natural cheese handmade with Everona’s own fresh milk and aged to perfection. Some sheep farms regulate the animals’ cycle with injections or by manually changing the light, which can also alter a ewe’s reproduction cycle. Neither is done at Everona, where as many as 500 new lambs are born each year.

Elliott spent spring nights camped out in the lambing barn with a pile of medical journals. Most ewes deliver without complications. But she was nearby to help them through breech births, tight births and births of multiples.

Amid all this new life, Elliott’s assistant cheesemaker went into labor. The woman was in the middle of a batch of cracked pepper Piedmont eight years ago when Carolyn got a call that the baby was on the way and someone else would have to step in. Could Carolyn do it?

She wasn’t so sure. She was a floral designer, not a cheesemaker. She liked to cook and she was creative, so that was a start, at least.

Elliott told Carolyn not to worry. If you are meant to make cheese, she said, you will get it the first time. Carolyn watched and took notes as Elliott transformed fresh sheep’s milk into white cheese wheels marbled in black pepper. Elliott wrote down directions. The next day, Carolyn was on her own.

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Brian, who now farms full time

There are dozens of steps that require precise temperatures and measurements, periods of mixing and periods of motionlessness, of heating and cooling, coagulating and cutting into curds. Carolyn went through them one by one. When that was all done, she used her hands to press the cheese into wheel-shaped molds. It was nerve-wracking. She stood on a stool to get enough leverage over it, careful not to press too hard lest she push the cream out and ruin the batch.

“I got it the first time,” she says. “I was meant to be a cheesemaker.”

These days, she and an assistant produce more than 50 pounds a day inside a newly expanded creamery as white and sterile as a doctor’s office.

They make 27 kinds in all. Piedmont is an Everona classic and longtime best-seller: “Nutty, with fruity tones, and a wonderful aftertaste,” tasters from the American Cheese Society wrote in 2005 when naming Piedmont No. 1 in the sheep cheese farmhouse category. There are Pride of Bacchus, soaked in lees from Early Mountain Vineyard in Madison and served at least once at the White House; Skyline and Blue Ridge, a mild-flavored, old-style blue cheese that even people who think they won’t like end up enjoying. There are cheddar, mozzarella and pressed ricotta, dill-, chive-, sage- and saffron-flavored Piedmont. There is a Swiss-style cheese called Shenandoah created by Carolyn and Elliott that took 10th place at the World Cheese Championship. Carolyn regularly experiments with new flavors.

Six years ago, Elliott handed over the day-to-day operation of Everona to her son and daughter-in-law. Brian gave up his day job to focus on farming full time.

Elliott’s house stands between the Wentzes’ and the bulk of the operation: the fields and the pens, the buildings and the barns the doctor could see from her office window.

Two weeks before she died in May at 84, Elliott was still seeing patients. A week before her death, she was filling out medical charts and looking out that window at all she had created.

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Sadie, whose pursuits include 4-H, veterinary school and ballet.

After her death, the doctor’s office fell quiet. But Sadie, at 10, has a plan. She wants to heal animals the way Elliott healed humans.

She was no older than 2 or 3 when she first told her grandmother she planned to become a veterinarian. She’d just helped deliver her first lamb, a job she has been doing ever since: aiding ewes through difficult births like her grandmother did, giving vaccinations, trimming hooves and matter-of-factly pitching in on the occasional necropsy.

In private dinners by Elliott’s big fireplace, the woman who had balanced family life with two careers encouraged her granddaughter to go after her dream.

So when Sadie is not caring for her sheep or chasing after a feral kitten she intends to tame or going to school or heading off to dance class, where she trades mud- and manure-caked boots for ballet slippers, she is working on a list of prospective colleges.

She has persuaded her 6-year-old brother, Oscar, to join the venture, their dad says. They have it all figured out. Sadie will come back to Everona after earning her degree in veterinary medicine. She will bring new life to her grandmother’s old office in Virginia’s foothills.

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Virginia Whiskey

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by JANINE LATUS
photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

There is a smell and a taste to the air in a distillery, of smoke, farmer’s grain and something akin to molasses, plus the yeasty sourness of beer and the nuttiness of toasted barley, and the richness of whiskey breathing in and out of oak.

It’s a Virginia tradition, whiskey. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made it, and sipped it on their verandas as they helped shape the New World. James Madison was known to down a pint a day, and the average colonist consumed 5 gallons of spirits a year. Lest that sound shocking, that’s about 1½ drinks a day. Not healthy, perhaps, but not enough to leave them incoherent and stumbling, either.

The magic and mystery of the making evolved long before this country was conceived, and it hasn’t changed much since. A grain is ground and soaked into a porridge-like mash that’s
blended with yeast and malted barley and left to ferment into the crudest of beers. It is then heated in a still to a sweet spot between the boiling points of alcohol and water, so the alcohol turns into a vapor that rises high above the water and solids and long-chain ethanols in the mash below, then converts to liquid form as it slides down the long, cool copper coil of the condenser, and eventually into the bottle that finds the glass.

There are distilleries in Virginia so old that a recent owner is a scant three generations removed from Robert E. Lee, and distilleries so young they’re making up new rules. Three that give tours are within a scenic road trip of Hampton Roads.

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The old one, owned in part until 2004 by the great-granddaughter of General Lee, is A. Smith Bowman, founded in Algiers, Louisiana, and moved in 1934 to a farm that grew to 7,000 acres in what is now Reston. The whiskey was a post-Prohibition product of the excess crops Bowman grew to feed his dairy cattle. The cycle was perfect – harvest the corn, distill the whiskey, feed the spent mash to the plump and happy cows, plant more corn. The cows are important, because only 10 percent of what goes into a still comes out as consumable alcohol; the rest has to find a use.

In 1985, the third generation of Bowmans conceded to Reston’s growth and moved the operation to a Fredericksburg plant where workers once made the cellophane that wrapped the cigars and cigarettes produced in Richmond by tobacco companies that made Marlboros and Lucky Strikes. The cows stayed behind, as did the fermenting tanks and the drying operation that turned the spent mash into livestock feed.

The distillery’s primary product was and is bourbon, which by law must be between 120 and 160 proof, made in America of at least 51 percent corn, and aged for at least two years in new, charred, white-oak barrels. Those are the rules for bourbon, but Virginia whiskeys are made of recipes of rye and wheat and barley, too, and they all go into barrels, sidling into the wood as it expands in summer and being squeezed back out in the winter, when the staves contract in the cold.

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 The aging and the charred oaking of whiskey seem to have evolved from simple happenstance. Whiskey fresh off the still can be harsh – at A. Smith Bowman’s they call it White Dog because it is clear and so strong that it bites like a dog – but when it was put into barrels and transported from town to town over rugged roads, agitated by the bumps and warmed and cooled and warmed and cooled by the weather, it became mellow. A smooth alchemy of whiskey and wood.

White oak was used because it was plentiful, pliant and porous. It was charred because the heat cauterized the sap exudate that otherwise would turn the whiskey rotten; it was just luck that the charring smoothed off the whiskey’s rough edges and gave it its amber glow.

At A. Smith Bowman’s, cheerful tour guides show guests the grains and the barrels and the alligator wood of a charred stave, then present the magnificence of their still, a Lost-In-Space-style copper behemoth that looks as if it could transport mere mortals to another dimension.

The distillery is now owned by Sazerac, a privately held company based in Metairie, Louisiana, and the fermenting of the mash and its first distillations is done at one of the company’s other plants. But it’s in this giant still that the spirits are distilled a third time and then pumped with a gasoline nozzle into 120-pound barrels, their bung-hole plugs driven home with mallets of rubber or wood because anything metal might cause a spark, and 125-proof spirits are nothing if not volatile.

The barrels then join rack upon rack of others, 5,600 of them, more or less, stacked high in a soaring room, their sides weeping tarry streaks of barrel candy, a combination of water and whiskey and wood. The air is heady with evaporation – what distillers call the angels’ share.

“It has to be angels nipping,” says tour guide Mary Ahrens, “because the devils wouldn’t leave us anything.”

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Six or eight or 12 years from now the plugs will be pulled and the barrels emptied over a grate that will catch the charred wood and let the heart of the whiskey drain down a trough to a tank, where it will be mixed with distilled water to get it down to the proof that matches the label. The best barrels will be aged 12 years and then bottled on their own to become the 100-proof, single-barrel John J. Bowman; others will be aged six or more years and then combined, no more than eight barrels together, into the 90-proof, small-batch Bowman Brothers, all of it hand-bottled on-site, along with vodka, rum and gin.

An hour and a half away, just outside Shenandoah National Park, there’s a distillery in an old apple-processing plant, across the creek and down a side road on the edge of Sperryville, a town so small its entire population could fit into your local Kroger.

A chalk sign on the porch reads “Whisky is Sunshine and Love, held together by Water.” Heavy wooden doors that mimic the staves of whiskey barrels open onto a sitting area of Oriental rugs and barrel chairs, and a store staffed by a woman who introduces herself only as Mom, although her more formal name is Helen.

Her son, Rick Wasmund, 54, the owner and master distiller here at Copper Fox, wears a T-shirt with a drawing of a glass on the front and the words “half full.” He is the kind of man who wanders a town on cool nights, seeking the scents wafting from neighbors’ chimneys. In years past, his porch was stacked with split oak and apple and cherry, woods chosen for the intensity of their heat and the smell of their smoke. He worked as a certified financial planner and dreamed of somehow combining his love of wood and of whiskey, and also of bringing his dog with him to work. When he turned 40 he toured distilleries all over the United States, the idea germinating that maybe there was a market for a whiskey infused with fruitwood. No one else was doing it, so perhaps it wouldn’t work. Or perhaps it would, and he would open up an untapped market.

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In 2000 he went to Scotland’s tiny island of Islay for a six-week internship, his front door opening into the town and his back door into the august Bowmore Distillery, where he worked parts of all three shifts, taking notes and learning from men with a combined century of experience in the art and science of spirits. Bowmore is one of the few distilleries in the world that still malts its own barley, and Wasmund not only wanted to malt his, he also wanted to then smoke it over fruitwood to see if he could instill the joy of the wood into the whiskey.

Wasmund’s barley is a strain developed at Virginia Tech and grown at the Heathsville farm of Billy Dawson. In the front room of the distillery is a photo of the distiller and the farmer, two men out standing in a field. The barley is delivered in 1-ton bags, then soaked in a vat beneath a sign that reads “5614 km to Loch Indaal” the Scottish water that laps against Islay – before being shoveled out onto a concrete floor and spread with a spatulate-fingered iron rake, dragged first in a spiral and then in Zenlike swirls, the combination of water and temperature urging the seeds to convert starch to sugar, to prepare to sprout and fulfill their destiny, as Wasmund says. But no. Instead they’re hoisted onto a perforated steel floor above a wood stove topped with smoldering cherry and apple wood, the smoke infusing the barley for hours before it is taken outside and ground in a mill powered by an old John Deere, its transmission faulty but its drive shaft well able to drive the augurs that grind the grain.

Wasmund then blends the ground barley with rye and yeast and water from the mountain-fed aquifer into a hot, sweet, smoky soup of grain he leaves to bubble in tanks, to turn from a johnnycake-looking slurry to something toasted and granular, bubbles spitting and foaming to the top, the air above it so thick with CO2 that it crowds out all of the oxygen.

Only then is it pumped into a traditional, onion-shaped, copper pot still, then poured into barrels with a special trap lid, through which he stuffs cheesecloth bags of toasted oak and applewood chips. For a year those chips will stay there, absorbing and releasing the whiskey. Then the whiskey will be moved into traditional barrels, put into a barrel heater and pulled out once a week to be rolled the length of the distillery as workers sing, to the tune of

Roll Out the Barrel:

Roll-ing hot barrels, Wasmund demonstrates.

Rolling hot barrels of fun.

Rolling the barrels … (“Here you have to push with your feet,” he interjects.)

Making Wasmund’s whiskey Number One …

Rolling hot barrels, it’s fun for you and for me!

Roll-ing hot barrels … at the Copper Fox Distillery!

And then you have to go down and touch the barrel and the malt room door at the same time so you don’t cheat, then turn around and come back.

“I’m management now, though, so I have to miss some of the rollings, which is too bad.”

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The barrels sit and cool for a couple of days, then go back into the heater and then get rolled again, all in an effort to make a richer product in shorter time.

The bottles here are hand-filled, their openings then dipped into hot wax – “I think Mom has forgiven me for stealing her crockpot” – and twirled just so, to make a perfect swirl on the top, a C, as in Copper Fox.

“We’ve heard there’s another whiskey that uses red wax, but theirs looks drippy and sloppy, and we figured maybe that’s how they make their whiskey,” Wasmund says. “But we’re Virginians, so we do things properly.”

An hour and a half away, down roads rolling north and east between miles of stone and wooden fences, past paddocks and race tracks, in the mowed and manicured, mink and manure horse country northwest of D.C., is Purcellville. The commercial hub of western Loudoun County, it’s a popular lunch spot for visitors to area vineyards, and home to 8,000 souls and the Catoctin Creek Distillery, freshly moved into a brick building on Main Street that was once a bank and then housed a car dealership that showcased big-finned Buicks. The floor now is tiled with end cuts from the heart of a mesquite tree and polished to a rich shine. Floating clouds of the original ceiling tile hang over the curved bar and café tables of the tasting room, with its view through original sliding-glass doors to the working distillery, where chemical engineer Becky Harris and distiller Greg Moore tend a pair of shiny-copper German stills, everything about the process precise and consistent, which matters most when you’re making single-barrel whiskey.

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The distillery was the dream of Becky’s husband, Scott Harris, after he slogged through a mind-numbing 15th revision of a PowerPoint slide that he knew no one was going to remember. For their first year and a half, he worked days at his government job and nights setting up and running the business. Then he started to telecommute, setting up a glide path from his stable, well-paid job at a defense contractor to working at the distillery full time. For the first 18 months Becky worked alone at the place, in an industrial strip next to car repair shops, fermenting the mash, running the still, finding the perfect time and temperature to separate off the heads – which are the toxic acetones and methyl alcohols that rise first off any mash, best suited for fingernail polish remover and auto fuel – seeking always the sweet heart of the run, the alcohol so pure and smooth it barely needs to be aged.

She learned where to stop in order to leave behind the harsh-tasting tails, those alcohols that are the last to distill off and whose flavor, she says, can get interesting only if they’re left long in a barrel. Her cuts, as they’re called, are judicious and conservative, based on temperature, volume and nose. “That’s really where the art meets the science,” she says, “because as the distiller I have to understand not only how things influence the
flavor of the raw spirits but how that flavor is translated after the aging process.”

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Catoctin opened in 2009, and its Roundstone Rye is a young whiskey, aged less than two years. It’s the style that was popular right around Prohibition, which was the last time there was a legal distillery in Loudoun County.

They make the un-oaked, un-aged Mosby’s Spirit, too, which is like what Virginians were drinking around the time of the Civil War, except at Catoctin the cuts are precise, the liquor as pure as possible, the flavor like citrus and yellow cake, with the peppery finish that tells you it’s rye.

Their spirits are certified organic, and kosher, the heads used to clean the equipment, the tails re-distilled into gin, the mash given away to local farmers, who feed it to their cows.

And thus the cycle begins again.

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Take a trip to Copper Fox Distillery

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Heeding The Call

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by DAVE FORSTER
photography by KEITH LANPHER

Hunting on Knotts Island, guided by tradition.

On this early November morning I am gripping a 12-gauge shotgun, coiled in wait to spring on a small flock of ducks the moment my guide yells shoot.

Water is all around me. To my left is 37-year-old Timothy Williams Junior, a fourth-generation guide who is worried about the lack of game we’ve seen so far, making these new arrivals in the distance all the more precious.

We are crouched in an open-topped plywood box that was built into the shallow waters of Knotts Island, some 7 miles south of the Virginia Beach line. The low walls on our 10- by-4-foot platform are covered in loblolly pine bushes. We are all but invisible to our prey.

Timothy tricks the birds into flying near us with calls that alternate from delicate whistles to a din of rapid-fire quacks.

He whispers in an eager Southern drawl.

“Here they come back, here they come back. … Just keep your gun down low.”

He whistles and quacks some more. The ducks fly closer.

“Be ready now. Be ready.”

My insides are a mix of excitement and anxiety. I’ve handled guns since my youth in rural Minnesota and have hit my share of clay targets, but at 32 years old, I’m getting my first shot at a duck. I am not a hunter.

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Days before, when we talked by phone, Timothy was giddy about my prospects, even as a novice: “You shouldn’t have no problem killing what you want, that’s for sure,” he said.

He told me to bring plenty of shells. There are three in my gun and 97 more on a shelf in front of me. I dread the thought of whiffing every time I pull the trigger and leaving empty-handed from one of the best waterfowl hunting grounds on the East Coast.

The ducks are flying at us but still not within the 40-yard range that Timothy wants for a good shot.

“Not yet, not yet,” he says.

He quacks once more. Three seconds of silence pass.

“Shoot ’em! Shoot ’em!”

I bolt up, aim and fire.

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The Williams family has been helping hunters bag waterfowl off Knotts Island since Mama Grace and Elliott Senior started the service around 1920. They had one client then, but he was more than enough.

The man came from up North and booked whole seasons at a time.

“A strong businessman,” said Tim Williams Senior, deflecting a more colorful and possibly apocryphal family theory of a mafia connection.

However he paid for it, the strong businessman with an appetite for waterfowl had electricity, plumbing and a water heater installed in the same two-story house that hunters use today.

The Williams lodge isn’t the sprawling, luxurious wood cabin kind. Rather, it resembles an old family house, appointed with well-worn furniture, countless duck decoys, and Bibles in the bedrooms. A photo of Mama Grace is on the dining room table.

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Duck Hunting, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Knotts Island, Duck, Duck Decoys, Hunting Trip, Hunting Guides

Groups of eight to 10 hunters will book the place for three days at a time during waterfowl season, which varies depending on the game but generally runs from November to January. They pay $280 a day per person. The price includes room, meals, one guide for every two hunters and use of the Williamses’ duck blinds.

Because of the daily patterns of waterfowl, the best hunting is right around sunrise, so the Williams lodge begins to stir hours earlier.

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Timothy Junior says he remembers getting up at 1 a.m. as a child to open Christmas presents so everyone could be out in time to hunt.

As one of the guides, he’s likely at the lodge by 3:30 a.m. to make sure the coffee’s going. “There’s not a time I’m not excited to get going the next morning,” he says.

That’s also about the time Nancy Williams – the self-proclaimed Lodge Lady – starts breakfast so it can be ready for the group by 5.

A bubbly woman with a Boston accent, Nancy moved south in 1982 and married Tim Senior in 1995. A few years ago she began assuming a greater role in the family business and now handles all the scheduling, shopping, meals and, with help from a worker, housekeeping for 10 beds.

A typical stay for hunters will feature a dinner of ham and turkey or roast beef on Day 1, pork loin on Day 2, fried chicken on Day 3. With the guides to feed as well, Nancy may have 14 or more big appetites to fill. Tim Senior, also known as Big Tim, goes about 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds.

“It’s just like cooking for Thanksgiving every night,” she says.

Nancy does all that around a full-time job running a salon she owns in Chesapeake. Sometimes the women from her beauty shop drive down to help in the lodge, a juxtaposition she sees as ripe for a wider audience.

“We need to start a new TV show. ‘The Williams Lodge.’ It’ll be like Duck Dynasty. It would be hysterical.”

The Williams men might be locally renowned for their guide service – “There isn’t a place we go that somebody doesn’t know him from hunting,” Nancy says of Big Tim – but they seem too polite to produce any of the false tension that fuels reality TV, let alone the bathroom humor of the bearded, nouveau riche Duck Dynasty clan.

Timothy Junior’s big joke with a new hunter is to tell him to watch his head as they motor out in the darkness because they’re about to go under a bridge. (There are none.) He pulls out the prank only with people he knows will appreciate the laugh.

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 To prep for my trip, I had called an avid bird hunter I knew in Hampton Roads: a former Suffolk city councilman, Robert Barclay IV.

Like the lawyer he is, Barclay delivered a detailed introduction to the sport.

First off, he said, make sure you’re properly licensed.

The cheapest waterfowl license for a Virginian hunting in North Carolina – a six-day pass – cost me $90 online. I also had to buy a $15 duck stamp, which is exactly what it sounds like and is sold at the post office. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says proceeds are used to acquire wetlands and sustain the populations of waterfowl and other wildlife.

Now, on to the fun part.

Ducks can see in color, so it’s important to be camouflaged, Barclay said.

“When he’s calling them in, you hold really still,” he said, referring to my guide. “That’s very important.”

The timing of my hunt early in the season should be an advantage because the ducks are less skittish then, he said:

“As the season goes on and they see some of their compatriots get shot, they get a little nervous.”

Try to shoot them as they are about to land near the duck blind, he said. As they descend, the birds will glide into the wind, spreading their wings wide to stabilize themselves.

This is the ideal shot.

“Their chest is right at you so all their organs are exposed,” Barclay said.

More challenging are passing shots, when the ducks are flying by and hunters have to try to lead the target. Shotgun shells contain dozens of pellets that disperse and will be lethal only to a certain distance.

Barclay told me to try to lead the bird by a few feet and follow through with the barrel of the gun when I pull the trigger. Think, he said, of spraying the pellets at the bird’s path like water from a garden hose.

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The morning of my hunt, I am on the road by 4:10, with an hourlong drive ahead of me. Thick fog covers the winding, rural roads of southern Chesapeake and Virginia Beach as I make my way to Knotts Island.

Big Tim cheerily greets me at my car.

“You got a blue bird day,” he says, invoking a rule of his sport that does not bode well for my chances.

Generally, the better the weather, the worse it is for duck hunting. The birds can’t spot hunters as well in lousy, overcast conditions, and they’re more active in the wind. A nice, breezeless, sunny day is good for seeing songbirds but not waterfowl.

I climb into a small motorboat near the edge of the Williams property and hold on as Timothy Junior hits the throttle and steers us away into blackness under a sliver of a crescent moon.

After several minutes, the boat slows and what looks like a mound of pine needles emerges from the darkness. An opening appears and Timothy glides the boat into the cover. I step onto the adjoining platform with my gun and shells, and wait while he heads back out to continue setting up our site.

From the boat, he throws some 70 decoys into the water around me, placed as best he can figure for the direction of what little wind we might get today.

He finishes arranging the impostors by 6:15 a.m. and joins me in the blind to begin the wait.

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I have a wooden bench to sit on as the sun rises, throwing pink hues over the water and exposing the new world around me. Hundreds of yards away are more curious green mounds poking out of the water – duck blinds just like ours, some filled with unseen hunters lying in wait.

About 25 minutes later, Timothy spies our first chance of the morning and begins cajoling three ducks our way.

When the command finally arrives – “Shoot ’em! Shoot ’em!” – I lose any thought of garden hoses. I just aim and fire. The first bird falls and I am so surprised that I almost hesitate before turning on the other two.

“Good shot, man!” Timothy yells. The thought of killing three ducks on my first three shots dances in my mind. It’s gone a second later when I miss my second, then my third.

Still, I am thrilled and thinking that this is way more fun than fishing. Timothy guesses the bird was 35 to 40 yards away. He heads out in the boat to retrieve it, gets back and hands me the kill.

It is a pretty wigeon with a white belly and a light blue bill and a soft, damp coat.

Timothy is relieved to have one in the books.

“It’s a lot of pressure on guides,” he says later.

Some 15 minutes later I get my second chance when five pintails come around my right. I fire three more times and two drop, though Timothy fired at one as well. He graciously gives me credit, saying I had wounded it and he wanted to make sure it didn’t get to a marsh in the distance.

Who am I to argue?

The action slackens considerably after that, fulfilling Big Tim’s prophecy. The last opportunity of the day comes before 10 a.m., when, at my guide’s direction, I fire on and hit two surf scoters that land among our decoys. Timothy has no qualms about my shooting at sitting ducks, especially on such a slow day.

My tally will end at five birds on nine shots.

Out on the water, trying to will a breeze our way, I can see how the sport can grab hold of someone. In the early afternoon, Timothy starts the boat to take our photographer and his assistant back to the lodge, and I ask to stay out at the blind alone for a while.

As they motor away, I am left to the silence of the water. If a duck comes by, I will be at a sore disadvantage without my guide’s calls and direction. Still, the thrill of the hunt is even greater knowing that I’m on my own.

I see nothing to shoot before Timothy returns with the boat. We wait a while longer together before agreeing to call it a day, and I begin to pack up.

“You think you’ll ever go again?” he asks.

“Oh, I think so,” I say.

Epilogue:

I took three of my kills home to eat. The Williamses had warned me that the surf scoters have a strong liver taste, so I left those with them.

The next night I was outside with gloves on, ready to replicate a YouTube tutorial on duck cleaning with a friend. It was quick, simple and slightly barbaric in a getting-in-touch-with-your-hunter-gatherer-lineage sort of way.

We pulled off feathers, tore open the skin with our hands, reached in and ripped out the breastbone and its meat while stepping on the bird’s neck and tail.

Sautéed in butter, the breasts tasted so rich and savory I regretted not giving the surf scoters a try.

As we ate, I bit down on a satisfying reminder of how directly the meal had arrived on my plate. I reached up to my mouth and pulled out a pellet.

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Gingerbread Man

Rodney Diehl, Chef Diehl, Colonial Williamsburg Chef, Colonial Williamsburg Pastry Chef, Distinction Magazine, DIstinction

by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by Eric Lusher and AMANDA LUCIER

In college, Rodney Diehl cooked to pay the rent while he studied forestry.

Cooking has paid his bills for more than 33 years now. Diehl, head pastry chef at Colonial Williamsburg, first worked there as a teenager, when his dad was a master harness maker. After studying at Oregon State University, he returned to his hometown and landed a job at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. He joined the historic area’s apprenticeship program, then moved to the central commissary.

Now he runs a team of chefs who prepare thousands of pastries every day. And for Christmas every year, that team creates an elaborate gingerbread village display 10 feet wide, 10 feet across, and loaded with frosting. “The houses range from small outhouses to train stations, gift shops, toy stores,” Diehl says.

Each year’s display features a different theme. One year, his team recreated the Governor’s Palace. Another year brought Scottish castles and a Loch Ness Monster. Brainstorming for the theme begins in August. Assembly begins around Halloween so the houses are ready for display by Thanksgiving.

The chefs use the same recipe for the gingerbread as is used for the cookies made in the commissary, along with the stiff, glossy, egg-white frosting that often accompanies gingerbread houses, Diehl says. He has a few slightly more industrial tricks that make each year’s display more attractive, if less edible.

“We use a hot-glue gun to glue them together – it sets quicker. We’re not going to eat them, and it allows you to come back later with the frosting.”

Once the buildings have been assembled, the team adds decoration. Then the whole confection gets a liberal dousing of hair spray.

“It keeps it from cracking,” Diehl says.

Diehl has reworked a few of his recipes for use at home.  None contains glue or hair spray.

Gingerbread house

Yield: A house about 5 inches wide, 6 long, and 8 tall.

To save your house for next year, Rodney Diehl suggests wrapping it in a plastic bag and storing it in a dry, dark place; do not refrigerate or freeze it. When you’re ready to display it, sift fresh powdered sugar over it.

For pieces that keep their shape, chill the dough after rolling it out. You can also cut the pieces directly on the baking pan and just remove the scraps.

DOUGH INGREDIENTS

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1½ teaspoons baking soda

1 cup margarine (2 sticks), melted

½ cup evaporated milk

1 cup unsulfured molasses

4 cups stone-ground or unbleached flour, sifted, with up to ½ cup additional if needed

Optional: Egg wash of 1 egg and 1 teaspoon water beaten together, for a shinier surface. Or use crushed hard candy, for a window-glass effect

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare cookie sheets with parchment paper or grease and flour.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Mix well. Add the melted margarine, evaporated milk and molasses. Mix well. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to your fingers. Knead it for a smoother texture. Add up to ½ cup additional flour, if needed, to prevent sticking.

When the dough is smooth, roll it out ¼ inch thick on a floured surface, chill if desired, and cut desired shapes. For a shinier surface, brush or spray with egg wash about 5 minutes before you bake.

For window glass, place crushed hard candy in the window openings about 5 minutes before baking time is complete.

Bake the dough for 10 to 12 minutes; the pieces are done when they are golden brown and spring back when touched.

ROYAL ICING

Keep the icing covered with a damp cloth to prevent crusting. If time allows, let the front and sides of your structure dry before adding the roof. After assembling the house, you can thin some of the icing with a small amount of water to make the icicles or pipe the shingles on the roof.

INGREDIENTS

3 egg whites

1 pound powdered sugar

½ teaspoon lemon juice

PREPARATION

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat to a stiff consistency. If the mixture is too soft, add more powdered sugar.

If it is too thick, add a few drops of water.

Pecan squares

These are served at the Williamsburg Lodge.
Yield: a 9- by 13-inch pan.

DOUGH INGREDIENTS

1 cup sugar

2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks)

2 large eggs

4½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon vanilla

Pinch salt

 PREPARATION

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing on low speed until each is incorporated and scraping down the bowl in between.

Add the flour, vanilla and salt, and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Cover the dough with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

Roll the dough out 1/8 inch thick and lay it over the pan to cover the sides and bottom. Prick with a fork and chill 30 minutes.

As the dough chills, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place a piece of foil over the dough and top evenly with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Allow to cool and remove the beans or weights and foil. Set aside.

PECAN FILLING INGREDIENTS

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)

1¼ cups light brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

½ cup honey

½ cup heavy cream

1½ tablespoons vanilla

Pinch salt

4 cups pecan pieces

PREPARATION

Preheat oven again to 350 degrees.

Combine butter, sugars, honey, heavy cream, vanilla and salt in a heavy-bottomed pot. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 225 degrees on a candy thermometer. Stir in the pecans. Spread the filling evenly over the baked dough and bake 20 minutes more.

Cool completely before cutting into squares; the lodge typically cuts them to 1¼ inches.

Coconut bars

Yield: a 9- by 13-inch pan.

Don’t skimp on the corn flake crumbs; they’ll be the crust for this Williamsburg Lodge treat.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)

1 cup corn flake crumbs

2 cups chocolate chips

2 cups coconut flakes

1 quart plus 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
(5 cups – or 40 ounces total)

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread butter evenly in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle corn flake crumbs over the butter to coat the bottom. Sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over the crumbs, then layer on the coconut.

Pour on the condensed milk, working across the entire top, not in just one spot.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the bars are golden brown.

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Setting The Stage

Virginia Scenic, Scene Shop, Theater Scene Construction, Theater, Theatre, Portsmouth VA, Port Norfolk, Joy Callan,Scene Contsruction, Distinction Magazine, Distinction

by GABRIELLA SOUZA
photography by ERIC LUSHER

Behind the welding masks, paint-covered gloves and ancient sewing machines are the folks of Virginia Scenic, who create set designs for theater, opera and dance companies – local and across the country.

In this unassuming one-story building in a Portsmouth industrial park, past modest front offices, double doors open to reveal 32,000 square feet of spacious, high-ceilinged rooms. Drills scream, welders hiss and the piney scent of just-cut wood fills the air. Across the tan floors and gray cinderblock walls, unexpected items grab the eye.

A black motorcycle with purple flames licking its sides fills a black wire cage. A grape-hued throne that would look at home in a Dr. Seuss book sits in the corner.

This is Virginia Scenic. Here, tools transform wood, cloth and metal into exotic locales, storied ages and dazzling scenes. Materials come alive through the hands of those who love the stage but don’t consider themselves the stars and prima donnas.

For 20 years, the theatrical construction company has built sets for opera and dance companies across the country as well as for local theaters and touring productions. It represents the more practical side of show business – literally, the work done behind the scenes.

Virginia Scenic is a rarity for a community like Hampton Roads. Most theatrical builders are located in performance hubs like New York and other big cities, says Scott Orlesky, director of production at Phoenix Entertainment, a Maryland-based theater company that produces touring shows. But its uniqueness makes the company more attractive to clients. “You don’t have to compete with the guys in New York who are adding their higher rent into the bid,” he says.

The quality craftsmanship keeps them coming, Orlesky says. Since their first partnership five years ago, Phoenix has used the company almost exclusively, for shows like Spamalot, Grease and Rock of Ages.

In July, the company started its latest endeavor – the touring set of We Will Rock You, a musical showcasing Queen’s greatest hits. Owner Joy Callan is excited because the designer they are working with worked on the Beijing Olympics.

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The motorcycle and throne are destined for this show. There’s also a multilevel “Heartbreak Hotel,” where bohemian clothes dangle on a clothesline; a set piece that swivels to reveal a motorcycle that blasts onto the stage; and a rock column where stones fall out to show off a $10,000 guitar in all its glory.

At 9, guys in jeans, work boots and bandanas open loading dock doors to let in the sunshine before starting work.

Before they could start building, they needed a plan. In early July, the staff of 20 studied long sheets of paper, the detailed blueprints of the show’s arc and the scenery that would illustrate it.

Callan led the discussion. She got her start with the company when she was 18, working with her father as a carpenter, and stayed on, learning that she loved to craft with her hands. She bought the company in 2007, when she was 28.

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On this Friday, the coffee pot is on and the harmonies of Bohemian Rhapsody break through the customary Pink Floyd. Callan keeps watch on the action from a 1950s diner set, complete with chrome stools, a leftover prop.

Jason Tuthill hums as he measures out boards for the stage platform – the base of the set. He loved the theater, but it was a practical realization that led him to Virginia Scenic. “At some point, you have to answer the question of what you want to do to make money,” he says.

Now he understands and appreciates the skill that distinguishes him from the performers – the ability to envision a show from sketches and plans. It’s like looking at Lego instructions, he says. “You have to be able to see the end before you even start.”

At the work stations around him, sparks fly as pipes are welded together. A buzz saw whirrs. Thin shards of metal glitter on the floor like sequins.

Tuthill likes that he is part of something bigger than himself. Also, his brothers and best friends are among his co-workers. Still, he doesn’t want to sweat all day forever. He sees his future in set design.

Pink Floyd is back on the stereo. Tuthill predicts Queen’s stadium anthem We Will Rock You will be the shop’s new favorite before long.

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In a room with enough paint splatters to impress Jackson Pollock, Christie Marcley Stancliff gets ready to create the set’s floor. The designer had envisioned it covered in droplets of metallic, red and black paint – a little punk, a little glam.

Stancliff walks to an adjoining room and kicks off her Crocs. She repeatedly dips a paint brush into a bucket and holds it above the expansive floor until droplets fall, moving around her handiwork with a dancer’s grace.

“Ugh,” she says as a slight deluge of red hits the black matte floor, “too much.” Then, a second later, “Actually, it might be fine.” That’s one thing she’s learned in this job – not to sweat the small stuff.

It was 20 years ago that a friend in New Orleans asked her to help out on a set at a local theater. She was hooked after one visit. Stancliff says it was being on stage, the people creating around her and the flurry of activity. She gave two weeks’ notice at her design job the next day. She’s been at Virginia Scenic 10 years, lured here by a colleague.

Later, Stancliff will check her work for gaps from atop a ladder. It might be only the floor, but the audience will see it during the entire show. Then she’ll be on to creating brick walls using a plastic base and cheesecloth-like material and creating fake rust for pipes.

“Now, that’s cool,” a passing employee remarks, gazing at the floor.

“I’m glad you think so,” Stancliff says with a smile.

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Emme Greer spends her evenings tucked into a low-ceilinged corner of the building with George and Gracie.

George came to life shortly after Pearl Harbor. He’s loud enough to make you want to plug your ears and is festooned with flames. Gracie wears a sign – “Warning: I Bite.”

Greer conjures back stories for her sewing machines during long nights alone. George is a cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking, canasta-playing New Jerseyite. Gracie’s simpler. She’s an assassin.

Greer is Virginia Scenic’s soft goods supervisor. On this August night, she hems a 27-foot-long scenery cloth so it can be hung by a metal bar. Made of a unique hole-covered fabric, the screen is opaque when light shines from the outside, translucent when lit from within. It’s printed with the image of an old theater curtain that “looks like someone left it out in the rain,” as Greer says. The colors bleed into a bright rainbow.

Greer toyed with other careers – writer, artist. Sewing always pulled her back. She loves the control it brings, the precision and the skill it requires.

Gracie whirrs persistently, but her work here is quieter than the welding and sawing in Virginia Scenic’s bigger rooms. Greer’s work is more delicate. She grips the fabric to keep it square and slides it under the sewing machine’s striking needle, sensing the pull of the fabric.

Greer will sew until 9 p.m. or so, then turn off George and Gracie, pack up her belongings and turn out the light. In a month, she and the other staff will pack up their handiwork and ship it off to meet the performers.

But tonight, inside this dark building, the scenery waits to come alive another day.

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Bob The Weaver

Bob Harman, Weaver, Artisan, The Hill Side, Hill Side, hillside, Distinction, Distinction Magazine, Cely Harman, Cloth, Fabric, Hillesville VA, Virginia Made, Weaving, LoomBob Harman, Weaver, Artisan, The Hill Side, Hill Side, hillside, Distinction, Distinction Magazine, Cely Harman, Cloth, Fabric, Hillesville VA, Virginia Made, Weaving, Loom

by J. CLAYTON BARBOUR
photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

AS MEN WORLDWIDE WEAR HIS FABRICS, A CRAFTSMAN FACES THE FUTURE AND THE PAST WITH A QUESTION: WHO WILL KEEP HIS TRADITION ALIVE?

HIWASSEE | Rain clouds in this part of the world get trapped between hilltops and empty themselves in an almost biblical manner. The showers can last all afternoon, filling creeks and washing earth down onto the roads. Drenched trees bend from the weight. The air is rich, and thick.

Here, such weather is seen as more a respite than an inconvenience, a chance to appreciate simple things like the company of friends, or the patter of rain on a tin roof.

The gray-haired man muses out loud about this. The antique table in front of him looks strong enough to support an engine block but holds only a half-eaten rum cake and five jars of chilled moonshine.

He wears a tan shirt, unbuttoned enough to show the scar on his breastbone, a jagged reminder of recent open-heart surgery. Bell’s palsy causes him to speak from the corner of his mouth, but his words are clear and his voice strong. He smiles as I slide my phone across the table and press record.

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He begins:

My name is Robert Harman. Robert Harman. H-A-R-M-A-N.

There are Harmans with M-O-N, but we call those Yankees.

On that side I am descended from some early Germanic settlers from 1759. And they are given credit for saving the little Ingles girl that was stolen by the Indians and the movie and the book that came out called “Follow the River.” *

I was born in Richlands, Virginia, April the 9th, 1944.

My father was Robert Harman, same name I have. My mother was Edith Goodwin, G-DOUBLE-O-D-W-I-N. It was on the Goodwin side that we were textile people.

I’m 69 years old. I’ll be 70 in April. And it bothers me a little bit, even though I’ve had some surgery and I’m feeling better and better and better.
I still ain’t getting any younger. You know what I’m saying?

So … one thing that is on my mind – and I’ll just interject this, you can do what you want to with it – if there is a reader who reads your story, or might be interested – I’m not saying the place is for sale, but there may be somebody who wants to come in here and learn this and can someday take it over.

’Cause I don’t have heirs. And I’m the last of six generations.

Bob Harman, as friends know him, has worked his entire life in textiles. The industry has given him everything. And it has taken it away. Twice.

Bob is one of the country’s few remaining experts on shuttle looming, and thanks to a Brooklyn-based clothier he is experiencing renewed success late in life.

But this story is as much about Bob’s life as it is about fashion. It’s about a man who has lived fully, a joyous storyteller incapable of a simple answer, an old weaver nervously approaching the end of his last tapestry, wondering who will carry on the family tradition.

Where Bob’s story begins depends on which thread you pull first. One takes you to the mountains of North Carolina. Another, the streets of Brooklyn.  And yet another stretches clear across the Atlantic Ocean.

Macclesfield, in northwest England, was once the world’s largest producer of finished silk. There were 71 mills operating in that city during the mid-1800s. One of them belonged to James Cash Goodwin, Bob’s great-great-great-grandfather.

James Goodwin was a stern man. He believed in work and discipline and little else. But his son, Charles Eugene Goodwin, was a romantic.

Bob laughs as he tells the story.

Well, my great-great-grandfather had himself a girlfriend and he cut some of the old man’s prize roses to give to her. The old man got so mad he took a cane and beat him. So Charles got mad and ran off to America.

He was on a ship that sank about two days out of New York. A lot of things were floating in the water. He spotted a trunk and he grabbed it. Then he spotted a pretty girl floating in the water and grabbed her too. 

She was from Scotland and her name was Janie Dowa. It was spelled D-O-W-A, but it was pronounced “Dowee.”

A ship came along and saved them and by the time they reached land, by the closeness of them being together, I don’t know how it happened, but they got together, fell in love and got married. There ya go.

Charles Goodwin worked in printing and tanning before eventually returning to textiles. He and Janie moved around through the early years. His expertise was in demand, so they followed the best offers and eventually settled in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, taking over Clinch Valley Blanket Mills.

The family made the area their home for more than 50 years. Bob was born just five miles down the road.

Clinch Valley was known for making coverlets – small blankets with patterns brought over by European settlers. But its biggest contract was with the Army. At the height of World War II, the mill made 10,000 scratchy wool blankets a month.

The war ended and the government canceled the contract. Clinch Valley went bankrupt. That was 1949. Bob was 5. He still remembers the pall that fell over the family. He also remembers the day three men came to visit with the promise of better days ahead.

There were two businessmen – from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee – and a chief from the Cherokee Nation, located in the mountains of North Carolina. They wanted Bob’s grandfather to produce coverlets for them.

And my grandfather said, “Well, I’m gone under.”

And they said, “What’s it going to take to get you going again.”

So Granddad told ’em what he wanted, and all of them came back in about a month and made him an offer.

Bob’s grandfather settled on Blowing Rock. The family moved there in 1951 and started Goodwin Family Weavers. It was in that factory that Bob learned the business. “I started winding the bobbins and making warps, and by the time I was 15, I was pretty well trained.”

Bob is in the middle of telling a story on his teenage years, full of rebellion and general mischief, when Cely Harman makes her way into the mill, carrying a pot of fresh corn.

The couple’s house sits beside the 1,500-square-foot workspace, on hill property so steep you can’t help but feel sorry for the pioneers who tried to plow it.

Cely is his fourth wife. They were introduced on a blind date and have been together 19 years. She is a tiny Filipino perpetual-motion machine who has made it her life’s work to keep him alive. Just seven months ago he underwent open-heart surgery. That, along with his palsy, offers challenges.

But on this day Cely is more concerned with his diabetes. Bob has lost 35 pounds and is on medication, but as she places the corn on the table she explains, “If he doesn’t eat, he will just drop out.” She takes out a kitchen knife and starts cutting kernels off the cob.

“Don’t know what I’d do without her,” he says, winking.

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With his concentration broken, Bob turns to the loom sitting a few feet away. Known as a sample loom, it’s smaller than the ones used in mass production. It is an intricate mechanism, with 42 separate places to oil. Modern versions have maybe two. Bob picked this one up from a farmer in South Carolina for $800. He has been offered as much as $7,000 to part with it, but refuses.

Bob jumps up from the table and flips the mill’s power switch. He walks behind the loom and coos “C’mon darlin’ ” as he fires it up. The machine
answers with a steady “click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack,” the rhythmic sound of the shuttle as it shoots back and forth. In the hands of a skilled weaver, the machine can produce 35 to 40 yards of material a day.

He has gotten so good at timing the shuttle that he can stop the loom almost exactly when the bobbin runs out of thread. It’s the kind of expertise that comes only from a lifetime of pulling lint from your hair. It’s funny now to think that a younger Bob once ran from his calling.

His teen years, as he tells it, were tough. His father left the family when he was 5, right before they moved to North Carolina. “Ran off with a gypsy woman” is how Bob describes it. So as he grew up, he drifted toward the rough crowd. Mill life held no appeal for him.

And by the time he was 17, he was forced in a different direction.

I’m going to tell this, whether you write it or don’t write it. I got caught hauling white liquor. Some of my old buddies I hung out with was moonshiners. It was cool, man. I was invincible. I wasn’t going to get wrecked or anything. We hauled most of it down the Blue Ridge Parkway at 2 o’clock in the morning.

I had a beige ’58 Ford with a Cadillac motor and three four-barrel carburetors, and I didn’t have a bit of trouble driving that, ’cause I was wild. When I gave it gas, something happened.

They got me in a roadblock. One of ’em came up behind me. Took two hours. I was going up goat trails and back alleys and cutting through fields. A fox knows his country, but you can’t outrun that radio.

The judge said you have a choice: reform school and then prison, or you can go in the Army now. My mother signed the paper, ’cause I wasn’t quite 18. I went in March of ’63.

After his tour ended, Bob returned home ready to take part in the family business. But when his grandfather died in 1975, the remaining family members fought over the direction of the company. Several wanted to modernize. Bob didn’t.

He left the company in 1984 and opened Old Abingdon Weavers in Abingdon. The mill operated in the old way, like his grandfather taught him. Bob sold his products to Ethan Allen, Colonial Williamsburg, even the Smithsonian.

He sold the company in 1992 and retired at the age of 49.

He and Cely lived on a 14-acre farm. He drove a tractor around and played the gentleman farmer. But by 1998 he was bored, so he settled on a new project. He lobbied local and state officials to help him start a textile museum in Pulaski, about six miles from where he and Cely live now.

It was his biggest, most ambitious endeavor. It was also his biggest mistake. No one came. He had signed a contract with the city to stay open six days a week, regardless of business. Some months they’d take in $300 and pay out $1,500. By the end, they were surviving on credit cards.

When their contract ended, they sold nearly everything and moved to Hiwassee. Just Bob, his wife, and his loom.

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By the time we return to the interview from an impromptu tour of his mill, Bob is too distracted to focus. He has a house full of company and the rain has finally stopped. He fires up his wood grill to prepare for the feast of Cornish hens and short ribs planned for the evening.

As he stokes the fire, Doug Stanley and Sandy Corsillo stand nearby, talking shop. Both men work in fabric. Stanley is a longtime textile executive. Corsillo is the co-owner of a fashion company.

Sandy Corsillo and his brother, Emil, started Hickoree’s Hard Goods in 2009. The company, based in Brooklyn, specializes in classic, well-made clothing. As a part of their business, the brothers also launched The Hill-Side, an American-made accessories line sold in more than 160 stores worldwide. Hill-Side focuses on ties, scarves and handkerchiefs inspired by fabrics used in classic work wear.

In 2011, a Hill-Side employee named Mitch Frank searched for American experts of handmade crafts. He found Bob Harman.

It had been a long, humbling climb back from the failure of the textile museum. Bob in 2000 joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild, opening him to hundreds of shops across the region. But landing a deal with Hill-Side would guarantee him six months of work every year.

The only problem was he traditionally worked in blankets, towels and tablecloths. Fashion seemed an odd fit. He sent Hill-Side a collection of hand towels in a pattern he called Broken Herringbone.

The Corsillo brothers loved them. They imagined all the different items they could make with the fabric. “We felt like we had stumbled onto this little hidden gem,” Sandy Corsillo says. “Like you could smell the wood-burning stove used to keep the mill warm. It was real.”

The Corsillos made a deal with Bob for 3,000 yards a year of Broken Herringbone. They started out using it for scarves, ties and pocket squares, and are now working to expand into bowties and even shoes. The company’s website features examples of people from Paris, Italy and Japan wearing the pattern.

The work keeps Bob busy. Too busy. Between Hill-Side and the guild, he has more work than he can handle. Which is why the old weaver finds himself newly concerned with his legacy.

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He never had children. Never really wanted them, he says. He liked having his own time to fish and hunt. He’s known to take trips on a whim. He has lived a long, fun life. But now he worries about his work. His grandfather’s work. His family’s work.

It’s gonna be sad, this thing. One day I’ll be gone. I was raised in it. And now most people who know what I do are dead and buried. How sad would that be, if this kind of work disappeared? I’m still capable of teaching. I would be thrilled to do it. None of us are promised tomorrow and I’d hate to think this would die with me.

 * Adam Harman and his two sons rescued Mary (Draper) Ingles after she escaped from captivity by the Indians. The whole tale was detailed in a book by James Alexander Thom.

View The Hill-Side’s Video on Bob Harman

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Flight Club

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A model Boeing PT-17 Stearman, piloted by Scott Vickery at the Wild Horse Flying Field in southern Chesapeake.

by Joanne Kimberlin
photography by Keith Lanpher

They fly, feet never leaving the ground. Soar into the blue with only their imaginations in the cockpit. For those few minutes, there is nothing else. No thought of work or life’s worries. Just the airplane and the invisible thread that keeps it aloft – and will guide it back to earth in one piece – they hope. To the radio control pilots, model aircraft are labors of love. They’re embodiments of history, sacrifices of the wallet, and a test of craftsmanship and skills – all risked with the rev of a tiny throttle. And you thought those little airplanes were just toys.

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Andy Hellmann owns more than a dozen radio control craft. “This,” he says, “is a way to fly without a real plane or a license.”

When the weather blesses a weekend and the wind is agreeable, the men of the Tidewater Radio Control club make a beeline for the Wild Horse Flying Field, a strip of manicured grass off Ballahack Road in the croplands of southern Chesapeake.

TRC, the largest flying club in Hampton Roads, used to have more members, double the current 70 or so. Once, it even had a female flier, a rarity, in the ranks. But the economy and transfers – most members are current or former military – have taken a toll. Those who remain are eager to nurture newcomers.

“We’ll coach you,” says Mark Ward, a crane operator who lives in South Norfolk. “Otherwise, you’ll tear up too many aircraft and get frustrated.”

RC flying rarely takes hold without some help. The aircraft – at least the ones these guys fly – are expensive, in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Quadruple that for a top-of-the-line, turbine-powered jet. But club members are quick to point out that it doesn’t have to cost anywhere near that much. A decent, ready-to-fly trainer can be had for around $200.

Most of the TRC men, though, have graduated to the big time, into large-scale replicas of real airplanes they build from kits or scratch. Or rescue and restore, like the Stearman PT-17 that Scott Vickery, the club’s president, counts as his favorite.  [Read more...]

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