Making art history

By Ruthann Carr

Several local artists gathered at the former Bremo Slave Chapel to create a portrait of Fluvanna native Joe Creasy. His fourth great grandfather was enslaved by the John Hartwell Cocke family whose descendants still own Bremo Plantation.

The Saturday (Feb. 18) session was the first of what artist Linda Staiger hopes will be a monthly event at different sites throughout Fluvanna.

Creasy’s 28 years of Army service was evident as he sat regally still for two hours. He did get two, brief breaks but didn’t seem to need them.

Creasy said he was unaware his ancestors toiled for Cocke until Andi Cumbo told him. 

Cumbo wrote the book “The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of my home.”  

Cumbo’s father managed the tree nursery near the plantation and while she was a teenager, Cumbo walked the historic grounds. “Andi’s slave story is where I learned about my connection (to Bremo),” Creasy said. “Ben Creasy was enslaved in Bremo and his grave is there in the Bremo slave cemetery.”

The artists working on Creasy’s portrait ranged from established, professional artists to a high school student. They worked in oils, pastels, charcoal, digital drawings, Adobe LightRoom and PhotoShop.

Malcomb Walls is a Fluvanna High School Senior who hopes to study film at either James Madison University or Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Walls takes computer graphics at FHS. He found out about Saturday’s session from his teacher, Amanda Clements.

The student took a picture of Creasy, uploaded it to his computer and edited it throughout the session.

Artist Eboni Brice used the Procreate program on her IPad to sketch Creasy.

Tom Tartaglino, a well-known professional Fluvanna artist who works in oils, took part. 

“…I enjoy getting together with my fellow artists and painting from a model. In art school it is called life drawing,” Tartaglino said. “It helps an artist because the human figure is the ultimate in nature, which helps the artist in all their pursuits. It is the best practice for an artist.”

VCU Adjunct Art Professor Clinton Helms made charcoal and pastel studies of Creasy. 

Clinton said the experience inspired him “to get into the studio and work on two, 11 x 14 inch oil studies of Mr. Creasy from one of the images I took of him and one from the last piece I started in pastels.”

Susan Edginton loved the setting. 

“I was amazed as I sat in the beautiful Bremo Slave Chapel with its original wood floors and natural light coming through the wavy glass windows,” she said. “How fortunate I was to be able to draw one of the descendants of slaves from this area. What a wonderful model he was as he sat there posed for us to paint.”

Melissa Hill is a local photographer who documented the sessions.

Hill said her love of history is what prompted her to take part in Saturday’s event.

“Today’s experience was historic to me,” Hill said. “I had the opportunity to enter the building where my ancestors once worshipped. I’m always so appreciative for my ancestors because without them there would be no me. I’m living a life that they only dreamed of and it’s because of them. I don’t want their prayers, their sufferings, their struggles and their perseverance to be in vain.”

The former slave chapel was moved from its spot on Bremo Plantation to its present location on Bremo Bluff Road. It now serves as the parish house for Grace Episcopal Church. 

Portrait artist and new Fluvanna resident Joe Gastrock made sketches to work in oil later. 

“For me as a portrait artist, it is about capturing a moment in time. Art elevates. Art stirs emotion and imagination,” Gastrock said. 

He also appreciated the opportunity to connect with his new community. 

Staiger said the idea of portrait sessions came about when she, Fluvanna Historical Society Director Tricia Johnson, and artist Susan Lang, talked about celebrating the community contributions by Fluvanna African-Americans past and present.

“We felt that images of African-Americans generated from within and by the community, would be helpful to enhance the human connections.” Staiger said. “A portrait session is a wonderful opportunity for artists of all mediums to have a living person to use as an inspiration and model.”

Staiger said artists of all levels are welcome at the sessions. 

“If there are beginning artists who attend, some instruction would be available, and at the least, there are likely to be experienced artists working so young and aspiring artists can see process and ask questions,” she said.

If you want to know about future sessions, email Staiger at 

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