In search of history

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 9, 2007

SMITHFIELD—The pictures are so realistic, you almost expect to reach out and touch the weathered boards on the side of the houses, or feel the cool smooth surfaces of the rustic bricks.

Wildflowers seem to emit a wonderful scent, while the trees all but sway in the breeze.

This is the artwork of Carolyn Keen and her husband, Michael Farmer, whose collection is on exhibit at the Smithfield Cultural Arts Center at 346 Main St. in Smithfield. The pictures will be on display until Oct. 21.

Entitled “In Search of Historical Isle of Wight,” the exhibit fills both galleries and the hallway of the center. Dozens and dozens of pictures of some of the grand old homes in the county are displayed.

In many cases, there are photos of the homes as they looked years ago hanging beside a photo of the house as it looks today.

There are pictures of old country stores, churches, barns and even shocks of drying peanuts.

One early 1900s picture shows the congregation standing in front of their church.

Keen and Farmer have been literally photographing the history of the county for more than 25 years. For their exhibit, the digital photographs were transferred to canvas, framed and identified with a brass marker on the bottom of the frame.

The finished product looks like a rich oil painting. Prices for the pictures range from $200 to $400.

“Our goal,” said Keen, “is to develop a digital data base of all the old homes, outbuildings, slave quarters, country stores, churches or anything pertaining to Isle of Wight and Southampton counties.

“When we’re finished, we will donate our information to the Library of Virginia and the Department of Historical Resources for their Web sites. Anyone will then have access to this information.”

She said she hopes people will also be able to access this information from the Isle of Wight Museum when it reopens to the public.

At present, however, the couple is asking anyone who may have old photographs, documents, bibles, or anything pertaining to either IOW or Southampton counties to contact them at (757) 357-2173. They will photograph or scan this information and return the originals to their owners.

Keen said the exhibit is — and a planned book will be — a spin-off of the digital library they’re building.

“We wanted people to see our work,” she said, and felt the center was a good place to start.”

The center opened as an art studio in 1991 and is operated by the Isle of Wight Arts League as the Smithfield Cultural Arts Center.

The league was established in 1999, said director Sheila Gwaltney.

Gwaltney said the building was built by Burton Hearn to be his residence, probably around the 1900s, and she laughed, “he is still here.”

“The word,” she added, “is that Mr. Hearn’s presence has always been here and he makes himself known on occasion.

“He’ll open and close doors and noises will come from the attic,” she said with a grin.

“In fact,” she said, “there is a lounge chair in the attic now and nobody can figure out how it got there. There are no doors or windows large enough for it to have gone through.

“One of our board members surmised,” she added with a chuckle,

“that Mr. Hearn needed a place to rest and placed it there himself.”

“But we’re used to the noises,” she said.

“Our docents just take it in stride.”

In addition to the galleries downstairs, the center houses a gift shop in the back and art studios upstairs.

It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.