Sunday, October 7, 2018

Remembering Rita Spina

Landmark year for Chatham Studio Tour -- 2010

When in 2010, Pittsboro’s landmark Chatham County Courthouse burned, local artist Rita Spina was one of the 25 citizens asked to give advice on the historic building’s future.  Spina was also entrusted to enshrine a bit of the building’s past into a work of art. She is renowned for the re-visioning of discarded materials into beautiful and distinctive art. “I am a “junque” artist, she grins. Rita has shared her vision now for 20 years as an artist on the Chatham Studio Tour. Her creation from the Pittsboro fire will find its final home in the restored Courthouse, but visitors to her Fearrington Village studio will see the piece that Spina brought back from the ashes, along with a variety of evocative works of “junqueart”.
Rita Spina is one of 50 artists who live and create in Chatham County, who will open their studios the first two weekends in December for the 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour. Art-lovers can meet Tour artists and see samplings of their works at receptions at FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill on November 29th from 7 to 9 PM, and November 30th at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro from 7 to 9 PM.
Rita Spina’s career as an artist began just as the Chatham Studio Tour was being organized. Born and raised in Manhattan she always expressed an interest in art, and as a child attended Saturday classes at the famous Parson’s School of Design. She planned to be an art major at Russell Sage College. However, she became an English major, as the Art program was tailored for those who wished to follow the great artists of the world -- that would come later. She married, had four children, went to Hofstra University for her graduate degree in Psychology and eventually headed up the Psychological Center. A subsequent clinical practice followed.  For 5 years she and her husband Larry lived on their 57 foot boat in Huntington Harbor.
It wasn’t until she retired to Fearrington Village that Spina rediscovered her knack for creating art. She began meeting with a small group of practicing Fearrington artists called The Collection -- Carol Owen, Vidabeth Bensen, Fran Schulzberg, Jackie Hammer and Claire Levitt. They supported one another in creating art, and became the nucleus of artists that would evolve into the Chatham Studio Tour.
“Those Fearrington artists were a great help to me,” says Cathy Holt, founder of the Chatham Tour. Holt had been a successful jewelry maker for 10 years when she moved to Chatham County just over 20 years ago. “I had heard that there were artists up every country road, and I wanted to meet them,” she asserts. Holt took on the job of Executive Director of the Chatham Arts Council (now called ChathamArts) with the idea of fostering a vibrant artist community. She drew inspiration from an artists’ collective she had visited just outside of DC, and an antiques center in Cameron, North Carolina. She envisioned a tour of artist studios as a mechanism for building community among local artists.
Holt proposed the idea to the Arts Council Board of Directors. “They said there were no funds available, but, if I would raise the funds myself, they would be supportive” she recalls. She secured some starter funding from Central Carolina Community College, and began to talk to businesses. “I pointed out that artists are small business people, who attract visitors to other local business,” Holt emphasizes. “On my own time, I began meeting with artists, to describe the idea of a tour, and get them involved.” In 1992, the first Chatham Studio Tour launched with 30 artists. “Then, most of the artists had full time jobs and created works as avocation,” Holt notes. “What makes me most happy is that the Tour helped many artists to pursue their art full time.”
The Chatham Tour became a model for other arts groups. The next year, fellow jewelry maker Monnda Welch, who then lived and worked in Orange County, patterned a studio tour there on the Chatham plan. “I even had a visit from a writer all the way from Boston to learn about our tour,” Holt recalls.
Over the years, the Tour flourished as a program of ChathamArts, and in 2007 Tour artists formed the Chatham Artists Guild.  It has now grown to over 50 artists. Ten new artists join the Tour this year: potter Trish Welsh; quilter Suzanna Stewart; pastel artist Carolyn Schrock; fiber artist Christie Minchew; jewelry maker Lynell Dodge; basket weaver Jan Dunn; mixed media sculptor Nate Shaeffer; photographer Len Jacobs; and furniture maker Erik Wolken.
The Chatham Studio Tour is a holiday tradition, and an opportunity to see and purchase unique original art. Visitors from all around enjoy Chatham’s rural beauty and share with the members of the Chatham Artists Guild in the creative process. “Our Tour is an important economic engine,” notes Guild President, Julia Kennedy. Last year, Tour visitors came from counties all around North Carolina, and as far away as New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California. “As they travel around Chatham, they stop at restaurants, gas stations and all kinds of local businesses,” Kennedy continues.  
A free self-guided brochure and tour map can be found in numerous locations throughout the area, including: FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill, Saxaphaw Artists Gallery, McIntyres Fine Books in Fearrington Village, PAF Gallery in Siler City and The Joyful Jewel in Pittsboro. An online gallery of selected Tour art, information about participating artists, and a tour map and guide can be found on the Chatham Artists Guild website at:
Photo caption: Chatham Artist Guild’s Rita Spina with her creation resurrected from the burned Chatham Courthouse.
About the author: Forrest C. Greenslade, PhD is a Chatham County writer, sculptor and painter. He is a member of the Chatham Artists Guild, and will participate in this year’s Tour.