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Gary Bowling House of Art

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Trash Turns to Artistic Treasure in Bluefield

By JIM ROSS ∙ jross@statejournal.com

What some people see as trash, Gary Bowling and his friends see as potential art.

How else to explain the large elephant inside Gary Bowling House of Art? The old parking meter painted as a fish? Or just about anything else there?

The House of Art occupies the top floor of the old Bluefield City Hall. Bowling describes it as a place where artists can make their art and a little money from it, too.

About 17 artists are regulars, Bowling said.

"Most all of the artists have full-time jobs," he said. "Usually the magic happens here in the evenings."

The House of Art is a 501c3 corporation. Even after seven years, it has no paid staff, said Bowling, who is one of its founders.

Jody A. Queen, also known as Joe, of Rocky Gap, Va., but originally from Wayne, was staining a walking stick one recent Friday afternoon.

"This is a venue for our local artists," Queen said.

He had started on the stick that morning. He carved a face and other features into the top of what he called a "fully functional walking stick"

A knob on the bottom where a branch had broken off functions as a brush spur, which can move vines and such out of the way. And the stick is tall enough to brush aside spider webs.

Queen said he and Bowling started the House of Art in another building seven years ago and moved to the former city hall about four years ago.

"Joe and I, we're just artists," Bowling said. "We needed a venue to show our work."

Bowling said a crew from a cable TV show was at the House of Art recently to film an episode.

"They had their socks knocked off. They asked why are we here? Because we live here," he said.

"Living in Appalachia is not a hardship. If we're going to live here, I'm going to dance all the way through."

The House of Art draws artists — painters, sculptors, performers — from a 50-mile radius. Much of what is on the premises is donated. A stage where musicians perform on Friday nights was built of scrap lumber and about $11 worth of other materials, Bowling said.

That fits with the theme of a large percentage of what's on the walls and hanging from the ceiling — inexpensive materials, even some acquired by dumpster diving, as Bowling calls it.

The place has even been the scene of a few weddings and one wake, Bowling said.

Nearly everything in the House of Art is for sale. The House of Art receives a 30 percent commission.

"We raise enough money to keep the lights on. We try to scrape together to buy supplies," Bowling said.

Queen said, "If we pay our bills, we're happy."

Bowling sees the House of Art as a way of improving the community.

"The city I grew up in, in a sense, is gone, but I am still proud to be here," he said, "Instead of whining and complaining about where you live, you have the power to make a change."