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Arts & Power

Influence in DC goes beyond K Street and the Hill—great art also sways our minds. From contemporary painters to art-salon mavens, power emanates from places of pure beauty.

Morgan Hungerford West and Virginia Arrisueño created the white-walled Topaz + Arrow, an artistic laboratory of big ideas for DC’s creative community.


Pablo Picasso had it right: The purpose of art is washing daily life’s dust off our souls. Yes, art delivers a revival at the end of the day—and during those waking hours where engaging with an artist, or his or her work, is equal parts revelation and sustenance. But something else is happening in Washington right now: Art isn’t merely relegated to the modern spaces we adore. Instead, art’s newly hatched ubiquity in the nation’s capital means we engage with and experience beauty at every turn. Art salons have popped up. Fine-art workshops and artisan meetups are common. New penthouses and lofts in places like the Monroe Street Market now sit above the studios of working artists, who are more than excited to showcase their work to patrons.

Washington’s fine artists, once an underappreciated lot, have also begun to notice a shifting tide of affection. Maybe it’s the changing mind-set of the city itself, or perhaps it’s the work of creative foot soldiers who introduce local artists to new devotees every day. “There are so many talented artists in DC right now,” says Laura Roulet, an independent curator and arts writer. “Traditionally, our local artists haven’t always been embraced by the big museums and galleries here. And it was common for serious collectors—or even those who were beginning a collection—to look to New York first when buying. That’s certainly not the case any longer.”

Great communities are defined by what we see, read and hear every day—and how those images, words and sounds weave themselves into our lives. In the pages that follow, we celebrate the ambitious pursuits of minds ignited by these passions. The gorgeous worlds they inhabit are ours to discover every day.

The Community Builders
Energy isn’t in short supply with Morgan Hungerford West and Virginia Arrisueño, the minds behind the new Topaz + Arrow ( and its Ulysses Room at the 52 O Street Studios. “We simply don’t know what to do with downtime,” says Hungerford West, who is an art producer and the creator of the fashion-and-culture site Panda Head. Their creation is simple, and yet rooted in revolution: Once a month, the women open their minimalist and ever-changing studio to 45 artists and artistic novices alike, to learn a new art form and workshop a series of big ideas. It’s art community-building writ small, but the effects have been staggeringly large. “We’ve heard from people all over the city—they love what we’re doing. The year ahead will see this grow even more,” says Arrisueño, owner of DeNada Design, which focuses on handmade knits for men and women.

The women teach something new in every session, whether it’s block-printing with fabrics or, in a small upcoming class this month, the tenets of photo styling. “It’s amazing to see someone’s project go from A to Z—to see a light go on,” says Hungerford West. And then there’s the intangible benefit of personal growth. “Launching Topaz + Arrow this year has validated who we are and what we do,” says Arrisueño. “We learned we were teachers, sharing our experiences and our love of art.”

The Soul-Miner
Last year, Nafisa Isa attended an impromptu party hosted by Afghan-American artist Saadia Khattak, for musicians Qais Essar and Neelamjit Dhillon, after they performed at The Kennedy Center. Nestled in Khattak’s art-filled home, guests indulged in the evening’s featured event: an intimate encore presentation by the first-rate artists. “The music was more mesmerizing in that cozy, informal environment than it was at The Kennedy Center, and it inspired conversations about cultural revivals in Afghanistan,” Isa says. The affair also prompted Isa to start hosting salons of her own.

Isa, whose day job on Busboys and Poets’ marketing and events team lends itself to organizing cultural showcases, calls her gatherings Kahani—a Sanskrit word that translates as “that which is told.” Together with her creative partner, Craig Phillips, she launched Kahani earlier this year. A number of small, exclusive salons ensued.

In April, she opened her gatherings to the city with Diwan-i-Khas: An Intimate Evening of Classical Hindustani Music and Poetry, held in a studio space in Northeast DC. Expecting 40 guests, Isa was blown away when more than 100 showed up. This month, Kahani presents Mystical Mashup, an exploration of the meaning of transcendence through music, poetry and dance. The public gathering will feature poet Danial Orange, fusion artist Christylez Bacon and the Washington Sound Museum, among others. Isa’s plans for 2014 include an Ethiopian coffeehouse, bimonthly public gatherings and joining forces with area think tanks to produce a teatime lecture series.

“We’re excited to open up this unique platform to the community,” says Isa, who wants to keep some programming private to maintain the authenticity of Kahani’s roots. “There’s a need for intimate spaces that allow people and cultural elements to mix for a fluid, soulful experience.”

The Curator
Laura Roulet’s mission is to rid the art world of opacity—and, along the way, shine the light on unheralded contemporary artists. The independent curator and arts writer has a busy winter: She curates a show at the Arlington Arts Center that recognizes 40 years of avant-garde pieces (Jan. 25), and her exhibit of Frances Gallardo’s provocative work at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery begins Jan. 17. “I’m thrilled to show Gallardo’s skills—a combination of work in paper and performance art—in DC for the first time,” says Roulet, who specializes in contemporary Latin American art, and has organized exhibits in DC at the Mexican Cultural Institute and Hillyer Art Space, among others.

Roulet is so well connected in the arts community that her latest endeavor seems natural: She’s teamed with SideTour (, to give collectors the opportunity to bridge the sometimes awkward divide between themselves and local artists and gallery owners—and to talk frankly about everything from price to focusing a collection. “If you buy work in DC, you’re supporting a living artist—you become a steward of that piece and pass it on,” says Roulet. “It’s such a life-affirming process.”

The Visionary
Alejandro Pintado ( creates art about subjects we can’t see. “I’m interested in the invisible and questioning the boundaries of perception and reality,” he says of his work, which includes sculpture, painting and drawing. In last year’s Incisión al Romanticismo in Mexico City—an enormous installation in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de San Carlos—Pintado used a popular 19th century painting of the Mexico City valley and pierced the canvas with colorful metal poles. “I wanted to show the abstraction of a changing landscape and how we often use romanticism to define reality,” says Pintado, who lived in Mexico City and London before landing in DC six months ago and the Monroe Street Market art studios this fall. “We have nostalgia for the old city—that it was somehow a better place.” But was Mexico City nirvana in, say, 1880? Pintado’s work approaches the intersection of what we know and what we assume.

One of his next pieces will hinge on wireless connections and how a hidden world has such a demonstrative impact on society. In the meantime, his reality is the DC arts community. “It’s been a great surprise,” he says of the scene. “The quality of the exhibits, the panels, the workshops—there’s a lot going on, and that excites me as an international artist.”

The Futurist
This month, DC’s Industry Gallery ( owner Craig Appelbaum heads to Design Miami (the design world’s flagship event) with a tech-heavy installation by Benjamin Rollins Caldwell, a South Carolina-based, Campana Brothers-esque industrial designer he discovered at the affair two years prior. Titled Living in the Computer Age, the project is a family room-like masterpiece made entirely from salvaged electronics. It’s also an extension of Caldwell’s 2011 “Binary Chair,” which rose to fame in August, when Lady Gaga featured it in a photograph used to promote her summer single. “Craig was the first gallerist to discover my work and give me a solo show,” Rollins Caldwell says of the DC contemporary hot spot that showcases work by artists that help redefine the connection between art and design. “Representation by Industry has put my work at the forefront of contemporary design—not just in the United States, but internationally.”

Rising Star
Being an up-and-coming artist in a world-class museum city has its advantages. Local artist Si Jae Byun was recently awarded the Emerging Artist Prize by The Phillips Collection after the WPA showed her work at (e)merge. Her painting “Wind #7 in Jungle” is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The Music Man
Los Angeles-born, DC-bred Raul Zahir De Leon has music you should hear, and he wants you to feel it, too. He gets to the heart of this matter on All Our Noise (, the website he runs with co-founder Victor Aguilar. (Noise is just one project under the duo’s umbrella video-and-design company, Wilderness Bureau.) The bands are plucked from De Leon’s personal playlist, and the video production is arty and stylized, with wistfulness seeping into every frame. “Music transforms a scene and can completely change the mood of what you’re seeing, combining visuals to something you may have only heard before,” says De Leon, a freelance TV editor by day.

De Leon got his start in nonprofits and worked on sideline creative projects, including running a record label with friends. After grad school at Georgetown, where he focused on digital media, film and TV, De Leon funneled his passion into full-time creative work.
It’s all led him directly into the next big thing that launched this fall: a digital project called Bandwidth, a site with music writing, gorgeous video and an even larger platform for De Leon to continue to get you to see and feel what he hears.

The Aficionado
For those schooled in contemporary art, stepping into Artist’s Proof (, the new gallery in Cady’s Alley, is a joy. Peggy Sparks, the space’s down-to-earth and gorgeous owner, is a Singapore-born, globe-trotting art consultant who recently moved to the District with the mission of opening a gallery that sells exclusive, yet accessible, art. “It’s not just about art on white walls, it’s about being able to interact with the works,” says Sparks, who, before her stateside move, was a driving force behind the success of Ode To Art, one of Southeast Asia’s most respected contemporary art galleries. Here in DC, Sparks has exclusive U.S. representation for many of the artists on her walls, including Christian Develter and Pham Thanh Van. And she plans to host her featured artists for events and workshops, which shouldn’t be difficult, given the friendships she’s forged. “I’ve worked with many of these artists for years,” she says. “The most important thing is, I love them. Unless you love the work, it’s very hard for you to show the passion to anyone else.”

The Detective
Rachel Hynes likens her work as a performance artist to the experience of being a detective for the human condition—a way of grasping life in the moment. She’s not looking to fabricate, but to expand upon what’s already happening, whether she’s teaching one of her movement classes or planning her next experimental performance piece.

“The world is an interesting place, so I want to reflect it as closely as possible,” says Hynes, an Arlington native who spent a decade in Seattle and two years earning her master’s at the London International School of Performing Arts.

She’s back in DC now, blending the rule-breaking she learned on the West Coast with the East Coast’s emphasis on classical theater. Currently, she’s deep in research for a project called “Cataphiles,” which compares three off-the-grid spaces—the underworld of Paris’ catacombs, the concentration camps from Buenos Aires’ Dirty War and dreams—and explores the ideas of both freedom and violation. She’s also working with DC-based Banished Productions on a multimedia performance piece entitled Tyger. The piece, opening next spring, explores the experience of loss, ritualized dinner and, naturally, tigers.

The Storyteller
Fine-art photographer Caitlin Teal Price’s ( current obsession revolves around fashion advertising from the 1940s and ’50s, especially in old copies of Cosmopolitan. “I adore the black-and-white images—the flash photography with deep shadows and bright highlights,” she says. The DC native also pores over vintage architectural drawings, as the symmetry of lines and shapes spells something deeper than utility.

Price’s eye wanders down the photographic rabbit hole for each new project. Don’t bother looking for common themes. Her work has appeared everywhere from the New York Photo Festival to the National Portrait Gallery, where a portrait from her sun-washed collection of aging women, Annabelle, Annabelle, currently resides. “I shot Annabelle, Annabelle all over the country,” says Price, who received a BFA from Parsons School of Design and an MFA from the Yale School of Art. “I look at my subjects as actors—and I give them props to help a viewer craft a story in his or her mind. I merely help tell a story. You do the rest.”

Price, who still shoots with 6-by-7 film on her Mamiya RZ (“I stay more focused when I know I only have 10 shots!”), says her lens will focus next on birds of paradise. “Legend is that the roughly 38 species of the bird have otherworldly abilities, so I’d love to present them in the context of life, death, beauty and morbidity—the things we think about every day,” she says.

The Ingenue
It seems that everyone around Integriti Reeves ( the homegrown jazz chanteuse performing a solo show at Strathmore this month, knew that she was destined for a singing career before she did—even Stevie Wonder. As a violinist at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, she and her jazz band were accompanying the famed singer at a party. To this day, she’s not sure who (though she suspects it was her band director) tipped Wonder off that she also had singing chops. Had YouTube been around 10 years ago, no doubt her rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely” would have gone viral. “I remember one minute we were playing to celebrate him, and the next minute I was singing,” says Reeves. “It just happened like a dream.” Following that experience, Reeves took her first jazz vocal class and never looked back. She’s studied at the Peabody Institute at The Johns Hopkins University, is currently getting her master’s in jazz at Howard University, got some national exposure as part of an a capella group on the reality competition The Sing-Off, was selected as an Artist in Residence at Strathmore, and will drop her first EP—a compilation of jazz standards and Brazilian-infused songs—this winter. It’s a stunning journey for a woman who hadn’t considered singing as a career. But, as she tells it, once she discovered jazz, her path was clear. “I think jazz is such an awesome hybrid—it’s got storytelling, blues, gospel, R&B—it’s got everything. I finally found a place where my voice could fit.”

The Urban Bard
The first word Mary Kay Zuravleff ( remembers reading appeared on the power switch to her parents’ stereo. “If I push this,” Zuravleff told herself, “it turns on.” It was, she recalls, like unlocking a mathematical code. “The next day I read my mother the stock-market page.” Owen Lerner, the subject of her recently released book, Man Alive!, is similarly turned on, when the quarter he’s feeding into a parking meter is struck by a bolt of lightning. The pediatric psychiatrist survives, except now all he wants to do is barbecue. The book’s premise came after reading a story in The New Yorker written by Oliver Sacks, about a surgeon who became obsessed by piano music after being similarly struck.

“That was my metaphor for writing,” says Zuravleff, who lives in DC. “I had to become practiced enough as a writer to get on the page what I heard in my head.” A graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, Zuravleff’s pages are full of clever wordplay; the names of characters are often tributes to friends; and dialogue is often lifted from her life. Her next book promises to be similarly surreal. It has to do with, among other things, old believers, the Mormon church, and “the hyperbolic space as depicted in crochet models of the coral reef.” It is, claims Zuravleff, “more autobiographical than anything I’ve written.”

Number Crunch: 14
The number of local artists on display at the Kreeger Museum’s 20th anniversary exhibition. Opening in March, K@20 celebrates two decades with a specially curated exhibit by Sarah Tanguy, who selected artists to showcase the collective strength of DC’s art community.