Every spring, when Claire Howard’s cherry trees start to blossom, they form a flowering pink canopy that drapes across the private road leading to her home and art studio. Just beyond the 70 trees are wide green pastures, rolling hills and a seemingly endless sky. She even has a wishing well. If not for a hand-painted wooden sign in the grass that warns, “Smile, you’re being recorded,” you might think you’ve wandered into a fairy tale.
“I had a dream to move to the country for a very long time—a place I could walk outside at night and see all the stars,” says Howard, a landscape painter who’s lived and worked on Lindenwood Farm, her pastoral 10-acre property in Poolesville, for 20 years. Before that, she and her husband, Frank, lived in Potomac, and before that, Chevy Chase. “We inched our way out here.”
These days, the couple has the property to themselves, but their four children and eight grandchildren visit often. When she lived closer to D.C., Howard says, “I was an interior designer who sometimes did oil paintings for my clients. Now I’m an artist who sometimes helps my clients with interior design.” During her first few years “up-county,” as she calls it, she worked out of an old barn built into the side of a hill near her house. Then she repurposed a guest cottage/pool house that the previous owners had converted from an old chicken coop. “It overlooks my husband’s amazing vegetable garden, the incredible nightly sunsets, and those fabulous sweeping clouds,” Howard says. “I think that’s why the sky is such an important part of my work.”
One of the first things Howard did after buying her “perfect fixer-upper” and setting up her easels was to join the Countryside Artisans, a group of artists whose work is inspired by the scenic beauty around them. Those who want to join the group must have studios separate from their living space in a “countryside setting” within 30 miles of Sugarloaf Mountain, and their work has to meet the members’ “fine art” standard. Three weekends a year—in the spring, fall, and December holiday season—they hold open houses so visitors can browse their wares and enjoy a day in the country.
Before COVID-19, the artists would get together at someone’s studio a few times a year to discuss the tours and vote on any new applicants for their group. “The locations [of the meetings] change, so we all get a chance to visit each member and their work,” Howard, 69, says. She first discovered the Countryside Artisans in the 1990s while looking to move farther out, “free from honking horns and traffic lights.” She read about the tours in a newspaper and decided to give it a try. “I credit the artists I met for giving me the incentive to pursue my dreams,” she says.
Today, there are 19 members of the Countryside Artisans, including a craft wine producer, an artisan brewer, a blown-glass maker, potters, mixed-media and fiber artists, a stone sculptor, a photographer, a tea farmer, and a craftsman who makes furniture using raw-edge slabs of wood. Most live in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, a 93,000-acre swath of land that winds through the northern part of the county and is tightly regulated by the county council to prevent suburban sprawl and industrial development. With more than 500 working farms in the reserve, the area is rife with vibrant crops, well-kept barns, and grazing sheep and goats. In a county of about a million people, the population of the reserve, which occupies about a third of county land, is today estimated at about 36,000, according to the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Heather Zindash of Gaithersburg discovered Claire Howard’s art while on a Countryside Artisans studio tour with a friend in the spring of 2018. “I didn’t have space in my home for her paintings at the time,” Zindash says, “but I knew I’d be back.” Now she owns two of Howard’s canvases—both beach scenes the artist painted while at her second home in Bethany Beach, Delaware. “I love how they change throughout the day with the changing light,” Zindash says.
Before the tour, Zindash thought she’d “go down the line and see all these artists.” But that’s not the case. “You have to follow a map and prioritize what you want to see,” she says. The group’s free tours are self-guided; its website, countrysideartisans.com, links to a Google map so visitors can plan their route. Several studios are situated within a mile or two of each other, but some are fairly remote. A few of the group’s newer members live in Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties, just over the Montgomery County line. For the regulars who hit all three tours in a year, the drives between the studios—and the bucolic scenes along the way—are part of the charm. “You can always see art in a gallery at the [shopping] mall,” says sculptor David Therriault, a Countryside Artisans member since 2005. “That’s a totally different experience.”
In non-pandemic years, the artists put out freshly baked cookies and brownies, along with apple cider from nearby farms, during the tours. They decorate for the season, with music playing in the background, and some offer demonstrations of their craft. Many also sell work from local artists or craftspeople who aren’t part of the group. Therriault and his wife own a bakery in Poolesville called Locals Farm Market; they put out scones and other baked goods from their shop on studio tour days.
Propped outside of Therriault’s workshop on a sunny afternoon in November is a stone sculpture he created years ago for a couple in Darnestown. It’s about 5 feet tall, several inches thick, and inlaid with bits of teal blue glass. His customers are moving to North Carolina, so Therriault picked up the sculpture and is going to chip off the cement that held it in place. Then he’s going to drive it to Durham. Therriault, 60, delivers and installs all of his pieces himself—except for one recently purchased by a customer in Nova Scotia. “We met at a liquor store on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts line,” he says.
Therriault grew up in Potomac and for 25 years owned Alden Farms, a garden shop in Beallsville. When he decided to become a sculptor, he kept the Alden Farms name but transformed the garden shop into a workshop, gallery, and landscaped garden where he showcases his pieces. He and his wife, Sandy Wright, live on the property. “One of my first customers was a woman in Chevy Chase. Her neighbor saw my sculpture in her yard and really liked it, so he came out here and bought one, too,” he says. “I have a few customers who have a competition going.”
His yard sculptures are made from remnants of granite and limestone. Many of the materials are leftovers from federal construction projects, including the information center at the U.S. Capitol. “I have a lot of friends who are fabricators and are happy to give me their discards,” Therriault says. His work is abstract, but he says it’s inspired by Native American and ancient cultures. “I can’t do little bunny rabbits,” he says. “I can’t even tell you how a piece is going to turn out.” Wright works full time as an analyst for a D.C. law firm and has become the artisans’ unofficial marketing maven. “I can’t do the art,” she says, “but I can do everything else.”
According to Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, the Countryside Artisans are the most organized group in the agricultural reserve, but they represent only the “tip of the artist iceberg.” Taylor’s organization advocates for land-use and transportation policies that preserve the reserve’s farmland and natural environment. As part of her job she promotes all of the reserve’s artists—and she says there are hundreds. “Every day I come across more—musicians, photographers, filmmakers—that I didn’t know existed,” she says.
Walter Matia, a bronze sculptor who has lived in the reserve for decades, never considered applying for the Countryside Artisans, though he’s friendly with several members. He shows his work in galleries around the country; some of his pieces command up to $45,000. “For the people on the tours, a lot of the magic is seeing how it gets done,” Matia says. But his Curlew Castings studio is located in an industrial-style warehouse and he uses an off-site foundry and welder. “I wasn’t a good fit.” He sometimes shows his pieces at Therriault’s Alden Farms as a guest artist during a studio tour.
Dalis Davidson, founder of the Countryside Artisans, recalls a customer who used to bring her two kids when she visited Davidson’s studio. While the mother shopped, the children went to see the chickens. “One day, the kids asked if they could take home one of my eggs and see if it would hatch,” Davidson says. “I told them it wouldn’t because I didn’t have a rooster to fertilize the egg, but the customer decided to buy an incubator and give it a try.” Turns out the egg did hatch, but weeks later the family returned the chick because it was “pooping all over the house.”
Davidson started the group in 1985, shortly after she adopted a sheep named Lucia. “Someone was moving and couldn’t bring her with them, and I said I’d take her,” she recalls. Not sure what to do with the 14 pounds of wool Lucia produced each year, Davidson learned from nearby shepherds how to wash and straighten the wool, spin it and dye it. “Then I had all this beautiful yarn, so I learned how to knit and weave,” she says. Luckily, “there were a lot of female shepherds out here—still are, actually.” She purchased two more sheep and started a business dyeing and selling yarn (some of it came from her sheep, some she bought wholesale and dyed herself). She expanded it to include her knitted goods, fiber art, and what she calls “lambscapes,” small paintings she texturizes with her wool. Before long, she joined up with nearby artisans to consolidate marketing efforts and bounce artistic ideas off each other. Today, Davidson, 66, has two sheep—Delilah and Sunny Bunny. Her business, Dancing Leaf Farm in Barnesville, is thriving, and the group she founded has nearly four times the artists it did when it started, though she’s the only original member still in the group.
Just across a field and a gravel driveway from Davidson’s property is Susan Due Pearcy’s home and two-story Sugarloaf Studio. Both artists’ studios overlook Sugarloaf Mountain, about 4 miles north. Pearcy joined the Countryside Artisans in 1997 after moving from Silver Spring with her filmmaker husband, Glen, who died four years ago. “We were looking for a place where we could both have our studios and work,” she says. Pearcy’s paintings and prints (she has her own press in her studio) reside in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C., and in museums around the world. The National Gallery of Art has a sketchbook of hers in its rare books collection; she used to sketch on the Metro on her way to help out at her husband’s production studio in Dupont Circle. “The sketchbook is quite small,” she says, “but I’m still thrilled for it to be there.”
Tina Thieme Brown’s Morningstar Studio is about a mile from Pearcy’s and Davidson’s, and the three are good friends. Brown works out of a reclaimed-wood cabin she and her husband built when they moved from Chevy Chase 21 years ago and she joined the Countryside Artisans. They expanded the studio five years later “using 1780s logs salvaged from an old cabin in Olney.” The studio sits just behind their house, which was a tavern during the Civil War. Brown is from St. Louis, where she did large-scale environmental-impact art installations on subjects ranging from the Costa Rican rain forest to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She and her family moved to Barnesville when her younger son was in college. These days, Brown’s specialty is detailed pen-and-ink drawings of the plants and flowers indigenous to the region. She designed the “Welcome to the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve” sign at White’s Ferry, and her map of the reserve is on some preservation group websites. “It’s important that people down-county know we’re here,” she says. “If people understand what’s in their own backyards and have a connection with it, they are more likely to want to protect it.”
On a blustery Saturday in early December, artist Linda Phillips opened her pottery studio to a steady stream of visitors during the Countryside Artisans’ holiday studio tour. Even in the midst of the pandemic, “it was actually one of the busiest days we’ve ever had,” the 55-year-old says. “One of my regulars even brought me a loaf of fresh bread.”
Phillips’ studio, Something Earthy Pottery, is in a converted garage in Laytonsville, attached to the gift gallery where, in addition to her pottery, she sells jams, jewelry, housewares and natural soaps made by local craftspeople. “A lot of people who came on the tour told me they haven’t been shopping at all but felt like the studio tour was a safe way to go because we’re all so spread out,” Phillips says. Still, she estimates that business since the pandemic arrived is down about 40%. Phillips also teaches pottery classes, but many of her students have stayed away because they are immunocompromised.
Last year, the pandemic forced the Countryside Artisans to cancel its spring tour, but most members opened for the fall event, setting up makeshift galleries outdoors to allow for social distancing. With the surge in COVID cases over the winter, a handful of artists decided against participating in the holiday tour. There’s another tour in mid-April. “We’re looking ahead to [the] spring,” says Brown, who considered the fall tour a huge success. “So many people thanked me and said, ‘I really needed this fix.’ ”
Ceramic artist Jennifer Hamilton’s Dusty Road Pottery studio occupies a red dairy barn in Dickerson, near the newly remodeled Comus Inn. A member of the Countryside Artisans for about 10 years, she’s been offering virtual appointments for those wary of in-person visits. “A group came out—they were just driving around—and I held up my phone and took video,” she says. “They bought something and I brought it out to the car for them.”
When visitors do come to Hamilton’s barn, she points out where the cement floor tapers downward toward the large doors, an important feature back when the space was used to hose down cows. The floor’s gentle slope makes it easier for her to wash the studio after a day of pottery classes. “Farmers like to sell their farms to artists because they know their barns will be well taken care of,” she says. Hamilton and her husband bought their property 24 years ago from a retired graphic designer and part-time farmer who had sold off his 300 acres in 25-acre parcels. “Ours was the last parcel he was selling, and he was reluctant to let it go,” says Hamilton, 60. “So we had a gentleman’s agreement that we’d share the barn with him for the first two years. He only kept a bag of cement there, but it made him feel better.” Now she uses the main space in the barn for her potter’s wheels and equipment, and the old milking parlor attached to it to display her work.
About 40 minutes east of Hamilton’s studio on the other side of Interstate 270, Foster Holcombe and his wife, Theda Hansen, own Art of Fire, which they say is the largest state-of-the-art blown glass studio in the mid-Atlantic. Until the pandemic, the longtime Countryside Artisans offered blow-your-own-glass classes and make-your-own Christmas ornaments. Their vases, champagne flutes, ornaments and other items are still for sale, but instead of one-on-one instruction for a fee, Holcombe is offering free live-streamed demonstrations every Tuesday.
“More people keep finding us [online] the longer we do it,” he says. “A number of people have asked if they could just sign waivers” and still make their own ornaments, “but we’re not doing that.” They are still taking customer requests, though. “One year, a customer asked if we could do a cornucopia at Thanksgiving,” Holcombe says. “It wasn’t easy, but we did it.”
Cynthia Jennings Field, 57, grew up in Bethesda, studied fashion illustration at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, and for years had a thriving career as a muralist. She used to paint murals for That’s Amore restaurants in the D.C. area. In 1998, she rented a cherry picker that could reach 20 feet high so she could paint moons, stars and pizza pies (motifs from the song “That’s Amore”) above the customer counter at the chain’s old FedExField location. Today, Field lives with her husband in a colonial revival home built in 1914 that sits close to the road along Route 109 in Barnesville. It has a separate entrance around back for her Windsong Studio gallery.
During her first studio tour as a Countryside Artisan five years ago, “a mother came in with her grown daughter, and the mother was admiring one of my pastels,” Field recalls. “They didn’t buy it then, but the daughter came back out to buy it for her mother for Christmas.” Another customer bought one of her paintings of Sugarloaf Mountain to give to his wife for their anniversary. “They’d gotten married there,” she says. “It’s the most rewarding thing when someone comes to my studio, meets me, and wants to give one of my paintings to someone that they love.”
Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.