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The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum was founded in 1957. (Photograph courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

An Art-Lover’s Guide to Williamsburg

How would you decorate your dream beach house? Mine (right on the water, of course) would be filled with pieces of art that I’ve discovered around the world. And, after spending time at the inaugural Art at the River show in historic Yorktown, that collection would include a piece of Paul Cochrane’s bottle-cap art. A turtle, maybe.

Paul and his wife collect thousands of bottle caps, hammer each one flat, then use the colorful discs to create fish scales and turtle shells or their beach-inspired creations. (When I asked Paul how he manages to acquire so many, he revealed his secret weapon. “Our local pub up the road, Yorktown Pub, saves bottle caps for us,” he said.)

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Yorktown’s inaugural Art at the River show featured more than 40 vendors. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

In fact, most of artists at the show seemed to be influenced by their environment in some way–if not the wild Chesapeake Bay and the creatures that inhabit it, then the boats that sail its waters and the oak and pine forests that surround it. Jeanne Eickhoff‘s impressionistic giclées put the area’s historic buildings and homes in natural context, while Phil Pulido meticulously carves salvaged wood into half-hull models in celebration of the boating culture of Tidewater Virginia.

Some artistic efforts have the ability to powerfully move you, while others are meant to be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.

I encountered both in Williamsburg, a town that has long attracted an intellectually curious crowd partly owing to the fact that America’s second-oldest university, the College of William and Mary, is located there. To be sure, the campus, with its classic East Coast liberal arts vibe, elegant red-brick buildings, and grassy quads dotted with groups of studying co-eds, is a destination unto itself.

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The stage at the Williamsburg Symphonia (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

In fact, it was while attending a lecture at the college’s Muscarelle Museum of Art that I learned of architect Norman Foster’s proposal to radically transform the New York Public Library in my own hometown. Being there reminded me of the best part of my undergraduate years–the feeling of being a part of a bigger community where you have time to just talk. (Update: The very next day, the entire $150-million Foster plan was scrapped.)

On or off campus, art is woven into the fabric of life in Williamsburg. Two museums, housed in the same building, are particularly compelling: the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The two sides, clear opposites, welcome visitors as they enter. On one sits an 18th-century cabinet, writing table, and silver teapot; on the other, a giant brightly painted watermelon made from elm wood beckons.

Though Abby, as the wife of wealthy financier John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (who bankrolled the restoration of Williamsburg to its colonial heyday) had more money than royalty, she had a particular fondness for folk art, the art of the common man. An avid connoisseur, Abby bought her first piece of the bold, often abstract, art in the late 192os, when few appreciated its value, monetary or cultural. The museum shows parts of her collection along with other folk-art finds.

The Decorative Arts Museum represents the other side of the spectrum, paying gorgeous homage to things we want, rather than need. It also reveals what life was like for the wealthiest residents of the one-time colonial capital, with British and early American art, furniture and table wear on regal display.

Toward the end of my visit, I was introduced to the Williamsburg Symphonia, which in its 30-year history has grown to attract national recognition under the leadership of conductor Janna Hymes. And after snagging a seat at the packed last show of the season, I was lucky enough to get a little face time with Hymes herself.

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“Heinie” the turtle, one of Cochrane’s creations (Photograph courtesy Beach House Bottlecap Art)

“People are starting to realize that Williamsburg is not just the colonial part, or William and Mary,” she said. “I love all of those things, but there’s also this vibrant other side that is becoming more obvious,” she continued. “Everybody working together is making it all work. We’re doing something right.”

They are doing something right all over town. And now I’m thinking that even without the beach, a bottle-cap turtle would look right at home in my apartment.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat in America. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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