By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 29, 2018) For more than a decade, Ellen Tolliver’s Regal Beast studio in Snow Hill has provided both a showcase for her creative approach to ceramics and a home for other artists working in a range of media.
Glass artist Donald Cheeseman currently works out of the space on 302 North Washington Street, and others, such as Florida abstract painter Peter Keil, have work on display.
Tolliver, 71, was born in Massachusetts, lived in western Virginia for more than 30 years and had an eclectic career that included Arabian horse racing, a type of “regal beast.”
“When my husband was getting ready to retire [around 2003], we said, ‘Let’s come to the Eastern Shore.’ So, we went to Berlin and bought a big house on the water, and that was really nice,” she said. “And then we came down to Snow Hill.”
She and her husband were in town to “do some kind of class or kayaking or something” and stumbled upon the small town on the river.
“All of the sudden we came out of the farms into Snow Hill. It was like, where did this come from?” Tolliver said. “We went to Ann Coates’ [Bishop’s Stock gallery] and saw a variety of people, and it was like magic. And the magic bit us.”
Tolliver spoke to Coates about buying a storefront and setting up an art studio. About a minute later Gary Weber, a local real estate agent, happened to walk by.
“The whole thing almost felt like a karmic setup. It was a hoot,” she said.
She bought the building in 2005 and spent several hundred thousand dollars restoring it.
“I probably have about $350,000 invested in the building,” she said. “The back part was built in 1920 [and] … it has been everything from a dance hall, to a bowling alley, to a detailing shop and a dry cleaner.”
When Tolliver bought the building, it was “a huge antique mall.”
“I had it as a clay studio. I rented it out for kids’ dance classes and yoga – the list just goes on and on,” she said.
The building now includes a 2,000 square-foot apartment in the back used partly by Tolliver, a seasonal resident of Florida, and partly as an Airbnb space.
Many of her nontraditional clay pieces are on display now at the Regal Beast and she plans to resume classes on a regular basis there in May.
“It’s been too cold for these old hands to get into clay,” she said. “But I’ve let Don, over the winter, spread his [glass art] out.”
Tolliver said Cheeseman is eyeing a move next door in the space currently occupied by a photography studio. She said the photography studio would move above the Daily Brew coffee house.
“You have to know Snow Hill is like ‘A Moveable Feast’ – people do this shop and then they rent over there. It’s always an interesting phenomenon,” she said.
If Cheeseman moves into the adjacent space, Tolliver said she would reconfigure the Regal Beast storefront and offer more pottery classes, including the Japanese art of Raku.
“Raku was originally used for tea ceremonies,” she said. “It’s an open-fire process where you put your clay in with a special glaze and it fires right in the … open flame.”
Also unique, the finished product will change colors if you rub its surface.
“It takes your pH and suddenly it’ll change,” she said. “People just sit there [and rub it] and say, ‘look at the purple come out! Look at the blue come out! Isn’t that cool.”
She also hosts “glazing parties,” meaning guests come in and paint on an already sculpted clay piece, as well as general pottery classes – with an emphasis on creativity. She compared the experience to a yoga class.
“Everyone can come in and, in a day, create something artistic and then they come back after I fire it,” Tolliver said. “They get the fun of it. I teach how to just grab it and go with it, and suddenly they go ‘ah!’ and things get all twisted and turned. The important thing is balance and that’s one of the things I focus on.
“I keep it real cheap. For me it’s just pass through,” she continued. “It’s just the exposure of getting people interested in ceramic art. To be honest, I don’t care if I make money on it.”
Hours at Regal Beast are irregular, but Tolliver can be reached by phone at 703-582-7716 or through email at email@example.com.
“It’s always been very loosey goosey and there’s not enough foot traffic right now to warrant there being someone … here full time,” she said.
Artist space inside the building is also available for $100 per month, all utilities included. Tolliver said artists have 24-hour access to their space.
“When Don moves out we’re going to move the kiln and I’ll probably bring my other kiln from Florida, and then I’ll do potter’s wheels and [hopefully] have other artists,” Tolliver said. “I’d like more canvas artists.”
For more information, visit www.theregalbeast.com.