Martha’s Art Gallery in Wellsburg Connects Art to Nature

Photo by Linda Comins Preparing for the opening of Martha’s Gallery in Wellsburg are, from left, co-owner Chatman Neely, renovator Will Haizlett and co-owner Harry Sanford. The new art venue’s first exhibit premieres on Thursday.

WELLSBURG — Few, if any, art centers are named for donkeys, but one such gallery is opening this week in downtown Wellsburg.

Martha’s Gallery, owned by Chatman Neely and Dr. Harry Sanford, takes its name from the resident greeter on their working farm, Highland Springs Farm, located on W.Va. 88 between Wellsburg and Bethany.

Neely explained that their inspiration for naming the gallery in Martha’s honor came from a painting of the donkey created by Pittsburgh artist Cory Bonnet. The portrait, painted on a 190-year-old door, is going to be displayed in the new venue.

Martha’s Gallery, located at 736 Charles St., is set to be unveiled with a public opening reception from 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday for its first installation, “The Wonder of It All.” This show is a collaborative effort between the Brooke Couty father-daughter art duo of James Haizlett and Rosalie Haizlett.

The art gallery is the newest business venture for Sanford, a veterinarian who operates Brooke Hills Animal Hospital outside Wellsburg, and Neely, a social work educator and event planner.

The married couple operate Barn With Inn, a popular bed-and-breakfast establishment at Highland Springs Farm. They also own and operate the historic Sarah Miller House, a B&B located at 900 Main St., Wellsburg. They embrace the farm-to-table movement, with dinners and private parties offered at both sites.

“This is an extension of our Barn With Inn and an extension of our B&B,” Neely said. “A lot of the artists will be doing workshops at the farm.”

Creation of Martha’s Gallery involves a family effort. The first featured artists are Sanford’s brother-in-law and niece, respectively. Will Haizlett — who is Sanford’s nephew and James Haizlett’s son — is renovating the former office-storefront.

An accomplished woodworker, he also remodeled most of the Sarah Miller House and created a barn shelter at the farm.

When renovations began for the gallery, the owners decided to leave the rustic-looking concrete floor exposed. The large room’s back wall features ribbed metal panels.

“We wanted a contemporary, clean feeling,” Sanford said.

They visited other galleries to get ideas, such as painting the ceiling black, installing track lighting and having considerable open space.

A small catering kitchen has been installed for serving art-themed food at opening receptions. “We might do little pop-up art-themed dinners. People could rent the gallery for small private parties,” Sanford said.

“We’re interested in more than just displaying art,” Neely said. “We want to educate people about the artists and their work and materials. Sustainability is a big word to us.”

Since the facility is situated in a flood-prone riverfront community, the owners have made pragmatic decisions. For instance, the wiring, furnace and water heater are raised above the floor, Sanford said. They selected display pedestals that can be cleaned easily if a flood occurred, Neely added.

Neely said they were inspired to create a gallery after seeing Wheeling artist Thomas Wharton’s exhibition at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center and realizing that “so many talented artists” live in the area. Already, they have art shows planned through December; each show will run for two to four weeks, depending upon the artist’s schedule.

Upcoming shows will feature a varied palette, including illustrations, graphics, animal portraits, collage, watercolor, sculpture and photography. “Most of the artists are local, and all are Appalachian-related,” Neely said.

A Christmas market, offering local arts and crafts, is planned from Nov. 29 to Dec. 23, he added.

Neely thinks the site is situated perfectly in the middle between galleries in Wheeling, Weirton, Pittsburgh and Columbus. “We hope that it will be a place for local people to hang out and enjoy the creative energies we have in this river town,” he said.

Sanford hopes their project will inspire other property owners to revitalize buildings in the city’s downtown business district.

“We’re getting to meet some really special people who are vitally important to the Wellsburg community. It’s exciting,” Neely said.

Opening a gallery also fits into an Appalachian artists’ residency program offered twice a year at Barn With Inn. Natalie Sypolt, a poet from Preston County, was the first participant in the residency, which provides room and board for artists.

Martha’s image is featured prominently in the operation of her namesake gallery. Rosalie Haizlett has created a logo for the establishment with an illustration of the smiling donkey.

Before launching the newest venture, Neely and Sanford commissioned Bonnet, a well-known Pittsburgh artist and preservationist, to do a painting of the donkey and two burros that live at Highland Springs Farm. Martha is a standard Sicilian donkey, which is a large breed.

“Martha was our first surrender animal,” Sanford said. “She makes the link between the gallery and the farm.”

The couple acquired the donkey, along with two goats and two dogs, in the Harpers Ferry-Shepherdstown area. Quickly, she became “head honcho in the barn,” Sanford said.

James Haizlett describes the opportunity to exhibit with his daughter in the opening show for Martha’s Gallery as “a highlight of my artistic career.”

The featured artists said they are deeply inspired by their connection to the natural world. Both enjoy quiet walks in the woods and time spent finding tiny treasures along the Buffalo Creek that winds through their family farm.

Rosalie Haizlett’s preferred medium is watercolor. Her father creates sculptural work using found and natural materials.

She graduated from West Liberty University with a degree in visual communication design in December 2016. She was awarded a 2016-17 Tamarack Foundation for the Arts Emerging Artist Fellowship.

Rosalie Haizlett takes on freelance illustration work, runs a whimsical nature-inspired paper goods business and teaches watercolor workshops.

She spent the summer of 2018 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as one of six artists-in-residence. Last fall, she spent two months in the country of Jordan getting to know a new culture and illustrating her experiences. This spring, she finished a one-month artist residency in the New River Gorge with Lafayette Flats.

Currently, she is the resident artist at Lamplight Gallery in Thomas, West Virginia. She also is completing a six-month visual storytelling internship on American ginseng in Appalachia with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

James Haizlett has been a professor of art at West Liberty University for the past 20 years. He began his career by sketching house and addition plans for clients on a computer, when he worked as a self-employed carpenter. After completing a master’s degree, he became a computer artist, art director and business owner before accepting a job to teach art full-time at West Liberty in 1999.

He and his wife, Jo Ellen Sanford Haizlett, and their children then moved to her family’s farm near Bethany. He and their two oldest sons, Ben and Will, built their house and barn.

Several years ago, he began dabbling in three-dimensional sculpture. His wood, metal and found object sculptures have been exhibited in many regional galleries and juried exhibitions.

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