Photos by Cameron Flaisch
Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Every soul remembers the smell of a freshly opened box of crayons, the feel of Play-Doh rolled in the palm of a hand and figuring out that all the colors in a paint set don’t really create a rainbow when smudged together on a paper plate. Art creates strong and lasting memories that connect us all, regardless of boundaries set by societal ills and ideologies.
Two local educators have set out to remind their neighbors, family members, and friends just how helpful the arts can be, setting you free from stress and offering a new way to look at the world around you. Holly Chaffin and Val Featherston, owners of Swerve: Off the Path (108 Broad Street, Rome), have set up shop in the thriving Cotton Block of Downtown Rome, hoping to share an area of education they believe lives in us all.
Both Chaffin and Featherston are career educators in the arts. Chaffin found Rome from the Atlanta area by way of Berry College, where she earned her B.F.A. and later a Master’s in Art Education. After spending 12 years teaching at Cartersville Primary (in Bartow Co.) and the past eight years at West End Elementary in Rome, she is well-versed in teaching her students all mediums of art.
Featherston is a New England transplant, and has lived in Rome for over 30 years. She is also a Berry graduate, earning her B.F.A. there and, later, a master’s degree from Lesley Uni-versity and an Ed.S. from Nova Southeastern University. A teacher at Cave Spring Elementary and self-proclaimed career student, Featherston continues to take courses at Reinhardt University seeking a M.F.A. degree in creative writing. Before teaching at Cave Spring Elementary she was an educator at the Berry Lab for three years and at St. Mary’s Catholic School for three years.
Their voices are warm, inviting and reassuring as they welcome and instruct guests. All around the room are pieces of the past, reclaimed and repurposed, creating a whimsical studio that inspires the senses. Metallic beer kegs serve as stools around a glass-top table whose base is the wheel system from an old conveyer belt. A comfy sitting area with a mosaic tile table welcomes visitors to create and share some down time. The walls are lined with paintings, pottery and everything pretty, all for sale and created by Chaffin, Featherston, and Featherston’s husband, John.
Further into the eclectic studio are shelves of unfinished pottery. From tea pots to turtles, the chalky white surfaces of the pieces beg for glaze colors as one by one they are plucked from their resting place and transformed with color.
A long, bar-height table stretches the length of the back of the room, lined with stools and everything one would need to paint at each station. At the rear, just before the outdoor area, stands an easel holding a canvas that is beginning to come to life. Thin outlines of an octopus are half filled with deep red, and the emerald green ocean fades into the ending brush strokes of the last person occupying the stool in front of the canvas.
Outside the cozy corner reserved for the can-vas lies an oasis within the textured brick walls of historic downtown buildings. Completely enclosed and beautifully decorated is an area designed especially for those who wish to be artistic outside. A deck overlooks the wooden porch, which is complete with work stations and chairs. An asymmetrical canvas is stretched over the area, shielding crafters from the sun and creating a warm glow of natural light.
As Chaffin and Featherston look out over the courtyard, they smile at what their dreams have lead them to do.
“Teaching and sharing art are important parts of what we do here at Swerve,” says Chaffin.
“It’s a way of thinking,” Featherston adds, “and it is one that people in other fields think they don’t practice. However, because they are human, they are tapping into what the arts teach us. Innovation, creativity, ingenuity and making something from nothing are important parts of every profession. That concept of making something from nothing requires your brain to cross over to an area that can be fine-tuned by the arts.”
“People who have never experienced creating something do not realize how much it frees you,” Chaffin explains. “Your mind becomes free of the stress and clutter of everyday life. We often hear people say that they get lost in the work they do while visiting Swerve. And what’s even more exciting is that there is no good and bad. There is no pass or fail. Everything created in this building is beautiful because there will never be another piece like it in the world. We want people to be fearless and know that we are here to guide them, not judge them.”
Chaffin shares a story about a mother and daughter who came in recently. She recalls them giggling as they shared the experience and made memories, another benefit of combining art and a social space to enjoy creativity. “Some view their time at Swerve as a meditation,” says Featherston. “Oftentimes, as you focus on the work in front of you, challenges or problems you are working to solve in your profession become clear. It is liberating when your hands and mind are busy being creative and all of these answers sort of come to you.”
Chaffin and Featherston talk fondly about their time teaching little ones in the classroom and the love primary and elementary-aged students have for art. Then, as children grow older and judgement and criticism become apparent to them, they begin to find fault in their work. The finger painting they were so proud of in second grade is not good enough anymore.
“When we feel the strain of judgement, we start shrinking. Once we start to shrink, we become fearful,” Featherston explains. “We feel that any art is deeply personal and we encourage everyone to love what they do. We want people to know that they can begin at their beginning. We all start at different places in everything we do. So, there is no need to feel restrained by judgement in any facet of life. Art can assist with the development of this mentality.”
Chaffin and Featherston are longtime friends who discovered their passion for art by getting involved with the art community at Berry College. Chaffin has done work with the Rome Area Council for the Arts and lent her skill to many local galleries, including the Magic Factory and the Art Center, both formerly located on Broad Street.
“I tried to get a job outside of the arts after I left the Magic Factory, which was a gallery opened by Kay Clark who had moved here from New York,” Chaffin says. “I worked in an office cubicle. I made it a week. I knew it was just not for me. No way! From there, I continued to work in the art community and I have never looked back. Swerve is a goal that both Val and I have had for quite some time now.”
“For me, art was not my first love,” Featherston laughs, “until I signed up for a clay class at Berry with Jere Lykins. I’m pretty sure I failed, because I had no experience with art. But, it was one of those transitional periods in my life. After I touched the clay and began to create with it, I knew I was home.”
This clay class has led to a life defined by art for Featherston. Now, she sees it as her calling and has been active in the local art community for decades.
Patrons are welcome to book Swerve for parties, office get-togethers or simply an afternoon of fun. From mosaics to beadwork, almost anything one wishes to learn about art is possible. Also, for less structured time, you can walk in and work whenever their doors are open.
Swerve can also bring the art to you. With appropriate notice, Chaffin and Featherston will arrange for your group to create at your desired location. They handle all the supplies, the set up and the instruction for your entire group.
And after the kiddos are fast asleep, or for a romantic evening, adults are welcome to bring wine or beer to enjoy while creating something beautiful. Catering can be paired with your party as well. Although Swerve does not serve food, they are happy to assist in getting your favorite eats to the table, just in time to unwind.
Workshops ranging from sculpting to mosaics are available at Swerve as they seek to make a place for all things art. Pottery, altered books, printmaking, fairy homes and furniture are also areas that they are happy to assist you with. Local artists should note that Swerve does not charge a fee to use the space for workshops and they can display their work in the gallery to sell for a specified length of time. Their aim is to share something that has meant the world to them, and they want to involve the community as much as they can.
“Val and I had always talked about opening a space for art. We’ve known each other for a while, and during our Friday night dinners at Schroeder’s Deli, we would dream about this place,” Chaffin smiles. “We are both very happy to be a part of Rome’s art community, and we hope to be able to provide a place where all can feel comfortable creating.”
To make an appointment or to book a party for the upcoming holiday season, call at 706-346-5429 or visit swervearts.com for more information. Be sure to like “Swerve: Off the Path” on Facebook.