Periodically, Handcrafted Alexandria will feature interviews and behind-the-scenes stories and photos from our partners.

The Accidental Artisan

Friday, January 27, 2012


ZenCastle SoapFrancine Villaneuva hadn't set out to be an artisan; she was a graduate student, research assistant and U.S. Army veteran.  But sometimes wars, love and necessity intervene.  That's what happened back in 1991, when Francine's husband John returned from the first Gulf War.  John, an Operations & Intelligence Advisor assigned to the Special Operations Community, had been on the ground when the retreating Iraqi forces set fire to 700 oil wells in Kuwait, exposing John and his fellow soldiers to its choking black smoke and  thick residue.  Within days of the exposure, John and others developed a variety of skin disorders that resisted and were made worse by conventional medical treatments.  Francine, putting her research skills to play, learned that traditional treatments contained some type of refined petroleum oil, which probably made things worse!

Shortly thereafter, while visiting John’s family she came across his grandmother’s recipes for making soaps and compresses with herbal and plant extracts, which had been widely used in those days to treat everything from bug bites to sunburn.  Using these recipes as the starting point, Francine began to make soaps and creams from plant-based carrier oils, essential oils and herbal extracts for her husband.  To her amazement, the rashes on his head, face, neck and back started healing, his skin discoloration faded and his complexion took on a healthier tone and texture after only two weeks of use.  She shared these handmade soaps and creams with other soldiers, friends and family and a handcrafted artisan was born.

Fast forward to January 2008, Francine, with John's assistance, launched ZENCASTLE®, the name and logo of which were inspired by a visit to the lavender fields of the Senanque Abbey in Provence, France in 2006.  Today, Francine's products are still made by hand -- here in Alexandria -- using only the natural and organic ingredients and used by people around the world.

The Art League Easel Is Here!

Friday, September 09, 2011


Originally posted The Art League's blog (September 7, 2011)
Written and photos by Lauren Hodges.

For the past few years, the number one complaint from students and teachers alike at The Art League School has been the easels. The old holsters really were a wonder. Somehow, they managed to be too flimsy and too heavy at the same time. The hardware was constantly falling off and disappearing, and they took forever to set up and break down. In short, they were notorious for cutting into both class time...and people's patience. 
"We had a full-time volunteer just to maintain the easels," says Suzanne Bethel, The Art League's deputy director of operations. "It was a never-ending job, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Just when you thought you were done painting at the end, it was already time to start painting the beginning again." 
Staff decided to take action. Buying a new fleet of easels, however, was going to be expensive and complicated. Despite having tried four different models in the school before, none of the designs was popular. "There was something to not like about each one," says Bethel. "So what we decided to do was design our own."
From there, "Franken-Easel" started to form. Working with facilities manager, Chuck Mills, the school office began to piece together the best parts from all the designs, leaving out the faulty ones. They built five and placed their experiments in various classrooms around the school. "We wanted to get feedback from the teachers and students about our design," says Bethel. "Once they were used a couple of times, we were able to go back to the drawing board, perfect the design and start production."
A few vital improvements were made based on past complaints and difficulties with the old easels. Franken-Easel was made to "telescope," or adjust inward, in order to reduce glare on the paintings. The footprint was also reduced to make the classrooms less hazardous. "So many people were tripping on the legs of the old easels," says Bethel. "And they were crowding each other. The smaller base solved those problems." They also used poplar wood, which is both sturdy and lightweight, and the chosen hardware was much bigger to prevent loss. 

The easels, which are patented and branded with The Art League logo, are now for sale at a bargain price: $175 each. All proceeds made from the easel sales will go straight into growing the school's personal fleet. "This project was done with the students and teachers in mind," says Bethel. "It was designed to meet their needs specifically...and also so we never have to hear someone say their easel is broken again!"

The Therapeutic Effects of Kaleidoscopes

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Did you know that kaleidoscopes have therapeutic effects?

Healthy emotions are as important as a healthy body perhaps even more so. The kaleidoscope’s ability to soothe and stimulate at the same time makes it a perfect balancer. Dr. Clifford Kuhn, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Kentucky, loves kaleidoscopes. He did not know when he started collecting them that they were an appropriate tool for his profession. He writes:

The essence of health is wholeness, an integration of body, mind, and spirit in equilibrium. Medical research has revealed that many of our current illnesses are the result of the effect of stress which seems ubiquitous in our modern society. Stress is destructive to our body, disorganizing to our mind, and disabling to our spirit. It has been demonstrated that a regular habit of quietly drawing aside from one’s usual responsibilities for reflection and relaxation significantly repairs or prevents the potentially destructive effects of daily stress.

Kaleidoscope viewing is one such activity of repair. It is restorative to the body in that it requires physical stillness and stimulates pleasant visual sensations. At the same time it has a beneficial effect on the mind by presenting an endless variety of form and color combinations that stir the imagination and stimulate the intellect. Kaleidoscopes are, likewise, good medicine to the spirit as they reflect the constant emergence of order out of disorder and provide a sense of participation in the creative process. In this way, regular viewing of kaleidoscopes can be a significant contributor to a person’s overall health.

The entire month of September is kaleidoscope month at Arts Afire Glass Gallery, and our featured artist is Award-winning and Internationally-acclaimed local scope artist: Charles Karadimos, whose studio is in Damascus, Maryland.

Charles works alone in his studio in Damascus, Maryland making each part of every kaleidoscope by hand. There are no machined parts. Every piece — down to the smallest shard of glass in the object chamber — is hand worked and individually selected by the artist himself. This thoughtful attention to every detail enables Charles to create beautifully intricate and detailed images that capture and hold the viewer’s attention.

His work is featured in many books and publications and is the recipient of many awards, including the Brewster Award for Creative Ingenuity. In November 2003 Charles became one of the Directors of the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society, the international organization of kaleidoscope enthusiasts.


Sculptor Ehle recycles trash into works of art

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jackie Ehle working on Les Bon Temps Lion outside The Morrison House

Jacqueline "Jackie" Ehle, a Torpedo Factory artist, spins trash into treasure. "I enjoy creating from things discarded, experimenting with trash, and traditional materials, to create sculpture that delights all who see it," Ehle explains. Her whimsical sculptures have been featured on television, displayed in public spaces, museums and hotels and are in the private collections of Wynton Marsalis, Mary Tyler Moore and more.

Ehle finds inspiration everywhere: "Strolling along a street, a rusty washer winks at me from the sidewalk, and later, I bring it to life as the eye of a hound, perhaps by sewing a broken light socket at its center." New Orleans, where she was born, plays into several of her pieces: Les Bon Temps Lion (left), Jazzman and Katrina Skull (below).

If I Had A Hammer Mouse

She's recently started to increase the size of her sculptures and enjoys working on them in public spaces, giving her the chance to talk with people and answer their questions. To view more of Ehle's work, go to her website

Katrina Skull     Spot the Junkyard Dog

Meet Painter Leisa Collins: Lives and Paints Alexandria

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


In 2009, Leisa Collins, a native of New Zealand, and her husband started a 12,000 mile cross-country journey to find the perfect place to live and work. No surprise that journey led them to Alexandria, Virginia, where Collins has re-launched her art career and become active in the local artistic community.

Since her arrival, Collins has combined her talents and social activism in her work with Art on the Avenue, spearheading the 60-foot public mural in Del Ray, and the creation of Creative Art Nexus, a new local community art hub providing an art mentorship program for youth.

Collins' love for her adopted hometown is evident in her numerous paintings of Old Town Alexandria and Del Ray, the latter the subject of a recent art show at A Show of Hands. "I love [Del Ray's] eclectic blend of architecture and especially the bungalow homes, the artsy funky bright colors and most of all its true sense of community and family living," she explains in her blog Art with a Message.

Painting of 106 E. Del Ray Avenue by Leisa Collins

fibre space does Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Danielle with an armful of yarnI guess the small incident of food poisoning has kept me from blogging about the GIANT yarn festival that happened the weekend before last. i just realized that I never posted anything about it. We had so few staff able to work that weekend, that I headed up there first thing Saturday morning and spent about an hour before turning around and coming home. Of course I bought some Socks that Rock mediumweight…my favorite sport weight sock yarn. I always buy a couple of hanks that I later have serious doubts about. In some ways, I think they are prettier in the hank and should just be put in a shadowbox and left alone. Yarn art anyone?

Given the amount of painted sock yarn in my stash that seems to look better in the skein…Veronica sent over this sock pattern idea from the Yarn Harlot Blog. It does seem to break up the pooling rather well. Something to consider…She did actually knit them in a colorway that I have in my stash somewhere.

Veronica working at the Miss Babs booth

So anyways, I was quite happy standing in the pack of folks searching for hand dyed sock yarn that I don’t need. I also stopped by the Miss Babs booth to see Veronica and Babs. Then I decided to eat fried dough and lamb kebabs at 9:30 am. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. It took three days to recover.

Skeins of yarn

I did a fairly good job of resisting much of the yarn that I used to be tempted to buy. Having access to a great deal of yarn right here outside my office door has made it much easier to say “no” and be well behaved. I realize that not all of you have this luxury. I didn’t get much time to visit the sheeps…I ate some sheeps…but not a lot of visiting with the sheeps…What was everyone’s favorite sight at the festival? 

Meeting the source of all that great wool

Originally posted on May 18, 2011 and titled "So About That Festival."
Re-posted with permission of fibre spaceTM.

Self Coaching for Creative People: The Invisible Downside

Thursday, April 21, 2011


reprinted from The Stuck Creative, by Gary Goodwin*:

The downside of not losing weight is having excess weight. Hard to hide that. The visible downside of not stopping smoking is smoking and worse. Can’t hide that. Visible and even dire downsides  can be motivating. Worrying and painful, but motivating nonetheless.

Most people reading this post are working on creative projects outside the daily requirements of work, family, friends, pets, commuting, etc.

Optional projects just don’t have the power of presence that bad habits and nasty conditions. If you have a bad habit or a nasty condition, you know and everyone knows it. If you have an optional project and you don’t do it, who knows? Who cares? As long as you stick to the required stuff (i.e. feeding the dog; showing up for work, etc.), everyone is just fine.

Does not creating have a downside for you?

What is your “pain” if you are not creative?

A Creative is diminished when his/her projects are not born or finished. There is no chance to develop a craft. No chance to learn to be confident or to learn how to solve creative problems. No chance to meet others on the same path. No chance to have trust, hope, determination, and focus pounded into the psyche by the hammer and anvil of creative growth. No chance to see how living one’s creativity touches other people in surprising, unpredictable ways.

What is your downside if you should never create again?

  • What will you lose?
  • Who could you have been?
  • Who could you have met?
  • Where could you have gone?
  • What could you have given?
  • What could you have changed?
  • What could you have prevented?
  • Who will set-up an intervention to get you back to creative life?
  • How and where will you “detox” from the uncreative world?
  • Who will do surprise testing to make sure you have creativity circulating in your blood?
  • How will you remember to stay on the straight and narrow (dedicating a portion of your life to creativity)?
  • How can you weigh-in to see your weekly creativity level?
  • What’s your plan for when you relapse into uncreativity?

What is the downside for you? Make it invisible no more.

*Gary Goodwin facilitates The Stuck Creative self-coaching workgroup at Mindful Hands.  The workgroup meets the 3rd Satuday of every month.  Next session is Saturday, May 21, 1:30-3:30pm.  Free, donations gratefully accepted. 

Meet Potomac Bead Company

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Potomac BeadsWhat makes your business Handcrafted? 
At the Potomac Bead Company you will find more than just tools and supplies necessary to craft your own jewelry. Classes are offered daily and teach a variety of techniques and skills in the art of jewelry making. Custom jewelry services are also available where a team designer will work closely with the customer to create unique and original pieces to their liking . In addition to supplies, classes and services, you can also find many one-of-a-kind necklaces, bracelets and earrings made by local jewelry artisans.

Wire Working 209: Hammered Wire Pendants at Potomac Bead CompanyName one class / workshop / product that you think everyone should check out.
Our customers are in love with Vintaj Natural Brass Findings. This company prides themselves on having hand-embellished and eco-friendly products that are made in the United States. These naturally patinaed pieces look beautiful coupled with colorful gemstones and can be combined with gold filled, sterling silver or even copper findings for an edgy and intriguing look.
What do you recommend for beginners?
The most popular beginner classes are Necklace and Bracelet, Beginner Earrings, Chain Linking and Bead Knotting.   These classes are two hours long, have a four or six person maximum and are under $20.

What drew you to set up shop in Old Town Alexandria?
The history, charm and sense of community It is the perfect place to foster creativity. Also, most of the stores are run by local, small business owners so you get an individual touch with every shopping experience. 
Do you have any new classes / workshops / events coming up?
We are offering two new classes this month, Hammered Pendants and Advanced Earrings. These are great workshops for people who love metal jewelry and are looking to expand their wire working skills.

Meet Carafe Winemakers

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Behind-the-Scenes | 1351 Comments

What makes your shop Handcrafted?
At Carafe Wine Makers, we are a micro winery where we handcraft all of our wine on-site.
Name one artist / artisan / brand that you think everyone should check out.
Our most popular red wine, the Rosso Miscela Reserve, is an Italian blend of Cabernet and Merlot.  It is robust and full bodied, yet smooth and complex. 
What attracted you to Old Town Alexandria?
The sense of community, of knowing your neighbor.  We love getting to meet Old Town’s residents, who shop locally.
Does your store have any upcoming special events or programs?
We do!  On Monday, February 14th we will be celebrating Valentine’s Day with Chocolate Meets Carafe.  We’ll be pairing some of our finest wines with artisan chocolates and other sumptuous treats.
Are there any new items to be on the lookout for?
We have recently introduced a new, limited edition wine to our collection called Rappour.  It is a Chilean blend of Cabernet, Malbec and carmenere.

Meet Ten Thousand Villages

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Behind-the-Scenes | 542 Comments

Ten Thousand Villages handcrafted worksWhat makes your shop Handcrafted?
Every item in our store was handmade by an artisan in the developing world, or as we like to say: every item in our store has a person’s face behind it! 
Name one artist / artisan / brand that you think everyone should check out.      
There are so many! We are especially fond of the cut metal from Haiti, especially in light of the devastating earthquake and now cholera epidemic there. The wall art is all made from recycled oil drums, and the artists clean and flatten the metal by hand, draw the design in chalk, and then hand cut it. We have painted and unpainted wall items, ranging in size from 8-inch geckos to climb your walls to 36-inch intricate filigreed pieces suitable for a window.

Over the holidays the staff all had a lot of fun telling customers about a new line of paper products from Sri Lanka. The paper is made from  - are you ready? – elephant dung!  The company was founded as a way to show farmers, who were killing the elephants into extinction due to land competition, that elephants could be useful. The notecards, photo frames, journals etc. are durable and clever, and a percentage of the profits go to support additional elephant conservation projects in Sri Lanka. So it’s “win, win, win, and win”!  
Handcrafted items from Ten Thousand VillagesWhat attracted you to Old Town Alexandria?
The people who established our store here in 1994 were attracted by the walkability of the neighborhood, as well as the fact that it had a good mix of residents who supported local businesses as well as visitors from all over the world. And being so close to Washington, DC, the local population is very global-oriented and cosmopolitan, and would appreciate the international flavor of our store.
Does your store have any upcoming special events or programs?
Every other month or so we hold shopping fundraisers to benefit local organizations. In March we’ll celebrate International Women’s Day with a fundraiser for a local women’s group, and in April we’ll hold a fundraiser for Earth Day. Keep checking our website for more details, as they develop.
 Are there any new items to be on the lookout for?
 We get new items every month. In January we’ll have some beautiful new sculptures and jewelry for Valentine’s Day. And we’re especially intrigued with a new slat crystal candleholder from Pakistan. Salt crystals, when warmed, release negative ions and help purify the air.  


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