On picture-perfect days, when there’s not a cloud in the clear blue sky and weather conditions are just right, Alicia Dietz yearns for the skies. But those feelings come and go quickly, she admits, because while her heavenly ascents during test runs of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Army checked off her childhood dream of flying, what she’s doing on the ground these days right here is just as fulfilling.
Dietz, a woodworker in Henrico County, has a story to tell, and within the Richmond region’s thriving arts community, she’s found her opportunities.
She teaches beginning and advanced woodworking as an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s also back for her second summer at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, teaching youth art classes in the ArtVenture Summer Camps, among other programs. (One of her classes later this summer involves kids making soap box derby cars — to say it’s a popular class is an understatement.)
Dietz, 37, makes custom furniture and other wood pieces for both residential and commercial projects, with her latest being a large hand-carved wooden tree formation inside the new Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Midlothian.
But before all of that Dietz spent more than a decade as a maintenance test pilot for the Army, traversing the globe to fix and fly helicopters on multiple continents. When the time came to transition to civilian life, Dietz needed to find something — and some place — that fed her need to be part of a community again. She thought she’d miss flying the most as a civilian, though what she actually missed was a sense of belonging.
Richmond, it turned out, was just what she needed.
Dietz recalls watching medevac helicopters as they appeared out of the sky and landed on the roof of the Ohio hospital where her mother worked. As a child she was fascinated by that job — flying the helicopters, not the medical stuff that went with it — and by the time she got to high school, she was asking those pilots how she could do what they did.
“Nine out of 10 said ‘the military,’ ” said Dietz last month, so she joined right out of high school. She was active for more than a decade, including two stints as a company commander, once in Alaska in charge of a maintenance team and the other in Egypt, overseeing an aviation unit that was part of a multinational group watching the border between Egypt and Israel. She was posted in Iraq for two years as well as nearly four years in Germany.
When she officially left the Army in 2011, she spent time in Richmond with family as she was “out-processing” and while here, took some classes at the Visual Arts Center, working on stained glass, fused glass and more. The center’s classes resembled the military classes offered to soldiers during their downtime, and that’s where Dietz first started tinkering with woodworking.
While Dietz initially saw nothing special about Richmond, at least compared with places like Germany or Egypt, her perspective changed as she got to know Richmond just a little better, mostly because of those art classes.
“I just fell in love with the Visual Arts Center and that allowed me to fall in love with Richmond,” Dietz said, because she found that “there was this really amazing community of not only artists, but people working for a community center like that.”
Dietz left Richmond for two years to earn a degree at the Vermont Woodworking School before returning here to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree from VCU in 2016.
It’s through VCU that she connected with the Visual Arts Center as an instructor, first helping with its “Make Space” program, which pairs a dozen middle school girls with art mentors for an entire school year, then later, with the ArtVenture camps. Within “Make Space,” Dietz showed the girls how to build wooden lap desks using power tools, jigsaws and other instruments.
“You could see, just in one evening, how empowered these girls felt by using these tools,” she said. That experience led her to teach the ArtVenture summer classes, which are also for children and teens.
Her reaction to teaching, she said, surprised her.
“I didn’t really think teaching would be my thing, but I enjoy it,” she said, then added, “I thought when I got out I’d miss the flying the most, but actually it’s the people that I miss and the community and the camaraderie.”
Jordan Brown, director of education and programs for the Visual Arts Center, called Dietz “the perfect person to lead sixth-grade girls” because of her experiences in the military and as a woodworker, and also because “she’s very approachable and very patient.”
“Maybe a sixth-grade girl doesn’t have the idea in their heads of being a woodworker,” Brown said, but Dietz “is a fantastic teacher.”
But beyond teaching, creating one-of-a-kind items from wood is Dietz’s passion, an interest she picked up as a child from her father, who had a wood shop.
One of those pieces will be on display inside the new Mellow Mushroom in Midlothian, which opens Monday, June 26. The restaurant — part of a national chain — is owned locally by Dave Fry. He explained that each restaurant owner is given the opportunity to decorate to their own tastes, and often use local artisans whenever possible.
“It’s a big part of the process to find local artists that can help create something special for the community,” Fry said. When customers walk into his location, he said, “their mouths will drop.”
Dietz’s tree design was placed on each side of curved glass panes that separate two areas of the restaurant, and the installation bends right along with the glass. There are large tree trunks attached to gnarled roots, while the lush tree tops and “leaves” are composed of 1,300 wooden hand-carved circles, some with embellished images on them.
Dietz said she was connected with the Mellow Mushroom arts team by a friend who also did work within the restaurants. Dietz submitted a proposal to the restaurant chain’s art department and it was accepted.
The restaurant’s management team and its franchise owners “truly embrace creativity and that shows,” she added.
The divide between the military and civilian world is often oceans wide, Dietz said, a reality that became even more apparent to her after she left the Army. She wanted to do something to bring those two worlds closer together — something that also allowed her to express her passion as a woodworker — and with that, the Collective Cadence Project was born.
The project is an installation of hand-crafted glass and wooden boxes that tell the stories of just one day in the lives of 127 individuals — men and women, young and old, salty veterans and wide-eyed newbies and the people who love them.
Dietz asks each participant to write about just one day that stands out to them. From their stories, Dietz carefully selects words and phrases and turns them into poetry. The poems are etched onto glass, while a one-sentence summary of their story — something else she asks for — is copied and laser-cut into the wood frame around the glass, keeping the writers’ handwriting.
The scale of the Collective Cadence Project is impressive and the idea is that it will continue to grow as Dietz acquires more stories from active-duty personnel, veterans and their family members, she said. The boxes are arranged with purpose — and by blood type. Some include photos submitted by the writers.
“In the military you literally wear your blood type on your sleeve — it can be a matter of life and death,” she said. The process of reaching out and connecting with people of shared experiences — and allowing them to express, maybe for the first time, emotions that they’ve kept stored away — is what motivates Dietz.
It’s why, she explains, some of the boxes are see-through, while others are not.
“Concealment on the battlefield is a survival skill, but concealment off the battlefield could have the opposite effect,” she said, explaining that it’s sometimes difficult for military personnel to open up and share their experiences with others. But when they do, she said, they find that getting those thoughts and emotions and feelings out of their own heads and into the open is often therapeutic.
Most recently Dietz displayed the Collective Cadence Project at a museum in Houston. She hopes to display it in Richmond at some point.
“To me if feels like there’s a divide between the civilian and military community, but we all experience loss and pain and hope and camaraderie,” she said, and her project “shows the multitude of emotions we all have.”
She added, “You can be part of a community while also having an individual story.”