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Art studio lost in Tappahannock fire is brought back to life in painting, which is raising money to rebuild the town

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One of the casualties of the devastating fire in Tappahannock’s quaint historic district in July was George Jennings’ art studio, which was destroyed along with other buildings along Prince Street.

Now, a painting of the art studio, created years ago by another artist, is being used to raise money to rebuild that section of Tappahannock.

Soon after the fire, artist Debra Howard, who lives in Maryland and Michigan, sent a note of encouragement to the Tappahannock Artists Guild, writing, “This breaks my heart,” but saying she planned to return to Tappahannock for the next plein air painting event. She included an image of the painting she had made of Jennings’ studio more than three years ago.

The painting inspired the Tappahannock Artists Guild to seek permission from Howard and the patron who purchased the painting to make fine-art prints of the painting and auction them. Each print was handcrafted by landscape photographer Hullihen Williams Moore.

Calling the fundraiser “Fighting Fire With Fire/Rebuild Prince Street,” the guild is auctioning 10 prints, signed and numbered, throughout the month of October.

All money raised through the auction of the prints will be donated to the Town of Tappahannock and the Tappahannock Main Street Organization for the cleanup and rebuilding efforts for Prince Street.

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The fast-moving fire destroyed buildings on a stretch of Prince Street along with adjacent structures on Water Lane. In all, several businesses were displaced, including a furniture store, a café, a real estate office, a hair salon and Jennings’ studio. Four families who lived in apartments in the affected structures also were displaced. Over 100 firefighters from more than a dozen other jurisdictions battled the blaze. Water had to be pumped from the nearby Rappahannock River.

The damage was estimated at $2.5 million by Essex County officials.

Jennings, 79, is a retired architect-turned-artist who, in addition to his painting supplies and decades of architectural records, lost about 100 framed paintings in the fire, including those that were on display in the café next door.

Seeing Howard’s painting of his studio again is “pretty emotional for me,” Jennings said, because he remembers well the night she painted it. It was in the spring three years ago at a local plein air event; plein air is a 19th-century style of painting outdoors.

“I walked from the house over to the studio to paint, which I did most nights, and I noticed she was sitting there with her pickup truck backed up to the sidewalk … and she had her easel sitting in front of her, and she was painting the studio,” Jennings recalled. “I spoke to her and told her I was going to be painting inside if it wouldn’t mess up her painting, and she said that would be great.”

Jennings remembers it as a “very casual, very relaxed occurrence.” He had no idea it would become so meaningful a few years later. Her painting reminds him “how great [the studio] was.”

The rubble has been cleared from the fire, and the land where his studio stood is perfectly level.

“It’s ready for something to be done,” he said.


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