Under the shade of her big maple tree, Judy Strickler watched years go by as her children blossomed into adults and eventually left the shade to plant their own trees in yards. When the violent winds of the 2012 derecho blew through town, it took down that great big maple and all the memories it carried in its leaves and branches.

Rather than discard the fallen tree, Strickler turned to the local artist community and commissioned bowls be made from what bits of discarded trunk an arborist could save. Now, those memories live on with her children to be passed on as handmade heirlooms instead of lost to the wind.

“It’s meaningful to me there’s a part of this property, their home where they grew up, that they can keep and use and pass on,” Strickler said. “I have ordered things online from artisans around the country, and I’ve been very pleased with those, but they do not carry the significance of obtaining a piece or set made by people in the local community.”

When in need of gifts and commemorative pieces, Strickler said, she always feels confident in finding the perfect sentimental good at OASIS Fine Art & Craft. This month, OASIS Fine Art & Craft celebrates 20 years of providing the Valley with an array of locally made artisan gifts and treasures, and it all began with an ex-Marine Corps lieutenant.

After serving in World War II, Lt. Crystal Theodore turned to advance her career in the arts and served as head of the art department at James Madison University. For 26 years, she grew the program and wanted to cultivate a reputable art base in Harrisonburg. After her retirement, she continued dreaming of unfolding a creative center in Harrisonburg.

Cole Welter, professor of art emeritus and former graduate program director, connected with Theodore by chance in the ‘90s after her retirement and was asked by the dean to use his business background to assist her mission, alongside a group of fellow visionaries, to create an artist hub.

“Crystal was not someone who suffered fools gladly,” Welter said. “They were very passionate about wanting to revive and create a center for the arts, where arts could have the kind of synergy that would help revive Harrisonburg.”

Welter described downtown at that time as a desolate area with little attraction for locals and visitors. Theodore’s art circle of advocates held meetings in the Virginia Quilt Museum’s kitchen, cooking up visions for an art community downtown.

Welter wrote a five-year business plan for OASIS at the corner of Water and Main streets with the help of the university’s small business center, and with the approval of Theordore’s collective, he scheduled to meet with City Council.

His request for a $20,000 seed grant was approved and funded, and the team of artists moved in. Thus, “Our Arts Space In the Shenandoah,” OASIS, was born.

OASIS immediately garnered attention, opening membership for artist-owner-operators interested in showing work at a reduced commission rate by dedicating a few hours of labor each month. The opening came right as downtown revitalization efforts took off, and Welter said the city’s second art initiative was born during OASIS’s first gala event.

“At that moment, that’s when John Neff had the epiphany to create Arts Council of the Valley,” Welter said. “The museums and gallery walk I started with the support of the artist there at OASIS gave way to when the Arts Council of the Valley came out of its incubation stage. … First Fridays in a sense by lineage dates back to OASIS, so if people enjoy the First Friday experiences … I think in many ways has to do with Crystal Theodore.”

The brick and window exterior of downtown’s art cooperative offers a taste of the diversity in crafts for passersby, but the true extent and sheer versatility of local artists can only be understood by those who enter its doors. Wooden furniture, upcycled apparel, sculpted caricatures and blown glass jewelry barely scratch the surface of what handcrafted goods lie in store for OASIS patrons.

Each month, the gallery hosts and participates in free events like Art & Tea and First Friday to connect and share arts with the community.

On Friday, the co-op gallery celebrated its 20th year with an anniversary show featuring the work of veteran members.

Painter Karen Lee is one of several participants in the show. She joined the gallery in October 2000 to work on marketing and promotion. Before joining the art co-op, she never had exhibited her work and said joining OASIS changed her life.

“It’s for experienced artists who want to be a part of the community as well as new artists who want to give it a try,” she said. “It’s been an incubator for several artists.”

Lee left the co-op five years ago to pursue other responsibilities but this year returned as a member of the advisory group.

While never a lucrative business, Lee said OASIS is a pillar of resilience and success downtown that continues operating through the sheer dedication of all the artists and volunteers involved.

“It’s always been basically right on the edge financially, and it continues to be. The fact that the changing turnover of artists, in spite of the turnover, someone always comes to the fore and finds a solution,” Lee said. “For that to happen for 20 years, I call it a miracle.”

The anniversary celebrations will continue throughout 2020 on the 20th of each month when one lucky registered customer will win a special gift bag including a handmade item by an OASIS artist.

Strickler said she has supported the gallery for 20 years because she knows she can always turn to OASIS for unique, high-quality art that further benefits the community by supporting the area’s artists.

“They’re part of the network of organizations that make our community special,” she said.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis 2017 report, arts and cultural production accounted for 3.5% of Virginia’s economy, $17.9 billion, and contributed 123,395 jobs — making arts and cultural production the third-highest value-adding industry in the state after retail and construction.

In 2001, Harrisonburg established the first Arts and Cultural District in the commonwealth of Virginia. Welter said OASIS is a key fixture in the region’s thriving art scene.

“There was a time people were told to go to Staunton, that there was nothing downtown, and that changed. Sometimes we lose perspective and we take for granted a place like OASIS,” Welter said. “We’re lucky to have OASIS, and I’m glad it’s still there.”

OASIS Fine Art & Craft is located at 103 S. Main St.

Contact Kathleen Shaw at 574-6274 or [email protected]. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @shawkareport

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