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Beauty rises from a Virginia prison where violence against suffragists changed history

Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

The cells where the women were brutalized are long gone, but the remaining structures, made of bricks manufactured by the prisoners, are being or have been rehabbed, creating a handsome quadrangle of buildings where artists work, art education classes are given and, in a small museum, history is recounted.

The workhouse center has 65 artists in residence and 25 more who exhibit here. Halls are filled with handcrafted artworks as diverse as the people who make them. Many of the artists' works, which also include photography, painting, textiles, jewelry and glass, are for sale.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Cheryl VanderMolen Neway was finishing new batik pieces that would become hats, dresses and skirts. Hanging from the ceiling were eight purple, gold and white silk scarfs -- the colors of the National Woman's Party.

"I wanted to honor the suffragists in prison here 100 years ago," she said. "They fought for our right to vote ... and I wanted to thank them because they worked very hard to get us where we are today."

The exuberant colors used in her pieces "put some healing energy" into the grounds of the onetime reformatory.

"I wanted to create some light where there was once darkness," she said.


The Workhouse Arts Center is a work in progress; the restoration of a 350-seat theater and the addition of a restaurant may be in the offing.

Perhaps most important, the Lucy Burns Museum, honoring not only that suffragist leader but also those who gave their all to get the vote, is expected to be completed later this year.

If you visit the center, it's because you've been drawn here by the art and by classes, festivals and even weddings. It is off the beaten path, said Ava Spece, president and chief executive of the Workhouse Arts Foundation, which manages the center. If you're here, it's because you want to be, she said.

A study of the handsome brick buildings, a listen to the murmur of artists at work, a look at the beauty of the objects they create, raises this question: Who would not want to be here, on a campus cloaked in important history that's almost been obscured by time?

It's like having the keys to a secret history book that tells a story whose moral is about perseverance.


At the entrance to the campus, a bronze sculpture, "An Hour Before Dawn," on loan from artist Sassona Norton, faces where the buildings that housed the female prisoners once stood.

"I sculpt the figure to express yearning," its plaque says. "While yearning may be rooted in conflict and dissatisfaction, it also points ... to our ability to rise above insurmountable obstacles and cross over boundaries to realize our dreams."


Workhouse Arts Center, 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, Va.; (703) 584-2900, Galleries and the visitor center are open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. A small museum devotes part of its space to suffragist history and the rest of the history of Lorton's penal system. It is open noon-3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays. The center is building a Lucy Burns Museum not only to honor the suffragist who was jailed and brutalized here, but also to highlight the work that led to the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C.; (202) 633-1000, "The Nation We Build Together" exhibit devotes some space to voting, including suffragist history. Among the artifacts is a suffrage wagon used at rallies and speeches between the 1870s and 1920.

Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument House, 144 Constitution Ave. N.E., Washington, D.C.; (202) 543-2240, Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; guided tours at 9:30 and 11 a.m. and 2 and 3:30 p.m.

This is the home of the National Woman's Party, founded in 1916 by Alice Paul, the godmother of the push for the 19th Amendment.

On the hourlong tours you'll see exhibits that tell the story of the National Woman's Party, especially focusing on the fight for passage of the amendment. You'll see some of the banners women carried as they picketed the White House, although not necessarily the most controversial ones, which counterprotesters destroyed. You'll also see Susan B. Anthony's desk, given to Paul after the death of the early women's suffrage crusader. Paul is said to have used it as part of her workspace and for inspiration.

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