Torpedo Factory founder’s first love: art
Marian Van Landingham has achieved many distinctions so far in her 83 years, including as a federal agency writer, speechwriter for a U.S. Congressman, and during a 24-year career as a delegate to the Virginia legislature.
But the former Alexandria Art League president is perhaps best known as the founder of Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center. Oh, “and she is known for her dachshunds,” added friend and fellow artist Marsha Staiger.
Ensconced at the Torpedo Factory in her third-floor studio, watching gulls fluttering over the Potomac River outside her window, Van Landingham is surrounded by her paintings, fire enamels, paints, easels, brushes, kiln and photographs.
But many visitors don’t come to look at her art, she joked. They come to see the dogs, Chester and Alexander the Great, who are canine mainstays in studio 321.
In the early 1970s, where others saw a blighted building on the Alexandria waterfront, Van Landingham envisioned the World War I-era Navy Torpedo Factory as a future home for Washington-area artists.
The musty old factory, previously managed by the federal General Services Administration, was full of used office furniture, Smithsonian dinosaur bones, government records, including files from the Nuremburg Trials, and pigeon dung.
As president of the Art League, she convinced the city, which had owned the building since 1969, to dedicate the factory to art. In 1974, the City Council converted it into art studios, galleries and classrooms, renovating it in 1982.
“At first, it had no air conditioning and barely had heat,” Van Landingham recalled. “It was pretty rough.”
She had pitched the art studio idea as a three-year experiment, but within a year, city officials soon saw it as viable. When the center opened, “We filled the building,” Van Landingham said. “Today, it pays for itself.”
Last year, in recognition of Van Landingham’s accomplishments, Torpedo Factory Art Center officials dedicated Gallery 311 to her to be used as a space for rotating exhibits.
A factory for working artists
The three-story, 76,000-square-foot building is a beehive of 120 artists, 71 studios, 10 galleries, several classrooms and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. (Due to the pandemic, however, the Torpedo Arts Center is currently closed through June 10.)
More than half a million people visit every year to study and buy paintings, drawings, prints, engravings, sculptures, jewelry, pottery, ceramics, enamels, stained glass, collages, fiber arts and photographs.
The Torpedo Arts Center is a “family of artists,” according to Staiger, who once shared a studio wall with Van Landingham. “Marian motivates everyone who comes in contact with her to think outside their own sphere,” Staiger said. “She’s the reason we are here.”
Van Landingham is quick to stress that the Torpedo Factory is, by design, not a collection of static art on walls or shelves for somber viewing, but a center for working artists. Visitors can wander into studios and talk to artists about how and why they create their works.
When people peek into the studio of Joan Ulrich, for example, the ceramic artist washes the clay off her hands and patiently explains how she makes playful ceramic cups, teapots and other items.
Ulrich considers Van Landingham the artists’ “cultural librarian,” she said. “She is a storehouse of all things Torpedo Factory, and my go-to person for historic insights.”
Art a constant during career
Van Landingham grew up in Albany, Georgia, and received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Emory University.
She came to Washington, D.C., as a writer for a federal agency focused on air pollution, then moved to the U.S. House of Representatives to write speeches for the late Rep. Phillip M. Landrum (D-GA).
All the while, she was creating art. “I’ve kept at it all these years,” Van Landingham said.
As a landscape painter, she is always on the lookout for subjects. On her studio walls are photographs of doorways, passageways and architectural features of old buildings — many in Italy, which she has visited several times.
She also makes fire enamels, which are “paintings” made with glass powder. She sifts powder onto copper panels and then fuses them in a 1,500-degree-kiln in her studio.
Van Landingham sees her art as a way to create harmony.
“Each painting solves a problem or many problems,” she said. “It’s all about trying to make it work within itself, the lines and colors in harmony. They must work together.”
When she makes the “wrong decisions,” she has to paint and repaint. “If I don’t get it right, it’s an aggravation,” she said.
During her 24 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, Van Landingham also displayed perseverance. She earned a reputation as an indefatigable legislator and an advocate for equal justice.
“She legislated from the heart,” recalled her longtime aide, Harlene Clayton. Van Landingham was chosen as a 2008 Alexandria Living Legend, an award for a community member “in our midst” who has made significant contributions to the city.
“She is really passionate about serving and making a difference in the arts,” Clayton said. “She has certainly made a difference.”
The Torpedo Factory, 105 North Union St., Alexandria, Virginia, is normally open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Visit torpedofactory.org.