Workhouse Finds New Life as Cultural Arts Center

What do suffragettes, a 100-year-old prison and a modern art gallery have in common? Simple – The Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. Now home to a community of talented artists and artisans, the former prison has found a second life as the Workhouse Arts Center. The studios and galleries that line the dormitories are a testament to the transformative power of art and provide a showcase for a group of talented artists.

In 1910, then President Woodrow Wilson ordered an industrial farm to be built in Lorton, Virginia. Prisoners were initially housed in tents, but a brickyard was built onsite and the men subsequently built their own prison, brick by brick. Soon after, the Women’s Workhouse was built to house women who had been arrested for prostitution, drunkenness, and disorderly conduct.

D.C. Department of Corrections Log Book (1919) listing the names of suffragettes arrested for protesting in front of the White House sits on display at The Workhouse Prison Museum, March 11, 2017. (Tracey Dowdy)

The suffragettes became part of the history of the workhouse in November of 1917, when a group of suffragettes protesting in front of the White House were arrested and brought to the prison. During their incarceration, the women endured The Night of Terror  a night of beatings and torture in retaliation for having picketed in front of the White House. When reports reached the media, the story proved to be a seminal moment in the fight for women’s rights.

Today, the Workhouse Arts Center has as its mission, “To grow and support a vibrant arts center that offers engaging opportunities and enjoyable experiences in visual arts, performing arts, history and education.”

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“The Path” by Hilaire Henthorne hangs in her studio during a Second Saturday Art Walk at the Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton, VA. March 11, 2017 (Tracey Dowdy)

There are 65 artists-in-residence. Some, like painter Hilaire Henthorne, found their calling as an artist later in life. As a child, Henthorne had an art teacher who told her to lay her head on her desk during class as she clearly had no talent. Fast forward through a successful career as an attorney in Washington, D.C. to November, 2015, when Henthorne became a juried artist at the Workhouse and then, just one year later, became a studio artist in Building 10. The influence of her childhood in Hawaii is evident in the vivid colors of her landscape and abstract paintings.

A selection of Pam Eisenmann’s “Pocket Dragons” sits on display in her studio, March 11, 2017. Studio 814, The Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton, VA. (Tracey Dowdy)

Others like Pam Eisenmann, have always created. Growing up in a family of farmers and artists with “roots in Ohio and my heart in Tennessee,” Eisenmann refers to art as the “constant thread throughout my life.”  While living in Japan, dragons were a frequent motif and drawing on that inspiration, she began to create her “Pocket Warriors”, a whimsical collection of dragons in tennis shoes. Eisenmann is also a gifted ceramicist, creating pieces that are both beautiful and functional.

Though The Workhouse is closed to the public Mondays and Tuesdays, guests are welcome to visit the artist’s studios, gallery buildings, or The Prison Museum, Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission is free though donations are welcomed. Guests can also visit the gift shop or speak to any of the artists about commissioning their work. The Workhouse Arts Center also offers classes and hosts special events throughout the year, including a Bridal Showcase, Brewfest, a haunted house, and fireworks for the Fourth of July.

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