Wytheville Teen Gallery Becomes Community Arts Hub | Local News

Su Clauson-Wicker special for the Roanoke Times

WYTHEVILLE — When Lily Formato returned to town after graduating from high school in 2018, she didn’t know what she wanted to do — something artistic — but she felt she should save some money. silver.

The 18-year-old waitress at Cracker Barrel and helped her dad clean up a historic downtown building he bought. She soon realized that the building’s exposed brick walls, open floor plan, and interior balconies were “an amazing place for art.”

“I asked my dad if I could do a business there, and he said ‘nooo,'” Lily said. “I said ‘okay,’ but I kept thinking about it, I kept sprucing up the space. I made it really pretty. I asked again.

“Dad said, ‘Fine, but I’m not lifting a finger,'” she said.

Her dad took care of “a few landlord things,” including redoing the floor, Lily said. But she did most of the work. Lily used her hard-earned waitress money to fix plumbing, buy furniture, and start a gallery she initially named “Local Artists & Sellers.” She recently renamed the Main Street gallery “Formato Fine Arts”.

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At 18, she was the youngest tradeswoman in town and probably in the entire region. At 21, she still is.

Its gallery features sculpture, woodwork, glass, jewelry, clothing and enduring paintings – many paintings and prints.

Its walls feature traditional and contemporary works, portraits and landscapes – all celebrations of color. Formato represents approximately 40 regional artists, selling at the boutique and online through the gallery’s website.

“I wanted to create an art space in Wytheville where people could show their work,” she said.

Formato says she started out by creating a “really ugly” business card, which embarrasses her now – how could an art gallery owner design such an unattractive card? She visited a local art fair, introduced herself to each artist, and handed out their cards.

“I told them I was opening a gallery and I would take their art,” she said.

Formato made further contacts through Jen Otey, teacher and owner of Rose Cottage School of Art in Wytheville. Rose Cottage had recently opened, but Otey had been selling his own art and giving workshops for over a decade. Formato calls him the “godfather of the artistic community in County Wythe”.

“I’m so grateful that Jen is my friend,” Formato said. “She told me to go to this art fair, who to talk to and how to spread the word. Although some art teachers might consider me a competitor because I give one-on-one art lessons, she was a great help, she exhibits here, her husband plays guitar at my events.

Passers-by can often watch the creative process as Formato and his students work on paintings in his studio up front. She fell in love with acrylic in school in Asheville and paints every day. Formato wants its gallery to be more than a showroom; its goal is to create a fun community space bringing new activities to downtown Wytheville. She loves having people around her, whether it’s stretching canvases, discussing art, or throwing a laser tag party.

“I want to create an atmosphere where no one is excluded from having fun,” she said.

After four years at boarding school in bustling Asheville, Formato yearned to bring some of that energy back to his hometown. In the century-old building built on the foundations of Wytheville’s first courthouse, she created a second home for herself and other arts-minded people.

“Lily Formato is a great example of a young entrepreneur investing in her community and making a positive impact,” said Rosa Lee Jude, Director of the Wytheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “His energy and passion for art of all kinds is contagious. The gallery is a welcoming addition to our downtown core for residents and travellers. These uses will increase as downtown Wytheville becomes even more arts-oriented in the years to come.

Some have told Formato that the gallery and its activities have changed their lives. She fervently believes it is one of the best things that has ever happened to her.

“I’m so lucky to be able to do this, that my dad owns this building and that the community has been so supportive of me. In another city, I might have given up in the last two years,” she said.

Before COVID hit, the gallery was the only space in Southwest Virginia where you could watch a drag queen show, hone your improv skills, and learn swing dancing with friends of all ages. The free improvisation sessions continue on Thursday evening. Formato brought in nationally-known musicians and artists, as well as stacks of art books for folks who want to hang out in the airy space of the gallery.

“I like people coming here, meeting their friends here. Couples have dates here. I offer them coffee. I gave keys to a few artists who need a quiet place to draw,” Formato said.

Like her entrepreneur father, who once said he learned growing his successful business SalesEdge, Lily exemplifies Ray Bradbury’s quote: “Leap, and you’ll find out how to spread your wings on the way down.”

“I learned so much: how to say no, how to handle online submissions, how to write an artist contract — I didn’t even have those at first,” she says. “I put together a jury of artists to help decide which art to accept. Whenever I visit other galleries, I ask about how they work. Some share, some don’t.

Formato has had some successes: art sales, sold-out drag shows, a steady supply of young students and interns, a million viewerships for its video, 40,000 followers on TikTok — and a tweet from the personality of Tyra Banks television.

“I hear @localwytheart is doing cool things in Virginia. Sending you love, Lily. You strong entrepreneur! the supermodel businesswoman tweeted.

And after? Formato is considering an art school in September. She completed an Associate’s degree in Business Administration and Management at Wytheville Community College within the past two years and is looking forward to furthering her education in art and art history. But she does not plan to close her business or leave the area for good.

“I love the mountains and Wytheville,” she said. “I have staff and volunteers who want to see the gallery continue. They can help me keep going while I’m away. I expect to be back.

Formato Fine Arts, at 100 W. Main St., Wytheville, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information visit www.formatoart.com or formatofinearts on Facebook or call 276-920-4004.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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