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Revamped art center set to open

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Jan Sullivan-Volz, right, instructs Lindsay Briggs as she works on a seascape Thursday during a painting lesson at Bel Air Art Center in downtown Rocky Mount.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Laron Stallings smiled when asked whether she's an artist and replied, "I'd like to think so."

Stallings, who paints and is also a metal smith, is one of the artists at work in rented space in the new Bel Air Art Center, which is in what was the Bulluck family's Chevrolet dealership when it was in downtown Rocky Mount. Bel Air also is soon going to have in the same building the Willow Tree Yoga Studio.

Stallings, 38, of Castilia, works in customer service at a small tech firm, but she said she has been an artist ever since she could first pick up a crayon and noted, "I like making things with my hands."

"I just moved in in December, so I'm one of the newer artists here at Bel Air," Stallings said. "And I think it's amazing. This has been my first opportunity to have a studio I can kind of call my own outside of college."

She had been doing artwork in her home in what she said had been the "guest bedroom-art studio," until such an arrangement became way too much.

She said she tries to be at Bel Air at least two to three times a week and estimates she spends four or five hours in her space each time.

Meantime, Jessica Hicks, 28, who operates both the Bel Air and the Willow Tree, said plans are to start having yoga classes on Monday.

Hicks said she believes yoga isn't just a physical exercise, but a way of life.

"It's a way of positive thinking. It's a different outlook on things that gives you a chance to just slow down, direct your attention in word — and really see what life is about. And it's really beautiful," she said.

She said she has wanted to have a yoga studio — and she noted she plans on bringing in other teachers to help.

"Growing up, I've always been an athlete and interested in human anatomy — and just making people feel better physically, but also mentally and about themselves," she said. "So, whenever I moved here, there wasn't exactly a yoga studio."

Instead, she said, she practiced online and looked for any places where she could get a teacher's license. She earned certification from Loving Kindness Yoga School in Carrboro.

The Rev. Lynn Benson, who's a Methodist minister, signed up with the Willow Tree.

Benson, 56, said she had been doing yoga with Hicks in other places and in other places with other teachers.

"But she's the best," Benson said of Hicks.

As Benson spoke, one could smell the fresh paint on the walls throughout the Bel Air and the Willow Tree.

"I'm so ready for it to be open and be here and experience it," she said. "I think it is so needed in Rocky Mount. We don't have anything like this. So I'm so excited to have it here."

Hicks said she is interested in the heart of Rocky Mount because she grew up on the Tennessee side of Bristol, which is in both the Volunteer State and in Virginia.

Hicks earned a bachelor's degree in allied health with a focus on dental hygiene from East Tennessee State University. She returned to Bristol to discover her home city's central business district had undergone a revitalization.

"It was like a 'Believe in Bristol' movement," she said. "So, I'm like trying to implement a 'Believe in Rocky Mount' movement."

She moved to Rocky Mount with her husband, Dr. Michael Hicks, 35, who operates Hicks Animal Clinic off Sunset Avenue.

Even though Jessica Hicks doesn't paint, she said, "My husband and I enjoy going to museums — and we enjoy learning about art."

Rooting for the Bel Air and the Willow Tree is Marilynn Anselmi, who along with Jan Volz own and operate the Red Oak Wood Shop. The two make furniture out of reclaimed wood from barns, factories or old homes all over the eastern part of the state.

Anselmi, 58, does a lot of her work at home, but she and Volz have woodworking space by the Bel Air and the Willow Tree. Red Oak furniture also is on display in the Bel Air.

Of the transformation going on next door, Anselmi said, "I think it's marvelous. It's absolutely wonderful."

"The former owners had this dream, and now Jessica and Michael are really bringing it to the fore," she said.

She was referring to the late Ron Vetere and his wife, Hillary, both of whom in 2009 established the Bel Air Artisans Center, where artists could work and display their works. Ron Vetere died in 2014.

Michael and Jessica Hicks finalized a deal in 2017 to take over the Bel Air Artisans Center and changed the name to Bel Air Art Center.

Both the Bel Air and the Willow Tree are set to have an official opening at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 28.

People can follow the Bel Air and the Willow Tree on their respective Facebook pages at www.facebook.com/belairartcenter/ and www.facebook.com/willowtreeyoganc/

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