When you walk into Scott Whitten and Valerie Smith’s home, you’ll be greeted by Felipe, a papier mache lizard wearing a heart necklace and Elton John glasses. He seductively reclines on an end table, signaling visitors to relax and be embraced by the warmth of this home. And that I did, when Cara Walton and I dropped by for dinner.
The topic of the evening? Love. It was inescapable. From the care they put into cooking our meal and the local art work adorning the walls, to the way Valerie insisted Scott take a particular chair because “you like the chair with the back,” to the friendly licks from sweet puppy Penelope and leg rubs from the kitties, the whole place thrummed with it.
Seated at a beautiful wooden table in front of a succulent feast of salmon, roasted vegetables, and Delta Spirit on the stereo, we got to hear the story of how Scott and Valerie fell in love with each other and with the Burg.
Valerie was a young, sheltered teenager growing up in Front Royal. She’d never really thought about college -- she wasn’t even sure what college was, really -- but a guidance counselor, who saw in Valerie what we all see clearly now, encouraged her to apply to James Madison University. She was, of course, accepted and that’s how she came to live here. She LOVED it. In fact, she called Harrisonburg “Front Royal, squared.” She worked at Luigi’s while attending school, and after graduating, she became an art teacher, working for three years in Fairfax before returning to the Burg to work for Harrisonburg City Schools.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Scott had moved here from Seneca, South Carolina, in 1986 with his family -- mom Kathy, dad Larry, two brothers, and a sister. He, too, attended JMU, but having lived here a while, had an itch to leave, to travel and explore, leading him to accept a position as an ESL teacher in Thailand. He eventually returned and worked at Indian American Cafe.
It wasn’t long before their paths crossed. Scott’s musical mentor happened to be Valerie’s roommate. And Valerie notes that they seemed to run into each other frequently and at unexpected times. Though she seemed to be happily settled in Harrisonburg working as a teacher, he really wanted to be a rock star. At that time, neither of them realized how dangerously close they were to living separate lives.
Now, history is filled with incredible examples of important events that almost didn’t happen. The Gettysburg Address, for example. The invitation Lincoln had received to attend the ceremony at Gettysburg was vaguely worded, and the President didn’t really understand that he was supposed to speak. In fact, others advised him not to. At the last second, someone clarified the invitation and Lincoln whipped up a speech lickety-split. Or how about that part in Back to the Future when Lorraine and George almost don’t fall in love, which would have ended Marty’s existence in the future! Not to mention pretty much every Apollo mission.
But somehow, things DO happen, despite the odds. Even though Scott was seriously considering moving to Arizona with one of his Elephant Child bandmates… and even though Valerie was taking a break from dating altogether and trying to take some time for herself and be independent… they managed to spend time together, during which a friendship formed, and grew into love, a love that blossomed downtown. They would play bocce ball together on Court Square; they frequented The Daily Grind for gelato milk shakes. Even their first kiss occurred downtown -- in that little pocket park that used to be next to WHSV! One day early in their relationship, Scott was riding Valerie’s bike down some stairs and crashed. He suffered a split mandible and had to have his jaw wired shut. Valerie met his family at the hospital and won their hearts when she volunteered to go on a liquid diet out of solidarity for Scott. By December of 2005, they were engaged to be married!
When Larkin Arts was born, Scott was working, of all things, as a credit card fraud reporter, and Valerie was teaching at Stone Spring Elementary School. Her desire to teach art after school and on weekends led to the creation of Larkin Arts. She and Scott both knew from the start that Larkin Arts would have to be located downtown, in what Valerie calls “the heart of the arts and cultural district. Downtown was the only place we could see an art business attracting the entire community and achieving the type of success we desired. A success not based on money, but on the experiences of the people who walk through our doors.” As if that weren’t enough community outreach, she also coordinated the JMU Summer Art Program for several years. In 2008 she accepted a position at Skyline Middle School, a year that proved to be challenging. As she puts it, “Life got complicated fast.” There was a new job, a new house, a sewer line problem, and other potholes that forced the couple to cut back on their hours at Larkin. Sadly, they closed the shop down in early 2009.
During this time of transition, Scott’s wanderlust resurfaced, but by now he was so entrenched in his Harrisonburg band that he couldn’t leave. Music was his dream; art was hers. And together, they would find a way to achieve both.
In 2011, they gave Larkin Arts another shot. It took many months of long hours and little sleep. When they first opened, they ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised $11,000 from Harrisonburg community members and people from all over greater Harrisonburg and the Valley. These folks continue to visit Larkin for classes and new exhibits. During Larkin’s infancy, Valerie continued teaching during the day and manning the shop at night, and Scott held down the fort during the day and worked at the Blue Nile at night.
They were two ships. And they were exhausted.
But what their relationship and their business reveal is that when you open yourself to love, things will fall into place. When you love something, you don’t mind working on it. When you love someone, you decide not move to Arizona with your band, and you eat your meals through a straw for weeks even when your jaw is perfectly fine. Today there exists a beautiful labor of love they get to share with the community that helped build it.
Everything Scott and Valerie love is inside Larkin Arts. Just check out the always-on stereo and the record collection. The ever-changing art work on the gallery walls. The artists who occupy the studio spaces. The classrooms that host students all year long. Even the plants. I asked them, What do you love most about the shop? They both agree that Larkin’s role in the Harrisonburg community is extremely gratifying. They seek out opportunities for artists to create and for patrons to interact with art. Larkin is the vessel they created for that purpose.
Then I asked, What do you love most about each other? <swoon>
Scott shared that he loves Valerie’s tenacity. She’s unstoppable at overcoming obstacles, he said. He admires her drive and he’s “constantly impressed by her follow through.” He said he learns from her, and he called her “beautiful, radiant, and charismatic.” Valerie pointed to Scott’s easy-going humor and kindness, as well as his complexity and intelligence. Even when life is hectic and things are “changing and growing,” she said, “he still accepts me.”
It was getting late and Cara and I both had to head home. We hugged teary goodbyes to Scott and Valerie, to the kitties and Penny, and to Felipe, the world-renowned love mascot who at one point went on tour with Elephant Child. I left with a few impressions. I felt like I had been in the presence of greatness. Not royalty, not wealth or status, not that kind of greatness. I felt like I had witnessed a true symbiotic relationship. The ease with which they speak to each other, and about each other, demonstrates the deep understanding they share. The hills and valleys, the ups and downs, all the close calls they’ve weathered over the years show that they’ve perfected the dance of love. When one steps left, the other steps right. When one leans back, the other bends forward. Their beautiful balance of dig-in hard work and breathe-deep levelheadedness are what carried them to the finish line. I also left with a greater appreciation for the amount of love it took -- for each other and for this community -- to get Larkin Arts up and running. Lesser souls would have given up at the first sign of trouble. But Scott and Valerie… they’ve got too much love for that.
Written by Katie Mitchell. Katie is a high school English teacher, mom of two, and founder of the popular blog, i love my burg. She also serves on the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance Promotions Committee and on the Spitzer Art Center Board of Directors.
Photos by Cara Walton. Cara is a purely accidental artist. She teaches high school students World History and likes to take pictures. Photography and art help her to stay sane in dealing with the day-to-day stress of her job and life in general. She lives in Harrisonburg with her husband, daughter, two cats, and an obscene amount of Star Wars toys and other geeky items.