Photography retreat inspired by local historic sites

Model Mikki Stith strikes a pose for El Salvadorian photographer “DpJoe” during a photographer’s retreat at the Sidna Allen house last week. Twenty-one photographers, models and artists from across the world spent a week around Hillsville last week to create local, historically inspired art. Organizer Rita Semones Edlein said he idea formed in during a photography retreat in Hawaii.

While Photographer “DpJoe” changes camera lenses, model Mikki Stith reviews the shot to see how it turned out. The two were part of a group photography retreat last week using local historical sites as inspiration. Carroll County native Rita Semones Edlein has made it her mission to create art to cast new light on local historical properties.

Carroll County Historical Society members, photographers and models took time out for a group photo at the historic Sidna Allen Home last week. A group of 21 photographers answered the call of Rita Semones Edlein to create art from local historic structures in the week-long retreat.

Rita Semones Edlein (standing on counter) shoots a 1950s era inspired shot inside The Hillsville Diner as models (from left) Keith Thomas, Mikki Stith, Bristal Upchurch and Bradley Pedlar get into character. A group of photographers from across the globe created art last week in historic locations which included the Carroll County Courthouse, the Sidna Allen House and the historic 1936 Carroll County Jail.

Local model Bristal Upchurch’s doll inspired makeup set the tone for some of the ethereal shots taken at the Sidna Allen House last week during a photographer’s retreat. The 17-year old was the youngest model involved in the shoot. Local organizer Rita Semones Edlein said the retreat was held to bring people from all over the world to spend seven to nine days with her creating photographic art in “small town USA.”

Colorado photographer Janelle Pietrzak frames a shot. Participants in the shoot came from New Zealand, El Salvador, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia. The group was composed of eight photographers, ten models, one makeup artist and a makeup artist/hairstylist along with an on site helper filming at the “Old Doc Worrell estate” and other different local off site locations.

FANCY GAP —Twenty-one photographers, models and artists from across the world spent the past week around Hillsville to create local, historically-inspired art to give permanence to what could well pass away. Organizer Rita Semones Edlein said the idea formed during a photography retreat in Hawaii.

“My original goal of sharing my small hometown with others is now not only a goal, but a mission. A mission to try to create art that will cast new light on the Sidna Allen home as not only a historical property worth saving for it’s unique architecture, but as an important part of history in Carroll County,” said Edlein. “History connected to news which made headlines all over the world in 1912 only being bumped to the inside pages of newspapers upon the sinking of the Titanic. How many small towns have that history as part of their makeup?”

Like the movie “Field of Dreams,” Edlein characterized the effort as “grand scheme to bring people from all over the world, at their own expense to spend seven to nine days with me creating photographic art in small town USA.”

“Let’s just say if you believe in something with all your heart, share it by showing as much of it as you can without having the luxury of people seeing it for their own eyes; They will come,” said Edlein. “This is a community where people still believe in their family, faith, land and their values. Places like Hillsville, this small farming community, are the backbone on which this country was built. Here in this county is a home with great historical significance and is at risk of fading away into the soil on which it has stood for over one hundred years. I am certain there would be interest around the world to see such a place, and I hope to be able to give people at least a glimpse from my camera and others. From the Hillsville Diner to the Sidna Allen home, my late grandfather’s general store, Sunnyside Store, and so many more locations there, it is a place worth sharing.”

Edlein said preservation efforts take place when it seems the largest export in Carroll County, like much of Southwest Virginia, is its youth as a direct result of a lack of jobs. Participants in the shoot came from New Zealand, El Salvador, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New York, Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia. The group was composed of eight photographers, 10 models, one makeup artist and a makeup artist/hairstylist, along with an on-site helper all filming at the “Old Doc Worrell estate” and other different local off-site locations.

New Zealand natives Cari Hill and Oscar Burt-Shearer felt so strongly about the Allen home, the Auckland residents decided to veer a bit inland to the United States during a planned world tour (en route to South Africa). She said the home’s current dark, decrepit exterior touched a creative chord. Hill said she hopes to tap into everyone’s experiences of abandonment and being left behind with her photos.

“There’s a lot to cover here at this home, it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Hill, who is stepping out of her normal, commercial photography realm. “I like things that invoke.”

Seventeen-year old Fancy Gap native Bristal Upchurch appeared excited to be a part of the shoot last week as she started out her morning in doll-like makeup. She is the daughter of Melinda and Tim Upchurch.

“It’s (the house) got a creepy feel to it. Ghostly,” said Upchurch. “There’s that feeling of abandonment, too.”

She said the home’s interior was not what she expected with areas of brightly-colored wallpaper and a pink room. She said she hoped here character would evoke an “ethereal” feeling of a little girl left with a doll. Upchurch said she was also excited for a shoot at the Hillsville Diner set later in the week.

“People see us and ask if it’s a tour,” laughed Upchurch. “They ask if they can come in and we have to tell them no. It’s a photo shoot.”

Bradley Pedler of Wytheville took time to read up and visit the Carroll County Historical Society Museum. He came to the school from his normal assignments modeling in the Washington, D.C. and Richmond area. He said he was impressed with how still and what good shape much of the house is in. Pedlar said the world seems to slow down as you walk up the steps to the house.

“This house is remarkable. You get a feeling for what life was like in another time. It’s existing there still,” Pedler. “You feel like you’re stepping back in time.”

He said it’s important to preserve such homes so another way of life can remember where we came from. People forget history and they should be educated on it.

Colorado photographer Janelle Pietrzak was obviously enthralled and inspired by her surroundings at the shoot Monday morning.

“I’ve shot in a lot of abandon homes,” said Pietrzak. “I mean (think of) the lives that have been lived here. It’s being able to lean back and play. Being able to do something different from room to room is what it’s all about. I don’t know the whole story here, but this house has a story.”

El Salvadorian photographer “DpJoe” said the home had inspired him to leave his normal fashion approach to a more fine arts way of composing his photos.

“Three weeks ago I was at a shoot in France and this house doesn’t have to tip it’s hat to anything I saw there,” said DpJoe. “Inside the house is such a different story than the outside. It’s so mysterious.”

Edlein is a native of Hillsville. She was born in 1962 above the Hillsville Family Shoe Store, and resided in Carroll County until after she graduated high school in 1980.

“I truly never heard any history on the Sidna J. Allen home. We were taught basic history, world geography and social studies. My photography event is my attempt to make a small contribution in sharing a glimpse of this town, this county, before it, like the Sidna J. Allen home is at risk of extinction,” said Edlein.

David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.