Marian Van Landingham serves city in arts, politics for more than 40 years

Marian Van Landingham serves city in arts, politics for more than 40 years
Marian Van Landingham paints in her studio at the Torpedo Factory. (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Marian Van Landingham always returns to painting and politics.

Van Landingham, who led the effort to establish the Torpedo Factory Art Center in 1974, also spent nearly two-and-a-half decades representing Alexandria in Richmond as a state delegate.

The Georgia native first moved to the D.C. area to take a job as a political speechwriter, working for the Taskforce on Environmental Health, the predecessor of the Environmental Protection Agency, and later for longtime U.S. Rep. Phil Landrum (D-Ga.), who is now deceased. Art remained part of her life throughout her political career and after it ended. It led her to join the Art League, which was located in the Ballston area of Arlington County at the time. Years later, Van Landingham became president of the organization at a time of major transition. By then, the Art League had relocated to Cameron Street in Old Town, and it was coming to the end of its lease.

Marian Van Landingham’s enamels hang for display and for sale in
her studio. (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

After looking at numerous old buildings in Alexandria to find a more permanent home for the Art League, a chance conversation with Jim Coldsmith, then editor and publisher of the Alexandria Gazette Packet, set Van Landingham’s sights on the vacant Torpedo Factory, which had been purchased by the city several years prior.

“I knew it had to be something public,” Van Landingham said. “They weren’t going to give us studio space otherwise. … Essentially, we [pitched] a gallery space, a studio space that would be open to the public as a tourist attraction. They bought the concept.”

The concept wasn’t popular with all Old Town residents. Some, Van Landingham recalled, wanted to see the Torpedo Factory demolished and replaced with green space. The project also won supporters, though, including the president of the Old Town Civic Association at the time, Pete Schumaier, who had his daughters deliver fliers in support of the project door-to-door. One of his daughters, Lisa Schumaier, became an artist and has a studio in the Torpedo Factory.

Ultimately, city council, then led by Mayor Chuck Beatley, approved the public-private partnership, along with $140,000 in city funding, as part of the budget in May 1974.

The renovation was all done by Van Landingham, her small staff and a group of volunteers, which included a man on work release from the Alexandria City Jail who Van Landingham jokingly nicknamed Hot Lock. The group worked throughout the summer, and the Torpedo Factory opened with 140 participating artists on Sept. 15, 1974.

The Art League was part of the Torpedo Factory from the beginning. Early on, Van Landingham had approached Art League members to ask if they would pay $4 per square foot for a studio space in the center. She also began to approach artists’ guilds, including Fiberworks, Total Craftsman and Enamel Guild, which one-by-one filtered into the center.

“We were doing this on a shoestring to prove to the city we were not a drag,” Van Landingham said. “… The point is that the art center, to this day, is self-supporting. We pay for it through our rents and through the rental of parties on the first floor.”

After founding the art center, Van Landingham became director of the Torpedo Factory. She remained in the position until launching a political career of her own, first as a candidate for city council in 1979.

She lost her bid for council in the Democratic Primary, but was later encouraged to run for a seat in the state legislature by her peers at the Alexandria Democratic Committee.

The good news, as Van Landingham puts it, was that she won the race but the bad news was that, due to a restructuring of delegate districts, she had to run for the same seat in three consecutive years: in 1981, 1982 and 1983.

“By that time, I was wellknown,” Van Landingham joked.

Van Landingham would go on to serve as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates for 24 years; her committee assignments included Appropriations as well as Privileges and Elections, which she chaired.

Harlene Clayton, a longtime friend who served as Van Landingham’s legislative aide in Richmond, described her as ambitious. Clayton said Van Landingham’s tall stature often worked to her advantage in the male-dominated halls of the legislature.

“She was a real go-getter. She had a load of energy when she was running and, because of her height, her size, she stood out a lot when she was part of a group,” Clayton said. “She was warm and welcoming and back in the day, she knew everybody in town and everyone knew her.”

Van Landingham said, though representation was lacking for women in the 1980s and 1990s, with less than 20 percent of the seats in the house occupied by women by her own estimation, the numbers were growing. A number of state delegates, many of them from Northern Virginia, were joining the ranks, including Arlington’s Judy Connally, Mary Marshall and Karen Darner and Fairfax County’s Vivian Watts, who is still serving in the legislature.

Though the position is technically part-time, Van Landingham said the commitment was, in actuality, more than full-time.

“It’s not just when you’re in session. There are committees all year and appropriations met every month. We did tours of the state, problems where they wanted state money for various things,” Van Landingham said. “… I traveled to every corner of the state.”

Clayton said education, women’s rights, human rights and, of course, the arts, were important issues for Van Landingham throughout her political career. Foremost on her mind was always securing funding for her home city.

“[Van Landingham being on] appropriations, that was a really powerful position for the city,” Clayton said. “She brought a lot of the bacon home from Richmond when she served on appropriations.”

Van Landingham said she would likely still be serving in the legislature if she hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s. She made the decision to not run for re-election in 2005 when she learned that her colon cancer had metastasized.

“What was really wonderful, and probably my saving grace, was Susan Kellom set up a volunteer system for me – people would call and ask, ‘Can I help?’ and she would call me each evening and say ‘Soand-so is going to come see you tomorrow morning,’” Van Landingham recalled” … I just lived on the first floor of my house. I didn’t try to go up the stairs. They would come and walk my dogs for me.”

Kellom said organizing the “Volunteer Tree,” as it was called, was a way for people to give back to Van Landingham, who had given of herself for so long, whether it was through the Torpedo Factory or through Volunteer Alexandria, which she established in 1981.

“I had more ‘people of the day’ volunteering to help her [than I had space for]. People felt they wanted an opportunity to give back to her,” Kellom said.

Kellom, a past chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee who has known Van Landingham since 1983, said she represented the best qualities you could hope for in a politician.

“One of her biggest accomplishments was bringing the city together. She was one of the best Democrats I have ever known,” Kellom said. “She was not a party person – she’s an Alexandrian first and foremost. [As a legislator,] she was always putting the interests of the city and the city’s people first. Everybody’s interest was always what she wanted. She had the ability to bring people together, to get people to talk. She is a politician of which I wish that we had so many more today.”

Van Landingham was cleared of cancer in 2006. And though she has retired from politics, she hasn’t retired altogether.

She’s at her studio at the Torpedo Factory, where it all began, four days a week, always with her two longhaired mini Dachsunds, Alex and Chester, in tow. She still lives on Cameron Street, just a few blocks away from the institution she helped found.

She continues to create paintings, mostly inspired by her travels in Europe and beyond, as well as enamels, which are baked in countertop ovens in her studio.

“It’s evolved,” Van Landingham said of her style. “It’s mostly realistic paintings, very often based on things I’ve seen in travels. I’m looking for design everywhere I go, finding inspiration.”