Hotel Art Redefined

Meet five Virginia artists making a statement at Keswick Hall.

Sera Petras

A great resort is more than the sum of its parts. More than its 600 thread count sheets, its infinity pool, its clay tennis courts. It’s a feeling. Mollie Hardie, co-owner of Keswick Hall in Albemarle County with her husband, Robert, understands this intrinsically. Blessed with a sixth sense for placemaking, Hardie has spent the past two and a half years creating a timeless luxury getaway with Keswick Hall’s nuts and bolts renovation, and she’s studded it with original art.

“The location of Keswick significantly informed the concept, so I felt it was important to showcase the beauty of our area,” says Hardie. And who better to pull that feeling together than some of the best artists in the state?

Showcasing the environment—like Keswick’s sweeping vistas, native flora and fauna, and views of the surrounding foothills—was at the heart of the project. That’s why Hardie tapped some of Virginia’s premier artists to express the beauty of the state, from pressed foliage to nearly floorto-ceiling abstract installations.

“We avoided generic ‘hotel’ art,” explains Hardie. “We feel original curated art makes your experience more meaningful.” A quick tour of Keswick Hall proves her point. The moment you enter the reception lobby you’re greeted by two stunning landscapes from Karen Blair. Step into JeanGeorges Vongerichten’s restaurant Marigold and you’ll find five original Kiki Slaughter paintings. Then wander into a new section of the hotel, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the abstract landscapes of Isabelle Abbot.

“We’re really hoping that guests are going to come and spend their free time relaxing and walking through our buildings and really looking at and appreciating things,” says Hardie. “I think it adds to the guest experience to learn something.

Kiki Slaughter
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A signature restaurant requires a signature look. Hardie knew that Marigold’s dramatic windows overlooking Keswick’s Full Cry golf course would need something to balance them. That’s where Kiki Slaughter came in. A Charlottesville native, who now calls Richmond home, she specializes in large-scale, nonrepresentational canvases.

“They complement our theme so well because they’re connecting you with this abstract art that really shows the Virginia scenery. The shapes of the area colors were so perfect with the color in the bar and some of our other interior finishes,” explains Hardie. Diners can look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the gorgeous Virginia sunset, then see that world echoed in Slaughter’s large-scale paintings parallel to them.

Slaughter is no stranger to impressive hotel commissions. She also designed the headboards for all of the beds in Charlottesville’s Quirk Hotel. But seeing her work as the centerpiece of a Michelin-starred chef’s only Virginia restaurant was something else entirely. “It was a ‘pinch me’ moment,” she says. And it’s safe to say, diners at Marigold will feel the same way.

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Anne Blackwell Thompson
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Anne Blackwell Thompson knows a thing or two about intrigue. She caught Hardie’s eye years ago when the hotelier was attending a design conference. “I got her card and was so fascinated by her work,” says Hardie. What Blackwell does is an age-old process of pressing and preserving plants, a craft she learned from botanical artist Stuart Thornton in Turin, Italy.

Thompson harvests, dissects, and presses vegetation within moments of extraction, which meant the Keswick Hall commission was no easy feat. “I wanted to harvest from the grounds of Keswick,” says Thompson, who began her process nearly two years ago. But the weather had other plans.

“Mother Nature drives my bus, so I am not able to harvest in the rain,” says Thompson. “We would check the weather, and I would forage and cut my plant material because really, every couple of weeks, the bounty would change,” she remembers. “But there were a number of times where in the middle of harvesting these tornadoes and flash floods would happen and I would lose my entire day.”

Luckily, the extended timeline provided ample opportunity for return visits, and Thompson ended up completing a handful of works displaying Chinese silver grass, wild sunflowers, maidenhair fern, and coral honeysuckle.

The result is art imitating life. Keswick’s most beautiful organics shine, both inside and out.

Karen Blair
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In the same way Thompson’s work freezes Virginia florals in time, Karen Blair’s abstract landscapes imbue the resort’s foyer with the beauty of Central Virginia. For Blair, the evolving colors of the fields and hills of her home state are almost too much to take in. “There aren’t enough hours in the day. I get up in the morning, and I can’t wait for there to be enough light for me to get into the studio,” she says.

You can feel that energy radiating off her canvases. Blair says each individual moment inspires her work. “Nature gives us gifts each day, sometimes of wonder and awe, perhaps in a crescendo of a sunset or small moments of grace such as when a particular flower blooms in a garden,” she says. “The challenge is to be alert to all of this, to embrace, celebrate, and then distill these gifts into a coherent narrative.”

Her four pieces—“November Symphony,” “August Sunrise,” “Topography,” and “Virginia”—are just that. Ironically, the latter two, which frame the resort’s main lobby, sit in a space that staffers originally had their doubts about.

“We have this Venetian glass chandelier at the reception that’s just this beautiful, bright green color. And people on our team would walk in and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s not going to work. That doesn’t look good,’” says Hardie. “But then when we installed Karen’s paintings with their greens, the whole space came together because of her art.”

Lara Call Gastinger
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Celebrating the native plants of Virginia has been a fundamental mission of Keswick Hall ever since the Hardies took over. “A really large percentage of our landscape is native plants. The more natives you plant, the better it is for the environment, your pollinators, and the flora and fauna. They also use less water,” says Hardie. “So it made sense to feature Lara Call Gastinger’s sketches.”

For 10 years the botanical artist painstakingly illustrated Flora of Virginia, a compendium of 3,200 species featuring 1,300 of her watercolors and sketches. With a master’s degree in plant ecology from Virginia Tech, her detailed work has earned two gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society at the Botanical Art Show in London. But as scientific as each piece is, it’s Gastinger’s exacting eye for each specimen’s beauty that elevates her work to fine art.

“I draw what the plant is showing,” Gastinger explains. “What’s so beautiful about this moment right now? What’s happening to this leaf that’s curling? It tells more of a story of the plant.”

As guests enter Marigold restaurant, they’re stopped in their tracks by a quadriptych of floating framed illustrations of beets, peas, tomatoes, and carrots. For her Keswick commission, the story was an edible one.

Isabelle Abbot
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Artist Isabelle Abbot knew Keswick Hall long before Hardie and her design team came calling. “My sister got married at Keswick Hall. I’ve lived here on the other side of Charlottesville, but my brother and sister-in-law live in Keswick, so it’s very much been a feature in my life,” she says.

It didn’t take much explaining for Abbot to understand her assignment: to bring the landscape in. “I’m very interested in this area where I grew up and what makes this particular landscape recognizable, significant, and unique from other places,” she says. “A lot of what I’m doing is kind of clearing out the detail, maybe distraction, and visual noise to sort of get down to the essential shapes of the land, the colors of the land, the overall feel.”

Those explorations resulted in two large works hanging today in Keswick’s newest building.

“One is sort of a stacked compilation of forms that suggest the landscape building up and then rolling back in space,” she says. “It has a lot of warm colors. It feels very much like maybe it’s late summer or early autumn with greens playing off of a golden color.” For her second Keswick work, a horizontal piece, she says it evokes early morning. “The colors are more the sort of blues of the mountains here, and it’s a long view with atmospheric suggestions of mist and low creek beds that roll back into a deeper space.”

They’re the sort of pieces you could sit and stare at every afternoon and come away with a different discovery. Pieces of intrigue, as Hardie says.

Sera Petras Photography LLC

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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