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Farm Fresh Fine Art: Our Neighbor Martha Biggar

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

“I like stuff in my hands,” said Martha Biggar. “That’s what I like about making jewelry. I can beat on metal and I can work glass sometimes and it’s just that creative outlet for me. Fortunately, it is also a way to add to my living, which doesn’t happen for everybody but has nicely happened to me that way.”

Martha Biggar is an artist and teacher whose work is a reflection of her Draper Valley roots.

Martha can regularly be seen selling her artistic creations, as well as produce and flowers she and her sister Elizabeth raised, at the Tuesday Marketplace which takes place at the Pulaski train depot. She sells her goods under the Kelley Family Farms moniker, as that is her maiden name.

Martha frequents both the Pulaski Marketplace and the Farmers Market in Blacksburg, where she both sells her wares and acts as a vendor representative.

The goods she sells include several varieties of jewelry, which Martha handcrafts, glass ornaments (made by her husband Ed Biggar), as well as flower arrangements and fresh vegetables from the farm.

“I love what I do,” said Martha. “I love the tomatoes. I love the farm stuff and I love my jewelry time. I like people, so I like the farmers market aspect … being out there and interacting with folks.”

Martha Biggar has been making art most all of her life but doesn’t necessarily fit the common image of a fine artist.

“This is why I guess I am a little different,” said Martha. “I don’t give the appearance of an artist. I don’t wear artsy clothes and I have the farm life behind me too, and that it’s not expected.”

Martha Kelley grew up on a farm in Draper Valley and now lives on land next to her ancestral home. Her father, Francis Kelley, raised cattle, sheep and pigs and had a penchant for music.

“My dad loved classical music and would buy records,” said Martha. “My mom (Helen Kelley) taught us songs like Barbara Allen and Jimmy Crack Corn that she just passed on that way.”

Martha’s interest in art came at an early age.

“I drew horses,” she said. “Every kid drew horses, especially girls. It was a big deal.”

She attended Draper Elementary School and then attended Dublin High School before becoming a part of the class of ’75, which was the first class to graduate from the newly built Pulaski County High School.

“That was interesting,” recounted Martha. “There were people that I had never seen that were graduating seniors, along with me.”

Martha attended Wytheville Community College before moving to and eventually graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in design. Upon her return, she discovered that design jobs were few and far between in Pulaski and so opted to obtain her teaching certificate at Radford University.

In 1988, she began her 26-year career as a teacher in the Pulaski County School system, almost 20 years of which were spent at Pulaski Middle School.

“I taught drawing, painting … all those kind of things,” said Martha. “I always taught art history and make it part of what we were doing. Because history can be very, very interesting if someone makes it interesting for you. So I always try to make history fun.”

The latter half of her career was spent teaching special education and emotionally disturbed students, which she also enjoyed.

But what’s so great about teaching anyway?

“It’s that moment when you see a kid’s eyes light up,” Martha confided. “I had a student at Pulaski Middle who was struggling but then at one point leaned back in his seat and said, ‘I get it!’ That’s the essence of teaching. I honestly feel that that putting it down on paper is very important, whether it’s how to handle watercolors or whether it’s to get a likeness, or even if it’s learning multiplication tables. Sometimes that’s missing in our current education.”

Through it all, Martha kept up a farm with upward of 55 head of cattle, which is no small feat for a full time school teacher.

“Some times of the year, you just ride through the field and check everybody and talk to them (the cattle) and know they’re fine,” Martha related. “Sometimes of the year it’s much more intense, like when you’re calving. When I was calving, I would get up before school and shower then go to school. Sometimes it involved changing clothes in between. Then when I got home from school I would go feed. This time of year I’d be finishing up hay … moving up hay bales and that kind of stuff.”

Sounds like hard work.

“Yeah, it’s a good life,” said Martha. “It’s not an easy life but it’s a good life. This is one thing that shows up in my jewelry. I am very aware of the change of season and I’m very aware of weather and I grew up that way because dad was. You had to be, that’s the way it was. So, a lot of my jewelry is based on nature. Leaves and things like that.”

Sometime around 2003, Martha decided to expand her artistic horizons by learning about fused glass, which involves layering a special type of glass by cooking it in a kiln. Martha went to the Fine Arts Center of the NRV to ask the late Edna Love about the technique, as she was known to be well versed in fusing glass. Edna was not there that day, however, and Martha was told to find the resident Artist/Education Director, Ed Biggar, who was working in back.

“So we became friends and got married in 2005 … and later I learned about fused glass, too,” said Martha.

These days, Martha and Ed both teach art classes here in the NRV and often collaborate together when working gigs together.

“In normal years, we do the state fair in Virginia and it’s a 10-day job,” said Martha. “We’re in the Heritage Village area glassblowing (Ed’s specialty). If he gets tired or hot or has to answer a question, I’ll take over and keep demonstrating how to make little beads and talk to people. If it’s a jewelry class where I’m the lead teacher, he can go right behind and help people or explain things or there’s somebody to take over when you just need to step out for a minute. It’s the same thing when he teaches a glass class then I’m the helper.”

Martha and Ed have traveled all over the country demonstrating, teaching and selling their art. Martha has been to every state in the country except for Hawaii and Maine. In normal times they would go to the largest bead and button show in the world in Milwaukee, the Corning Studio in New York and shows sponsored by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, where Martha serves as a board member for that organization.

In the year 2012, Martha decided to sell her livestock and by 2013, she had sold of her last cow.

“I miss it,” Martha confided. “In some cases, the young man that rents mom and dad’s farm and part of our farm … I watch his cows. I know where they’re gonna calf because it’s the same place mine did and if there’s something that doesn’t look right, I text him and let him know.”

Today, Martha keeps only donkeys, horses and a couple of mules on her Draper Valley farm.

“I like to play with my donkeys,” said Martha. “I like to read. I like to eat out, though I haven’t done much of that, lately.”

She also deeply involved in the Draper Valley Presbyterian Church, which is right next door and perhaps owing to her parents’ interest in music, plays guitar and banjo “after a fashion.”

She also writes for online publications including Metal Clay Today and a metal workers group called AMCAW.

Martha has been involved with the Fine Arts Center for the New River Valley for many years and today is a member of the FAC for the NRV Board. She regularly teaches jewelry classes for the FAC, and though her Spring classes were canceled, she hopes to teach a class this Fall.

“My jewelry is a very specialized technique,” she explained. “It is called metal clay, so there’s no earth in it. It feels like porcelain. It’s very smooth and very malleable and then you fire it in a kiln at 1650 degrees and you’re left with pure silver.”

Except for her years in college, Martha has lived all of the life in the Draper area. Her rural upbringing and lifestyle along with her passion for art, have developed Martha into the person she is today.

“For me, I have a real need to be creative and personally I think a lot of people have a real need to be creative, but some people do it like Robin (Burdette) with fudge … or they bake and it doesn’t have to be that they make things for sale,” said Martha. “Some people are creative in their homes in decorating and having everything just so.”

A talented fine artist who lives and works in Draper, Virginia, that’s pretty rare.

Maybe I’m more complicated than some people are I don’t know. But that all adds into what I put into my artwork.”

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