Historic ‘Asylum’ finds home in Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN – Art lovers can see 20 images from award-winning photographer Rip Smith’s latest project, “Asylum,” in the Old Firehouse Gallery at the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative now through Oct. 28. It’s an insider’s look into the gargantuan structure where mentally ill West Virginians were treated for more than a century starting in 1864. Known first as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and then Weston State Hospital, the facility in central West Virginia hasn’t held patients since 1994.

Saturday brings an opening reception in Charles Town for Rip Smith’s new exhibition, “Asylum,” which focuses on central West Virginia’s Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Smith notes that the Weston facility, which closed in 1994, is the largest cut-masonry building in the Western Hemisphere – second in the world only to the Kremlin in Moscow.

These days, the building is privately owned and available for the public to tour. Smith’s project began in the summer of 2011 as he drove back to the Eastern Panhandle after visiting McDowell County near the Kentucky border to explore a photography project on population loss in southern West Virginia.

“I saw this sign on I-79 for historic asylum tours,” Smith said. “I’d read about this place, but once I saw this absolutely huge building – four stories tall, so wide, close to a quarter-mile long – I knew I had to make a project out of it. I ended up taking the tour and getting some images I liked enough that I postponed my McDowell County project and came back four more times to take photographs and conduct interviews.”

Another of Smith’s recent projects found beauty in longabandoned homesteads in North Dakota. Like with those structures, the emptiness of the Weston hospital makes for an arresting subject. “Like a lot of photographers, I’m fascinated by abandoned places, old places,” explains Smith, who grew up in D.C. and settled in Martinsburg in 2002 after decades of living in Montgomery County, Md. “You see peeling paint and other interesting textures.

Because usually there’s no electricity in these buildings, what you see you see by so the light coming in through windows. Visually, there’s just a lot for a photographer to work with.” On Saturday, Smith will be at the gallery at 108 N. George St. in Charles Town from 6 to 8 p.m. for an opening reception and book signing that’s free and open to the public. “Asylum” also may be viewed during the gallery’s regular hours, noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Visitors also can check out Smith’s companion book, which includes more than 40 images from Weston plus information from his interviews as well as details on the hospital’s history.

For more on the exhibition, go to the Washington Street Fallery at www.wstreetgallery.com, contact Smith (304-596-0873 or sterlingimageswv@gmail.com) or visit Smith’s website, www.sterlingimages.com.

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