Story and photo by Kerry Phelps Dale
In the time it takes someone else to to strap on their toolbelt and open their ladder, Jimmie Emmett has stapled new upholstery on the seats of six chairs, hung a gallery of paintings up the stairway, glued and clamped a rickety chair, waxed a dull, time-worn table to a gleam and is already planning what to do next.
That’s the Grandma Emmett in him. “She knew how to take care of life. She was self-sufficient and all about getting things done. She taught me to weed,” Emmett laughs. “Grandma Emmett was a basic country woman. She grew wheat and barley and canned in gallons. Raised chickens and cut off their heads.”
Then, there’s the artist Emmett, a man who embraces all that is aesthetic. He designs houses and their interior spaces. He is a master gardener and has many acclaimed garden designs to his credit. He paints canvases in oil and watercolor and has created many large murals in homes along the east coast. A custom designed chandelier of his hangs in a Middleburg home; his favorite shoes are designed by him. He’s designed fabric and crafted custom jewelry, chairs and benches. And there’s the most beautiful 3-foot tall heron bronze that he designed and cast.
That’s the Grandma Beard in him. “She was worldly, traveled a lot when she was young,” says Emmett. “She knew art; she was more of a scholar than an artist herself. I was surrounded by old and beautiful things at Belmont, her big 1700s antebellum home in the valley. To earn money to run the place, she grew and sold saffron, raised and slaughtered rabbits and sold the fur and meat.”
The two grandmothers took over the care of Emmett after his mother died when he was 18-months-old. He grew up living with his paternal grandmother Emmett during the school year and his maternal grandmother Beard in the summers. “They were my mothers,” says Emmett.
Powered by the force of two strong, independent and resourceful women, 21-year-old Emmett left the Shenandoah Valley for New York. In New York, the budding artist continued building on the rich education of his childhood. Emmett first went to work for the renowned gardener and florist, Georgia Vance, where he helped to grow, dry and stylize flowers for public installations, the State Department, Mount Vernon, and the like—“she was a world-class floral designer,” he says of his first official mentor. Soon Emmett was putting his drawing and painting talents to use and showed and sold his mostly Virginia-countryside original works in New York galleries.
“I took classes in architecture, antique identification and restoration, and art history,” says Emmett. What he garnered from his grandmothers was the springboard, “I learned so much from watching them. I’m like a little sponge and I don’t forget anything.”
It wasn’t long before Emmett had his fingers in dozens of pots. He painted murals and furniture for clients, restored houses, designed gardens, opened a Georgetown antique shop. “He is the best faux painter there is,” says friend, client and folk-art collector Bailey Davis. Davis asked Emmett to faux a door to look like her 18th century log bedroom. Emmett created a three-dimensional façade for a door out of wood and molded fiberglass to match the horizontal logs and chinking. Perfection. “You can’t tell there is a door there.”
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Davis continues. “If an ear is missing off of a piece of my folk art, for instance, he makes another, and you can’t see it’s been repaired. He’s absolutely amazing.” Well, there is something he can’t do, according to the quintessential Renaissance man. “I can’t weld,” confesses Jimmie. “But I want to take a class and learn.”
As one of the partners in the Middleburg shop, Another Blue Moon, Emmett provides the artistic direction and all the can-do attitude imaginable. He sets up vignettes from the diverse items in the high-end consignment shop, moving and rearranging every few days. It is his expertise that determines the value of items and the providence of antiques. If a piece needs a little repair or complete restoration, Emmett is on it. Often Emmett’s own creations and pieces from his vast collections are among the shop’s offerings.
It was the birthday gift from Grandma Beard when he was an 8-year-old that sparked his lifelong passion for antique Chinese snuff bottles. Nestled in a plain wood cigar box were a pocket knife, mechanical pencil and notebook, a silver signet ring, pair of dice and his very first snuff bottle.
That first snuff bottle, made of quartz with insects and flowers painted on the interior, sat ceremoniously on his dresser for 10 years. “I decided it needed company, so I bought one, then another and another,” says Emmett. “I caught the bug.”
Now Emmett’s antique Chinese snuff bottle collection totals 793, many of which are on loan for public display. “It was fun collecting them for 35 years,” says Emmett. “The beauty of them, knowing someone took 300 hours to paint or carve one. It makes you smile.” Among his vast collection are two of his favorites: a tiny imperial snuff bottle made of red coral with tropical plants carved into it and sitting atop an ivory stump, and a 500-plus carat hollowed-out ruby with a 10-carat sapphire stopper. Emmett also has a personal affinity for antique Imari, the multi-toned Japanese porcelain, and has quite an extensive collection of plates and bowls. And, he loves unusual art glass, too.
Beautiful things and nature have always provided joy to Emmett. From the gardens and jardinières of plants and flora he grew up with at Belmont and his first foray into gardening and floral arranging in New York, Emmett has found flowers provide him with the greatest of creative inspiration–in their color, form and intricacies, “and how they come back every spring.”
Adding to his unending list of skills and talents, “He cooks great meals, and loves to try new recipes and ingredients,” says his partner Tim Ohlwiler. No surprise there since Emmett hails from a family of renown chefs on his mother’s side. If you ask Emmett about his deep well of artistic gifts and practical abilities, he changes the subject or explains a process, as if you, too, could do what he does.
His positive attitude is as remarkable as his humility. “He makes heavy things lighter and has the most contagious laugh,” adds Ohwiler. “But one of the greatest things about Jimmie’s personality is how he can tune into others’ needs.”
Emmett says his retirement might include someday having a small farm where he would grow and sell cut flowers and arrangements. No doubt the likenesses of the rudbeckia, peonies, iris, zinnias and the rest would end up on a canvas, a mural, or a piece of furniture. Channeling Grandma Emmett for the toiling and harvesting of the garden and Grandma Beard for the creation of art. For Emmett it always comes back to his beginnings.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.