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A gift of LOVE arrives by rail

New sign depicts a fanciful locomotive, serves as backdrop to couple's wedding

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It was a hot and muggy late afternoon, but the weather didn’t deter more than 100 from gathering at The Depot Park near the Warrenton Branch Greenway last Thursday for the unveiling of Old Town Warrenton’s first LOVE sign. 

Warrenton has now officially joined Virginia’s “love trail” with Dorothy Smith’s whimsical and colorful welded-steel sculpture.

Staying with a locomotive theme that not only honors the history of its location but suggests forward movement, Smith’s design incorporates the L-O-V-E letters and has them astride a rail car base. While the lavender wheels wouldn’t pass with the Norfolk Southern, they make for a fun feature of this art installation. 

Look closely and you’ll see the cow catcher on the front and the blue letter “L” serves as the smoke stack with plumes of twisting colored steel rising into the air. Smith’s color palate is pastel, incorporating fanciful hues of blue, pink, lavender and green.

Smith, a local artist, was thrilled to be asked to design the sculpture, which has been in the works for a little over a year. It wasn’t without its challenges, as Smith said in her remarks, but ultimately, it is a piece close to her heart. 

“What does it mean to plunk a large sculpture that announces love in the middle of your town?” she asked, adding: “Does it mean we carry that into our community in acts of kindness and care?”

Smith sees her sculpture as much more than pieces of painted steel announcing love is in the air. She hopes that when folks see it, they will be reminded to extend themselves in different ways, to perhaps bring the town closer together and to move forward from the past with a new identity, a fresh outlook. 

“Let’s harness art in public spaces and make our community great,” said Warrenton Mayor Carter Nevill, who said he hopes Smith’s sculpture be the first of many pieces of public art in the community. Nevill said the town council looks to the establish an arts commission to encourage more artistic endeavors. 

“Art in public spaces makes places great,” he added. 

When it comes to making things happen, real estate developer Matt Iten was on board with the vision of a town LOVE sculpture from the beginning. An avid runner, Iten’s path often takes him by the greenway. When he heard of the project, he was all for it.  

“I’m an advocate for the town,” Iten said at the unveiling ceremony. “This is what the town needs, and now there are new reasons to be here…for others to come here.”

Iten donated $10,000 to the project specifically targeted for Smith’s sculpture. 

Virginia Is For Lovers’

“We believe that this sculpture marks the 126th LOVE sign in Virginia,” said Stephanie Lillard, a partnership marketing development specialist with the Virginia Tourism Corporation. 

She said there are no doubt more, but Warrenton’s LOVE sign will be officially registered. 

The art installation is part of the “LOVEwork” campaign, an effort led by the Virginia Tourism Corporation to promote travel in the state. 

“Your uniquely-crafted LOVEwork extends our brand,” said Lillard. “We see folks coming to visit the signs. She encouraged everyone to take their photo by the sculpture and share.

According to VTC, tourism in 2017 generated $25 billion in revenue, supported 232,000 jobs and provided $1.73 billion in state and local taxes for Virginia. The sculpture’s design includes a platform to make picture taking a snap. 

From dream to design

“Why can’t we have one?” was a common thread running through conversations among some of the town merchants. Many voiced that they would like to see a LOVE sign in Warrenton. Sunny Reynolds is a board member and chairs Experience Old Town Warrenton’s design committee. It was a mantra she heard over and over again. Reynolds forged ahead with the idea of Warrenton having its own unique sign. 

“I had worked with Dorothy and loved her work,” said Reynolds. “She was the first person I called. We wanted to find a local artist.”

The train theme was on track from the beginning. The colorful, playful design fit in with the committee’s vision and Depot Park, a passive park, would get a boost from the art installation. Plus, bikers and hikers are regular visitors to the site.

“Without Matt [Iten] this wouldn’t have gotten done,” Reynolds added of the real estate developer’s shared vision and generosity in taking the dream from design to a public unveiling. “He was in the loop all along.”

Reynolds wore red on the day of the unveiling. “I thought this would be in keeping with a love theme,” she said smiling.

“This has been a year in the making and it wasn’t just me…this took a team effort to make happen from concept to completion,” said Reynolds. “Public art connects us. … This writes an exciting new chapter. When we celebrate art, we celebrate life itself.”

Reynolds thanked the Warrenton Town Council for their vision and support throughout the process. She also gave a big shout-out to Bo Tucker, the head of public works for the town. Originally planned to sit on a concrete slab, Tucker suggested using actual railroad ties and track. After all, it’s a train. Done. 

“It adds so much to the piece,” said Reynolds. “He was wonderful to work with and it definitely spruces up the park.”

Love is in the air

Once the official unveiling speeches concluded, the festivities were just beginning. To further celebrate the new sign, the town and love, local business Ciao Bella Celebrations partnered with Experience Old Town Warrenton to host, quite naturally, a wedding.

The lucky couple, Monica Anne Fernandi and Mike King, were selected from love stories submitted to EOTW and Ciao Bella Celebrations. 

They arrived in Ciao Bella Creations’s blue and white trolley. Flower girls happily sprinkled petals along the way to the sculpture. After the ceremony, the newlyweds spent their honeymoon night at the beautiful historic bed and breakfast, The Chilton House, on Culpeper Street. 

“You’ve got mail,” said an exuberant bride as she shared a small mailbox filled with love letters that she suggested be mailed to those dearest to the attendees. It was their gift to everyone who had come to share their special day. 

Handwritten notes were inside each of the envelopes passed around. One messages was particularly apt and seemed to sum up the culmination of many minds and hands to bring Warrenton the gift of a LOVE sign: “You can create your heart’s desire.”

Reach Anita Sherman at



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