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A new art gallery in Richwood has connections to the town’s history and to the Philippines, half a world away.

The gallery — Bloomfield Richwood — takes its name from Alvin Bloomfield Ward, a Richwood resident who worked for many years in the town’s U.S. Post Office, located a few yards from the gallery. The co-owner of the gallery, Cecil Ybanez, was born in the Philippines.

How Ybanez ended up in the small Nicholas County town, and how Bloomfield Richwood came to be, is a love story in the purest sense of the word.

In 1989, a 22-year-old Cecil Ybanez arrived in Boca Raton, Florida, with two suitcases of clothes, $300 in his pocket and a contract to work as a physical therapist. In his rearview mirror was a large extended Catholic family in the Philippines who had loved, nurtured and educated him. Before him was a brand-new world of opportunities where he would flourish in several different careers. It was also a place where he could come out.

His husband, David Ward, grew up in Richwood. One of nine siblings, David also was loved, nurtured and educated by a close-knit village. He was a graduate of Richwood High School, where he played the trombone and graduated at the top of his class. He earned a scholarship to Case Western University; after going back and forth between music and engineering, David Ward finished with a degree in electrical engineering. That degree would open the doors for him to work for several international joint ventures, live in several U.S. locations, and eventually move to Florida in 1998, where he would meet Cecil.

“We clicked right away,” Cecil said, recalling how they first met on in an AOL chatroom. They still laugh about their first date. “Cecil invited me to go eat sushi,” David relates. “I’d never had sushi.”

Cecil picked up the story: “So I called him from a pay phone pretending to be a pizza delivery guy. Of course, he hadn’t ordered pizza, but I insisted he’d ordered a pizza and that I was waiting at the guardhouse to deliver his it.” Finally, he told David who he was, and they ended up finally meeting and talking in person for two hours.

Now, the couple — who married in Miami shortly after the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in 2015 — find themselves in Richwood, of all places.

They both describe their life in Miami as idyllic. “We were very involved in our neighborhood,” David said. We could stand in our backyard and hear our neighbors speaking Spanish, Creole and English. We loved the diversity of Miami.”

Between their times living in Boca Raton and Miami, they organized holiday home tours, block parties, movie nights, progressive dinners and landscaping projects for their neighborhood. They even helped put together a small arts festival.

Then in 2016, the “thousand-year flood” that ravaged Richwood destroyed David’s childhood home.

“My parents had already been gone,” he said, “but then we also lost a place to call home.” So he and Cecil decided to buy a building with a second-floor apartment in downtown Richwood, where family could stay when they visited. They could rent it out as an Airbnb the rest of the time.

Cecil, who had shifted careers after earning an interior design degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, transformed the apartment into a tropical getaway they named “La Bonita.” That apartment has been renting consistently with rave reviews on Airbnb’s website.

But they were still living in Florida. Neither of them had ever imagined moving to West Virginia. That was soon to change.

While they were still working on the renovation of their downtown building, traveling back and forth between Miami and Richwood, a high school friend called David to tell him she was selling her family home — a sprawling former lodge at the edge of town.

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“We’d always wanted to open a bed and breakfast,” said Cecil. “This was our chance to do it.”

Meanwhile, Florida was changing, and not for the better. “Sea levels in Miami became a concern, along with stronger hurricanes,” David said.

Then the pandemic hit and brought their active social lives to a standstill.

Basically, it was Cecil who had to convince David to move back to his hometown. “I took one look at the vaulted ceiling in the lodge and said, ‘This is it.’” They thought about becoming snow birds, but in the end, they chose to live full time in West Virginia.

So, in October of 2020, Cecil and David moved into the lodge. Cecil has already finished the first round of designs for the historic building with some sensitive and respectful updates to the interiors.

David continues to work as a sales V.P. for an electrical equipment manufacturer. At first Cecil continued to work remotely as an interior designer for high-end hospitality projects such as the Ritz, but ultimately decided to focus on his art and their plans for Richwood.

In August of this year, Cecil completed the redesign for the street level space of their downtown building (the one with the upstairs apartment). The building formerly housed a jewelry store. Now, Bloomfield Richwood and La Bonita both face the post office where David’s father worked as a groundskeeper.

“We thought it was fitting for the gallery to be named after David’s father,” Cecil said. Bloomfield was David’s father’s middle name, although everyone in Richwood called him “Doc.” David also pointed out that, coincidentally, Doc had served briefly in the Philippines in World War II.

Bloomfield Richwood gallery opened with the exhibit “Cousins,” featuring the black-and-white works of New York photographer, Michelle Rose, and her cousin Mark Spencer’s eclectic pieces of acrylic paintings and metal sculptures. Over 200 people attended the opening on Aug. 4.

On Sept. 17 they hosted the opening of the Steve Flynn exhibit, which will continue through the Richwood Art Walk (see sidebar).

“Bloomfield seeks to highlight contemporary artists from Appalachia,” Cecil said. He also wants the gallery to serve as a platform for emerging artists as well as a showcase for more established artists. They have a new show scheduled every six weeks all the way to June 2022, with artists from West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Eventually, they want to be able to host smaller art and cultural events and classes in both their indoor and outdoor spaces.

The two men are comfortably established in their old/new environs. David is a member of the city’s building commission. Cecil is on the Chamber of Commerce’s executive board. He also spearheaded the formation of the town’s first Art Walk set for Oct. 9.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect with moving to West Virginia,” Cecil admits. “I mean, I am both an immigrant and a gay man. I wondered if I would feel conspicuous.” But he says the opposite happened. “Almost to a person, everyone I’ve met has been welcoming and friendly. My interactions here feel a lot more personal, since we all seem to have the time to actually converse. The social settings generally being on a smaller scale than in most urban areas also helps experiences feel more intimate.”

Alvin Bloomfield “Doc” Ward’s trombone-playing valedictorian son couldn’t be more surprised at how things have turned out.

“My brothers & sisters thought I was the least likely of us to move back to Richwood and West Virginia,” David said. “But in some ways, all of our hearts have always stayed here.”

Susan Johnson writes a column for the Nicholas Chronicle. She lives in Richwood.

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