New Ravenna Mosaics Revitalizes Virginia's Eastern Shore

Inspiration from an American innovator

Exmore, Va. used to be a ghost town-or close to it.

Set on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a landscape of farming land that stretches for acres surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean--Exmore was once a bustling market town, supplying vegetables to the entire Eastern seaboard.

But by the late 1960s, competition from Mexico and southern U.S. states forced a change that would push the region into an economic spiral that left the town one of the poorest in Northampton County, the second poorest county in Virginia.

The farmers switched to growing grains, but that failed to help the town's economy much, as those crops also faced competition from other states. The final straw that sealed the town's financial decline was the construction of a shopping center along the bypass for U.S. Route 13 in the early 1990s. Twelve businesses closed their doors forever.

The impact of those decisions can be seen driving along the 20-mile stretch of Charles M. Lankford, Jr. highway to reach Exmore. Abandoned, boarded up buildings have almost been overtaken by tall grasses.

But drive off the main highway and into Exmore and the scene changes. Several bright white buildings with crisp blue awnings dominate the small town. A handful of stores are still doing business. Ten minutes east, the Exmore Diner remains a mainstay among the locals.

Here, two decades ago, Sara Baldwin came to town with a dream to build a company.
The Creative Mastermind

Baldwin grew up on the Eastern Shore not far from Exmore. Her parents had met, married, and raised a family here. She spent two summers teaching art to local children when she was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania.

When she returned to the university to get a master's degree in fine arts, her plans were to become a fine arts painter. Baldwin never thought much about returning to the Eastern Shore.

During her second year of graduate school, Baldwin took a trip up to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead of focusing on the art on the walls she found herself captivated by the art on the floor-an ancient mosaic. She was drawn to the beauty made by putting stones and gems together in intricate shapes. Baldwin knew she had found a new passion.

After graduation, she moved to New Orleans to teach art, but still the mosaics stuck in her mind. Struggling to make ends meet in the Big Easy, and increasingly yearning to be closer to family and her roots, Baldwin made a huge life decision. She packed her bags and headed home to the Eastern Shore.

Kory SmithNew Ravenna Mosaics founder Sara Baldwin.

Two years after seeing that mosaic, Baldwin started New Ravenna Mosaics--paying homage to Ravenna, Italy and its thousand-year-old mosaic art--in her parent's Virginia living room. She was on a deadline-her parents had given her one year to live with them and get her business off the ground. If she couldn't make it work in twelve months, she'd have to find another way to pay the bills. They supported her art and entrepreneurial spirit, but they weren't going to support her financially.

In that first year, Baldwin learned to make mosaics that were both decorative and utilitarian. You could use them in kitchens and baths even though they were works of art. Baldwin now had the skills, but she still needed customers.

Back in the early '90s, the biggest buyers of decorative tile mosaics were churches and cathedrals. Baldwin did some research and learned the biggest trade show for these customers took place once a year in Minneapolis. So she packed up her samples and drove more than 1,200 miles to Minnesota. As it turned out, the convention was a bust, and Baldwin failed to drum up any business.

But before leaving town, she remembered a name she'd heard back during her grad school days--Fantasia Tile Showroom. On a whim, Baldwin looked up the business in the local yellow pages and set up a meeting with a company representative. It was a meeting that would change the course of her life. Fantasia loved all of the New Ravenna samples and immediately placed an order. Fantasia remains a client to this day.

Baldwin knew she needed money if she was going to fulfill those orders and give her parents back their living room. So she entered a contest in New Woman magazine that was designed to help fund new businesses. One of Baldwin's friends had been a previous winner, but that year, the competition was particularly stiff--she was competing against more than 1,700 applicants. Baldwin poured her heart and soul into her entry essay, detailing her passion for her product and her desire to bring commerce back to the Eastern Shore. Her words wove a story as complex as her tile designs and helped her win the contest. Baldwin spent the grand prize money, $25,000, on a computer, fax machine, and funded the printing of her first catalog.

By 1999, New Ravenna had moved to Exmore. But the company needed a lot more space to expand its operations. Exmore had more than its fair share of empty buildings so she bought the town's old post office and a shirt factory for $55,000. Five years later, she bought an old movie theater and two other buildings for $28,000 that now house a studio used to shoot promotional photos of New Ravenna's product as well as her future office and a showroom.

New Ravenna has transformed the town, and Baldwin has also changed the lives of the 115 people she employees, all of whom live in the surrounding towns. "I'm so blessed with the team that I have," she says. "They're all so talented. I can't believe they all ended up on the Eastern Shore."

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as a tile setter i envy your talent designing and making mosaics

August 01 2014 at 9:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

There are still a lot of businesses in Exmore named "available".

August 01 2014 at 5:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Kudos to her! Another good thing though: the Eastern Shore of Virginia remains beautiful and non-congested. This already attracts those who want to escape the usual crowded and polluted eastern shoreline destinations.

August 01 2014 at 1:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

My daughter and son-in-law moved to a town near Exmore froom Suburban Long Island and never looked back.We often visit from NY and go to the diner at least once every time we are there. Beautiful country and great people. We hope to retire near Exmore as well.

August 01 2014 at 12:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I would love to have something to do there. I have 31 years police experience; 20 years military experience and after leaving to police (Retired) became a clergy man, earning a Dr. in PhD. (Counseling); Sc.D. Christian Counseling and a D.D. along with D.J. (1988 D.J. 1988 from a dysfunctional College. I AM EZPER IENCE TO PRSUS PUTSUE RHAT

July 22 2014 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ryanbrown616's comment

There are several police agencies. We prefer to hire people who do not have to go through the Academy.

August 01 2014 at 5:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Liberals will say she got rich by chance. All the work had nothing to do with it.

July 21 2014 at 11:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to texifish's comment

"The point is....that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together." Obama saying she built this in the same speech that contains the unPC statement "didn't build this". I wish you people would quit building myths on partial truth.

August 01 2014 at 8:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

That's a smile ? She looks like she's straining to poop !

July 21 2014 at 10:47 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to edbon64's comment

And you missed the whole point of the story simply because you focused on her appearance and your opinion of it... Bummer for you.

August 01 2014 at 1:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

She has put a lot more people to work than 115. I have my own business of clean, seal and recondictioning marble floor and walls, plus the people who install the stone and sell it. I work with them all. Its vary beautiful stuff

July 21 2014 at 8:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Out of the country is where we do most of our work where our gov. has a hard time doing what they should be doing
a lot of people in our country think that we should not be doing what we do but like I will tell anyone some one has to do it. And we have no help from our countrys gov. THE RECOVERY PEOPLE.

July 21 2014 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

But according to Obama she did not build this business. The government with the help of many others did. So I hope you all understand. No one builds a business in this country without help from the government. Got it?!!!

July 21 2014 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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