Making a Scene: Art in Richmond

Making a Scene: Art in Richmond

Long a destination for Civil War buffs, Richmond embraces its artistic side

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I CAN'T DECIDE WHICH street mural I like best: the purple camel or the bees riding unicycles? Maybe the portrait of a boy playing the violin? The woman squeezed into a jar of strawberries?

After a day of exploring art in Richmond, I decide that the best thing about the elaborate, often bright, sometimes kooky murals that pop up around every corner is not each individual work, but the overall effect they have on this midsize city, so saturated in creative spirit that it makes me feel as though I, too, should pick up a paintbrush and join in.

People are still exclaiming over Richmond’s transformation during the last two decades, from stodgy repository of Confederate history to a vibrant, young community of creatives. It still attracts history buffs eager to explore the American Civil War Center and stately Monument Avenue, with its imposing statues of Confederate heroes on horseback (as well as a controversial statue of native son and tennis star Arthur Ashe, which became a focal point of racial tensions upon its unveiling in 1996). But the city also draws outdoor enthusiasts to parks veined with hiking and biking trails, and to the James River, where they can kayak the only Class 5 rapids that run through any U.S. city. Outside Magazine voted it America’s Best River Town in 2012.

And art is everywhere.

I FIRST VISITED RICHMOND for a tour of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. Since my daughter enrolled two years ago, I’ve visited the city many times, but what I did not know until recently is the extent to which VCUarts, ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2012 among public art schools by U.S. News & World Report, has influenced the art scene there.

“The students are a main ingredient for the vitality of the arts in Richmond,” says John Bryan, who was dean of VCUarts for 23 years and is now head of CultureWorks, Richmond’s arts advocacy organization. A third of VCUarts graduates stay in the city to start their careers, and their presence is palpable. They’re one reason Richmond boasts 1,000 active bands, scores of art galleries and status as the third-most-tattooed city in the U.S. (according to the Today show).

Even Bryan, who turned 65 this year, has a tattoo on his calf. Dozens of equally unlikely “tattoo virgins” have the same one—a three-bar design thought to be the oldest tattoo in history and now an emblem of arts and culture advocacy in Richmond (its original symbolism is unclear). CultureWorks offers to pay for donors to get the three-bar tattoo as a thank you gift and provides a card explaining the relationship between body art and philanthropy: “Strong arts and culture are permanent, enduring, essential components of great communities.”

Ed Trask’s tattoos are more conventionally sized, covering his upper arms—but conventional is not a word I’d use to describe him. When I first meet Trask, he’s wearing paint-spattered shorts and his signature straw fedora, taking a break from two street murals he’s completing on a sunny summer day. The city’s best-known muralist, Trask, 47, graduated from VCUarts in 1992, when he was steeped in the punk-rock scene. Because galleries were ignoring him, he followed his mantra, “better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” and turned to Richmond’s outdoor spaces. He’s been busy filling that vast canvas ever since.

Trask takes me to an outdoor art gallery of murals, the result of a three-day street art festival he helped organize in 2012. More than a dozen street artists created several 18-by-32-foot murals on the abandoned James River Power Plant. Trask’s own painting of a trolley car that recalls Richmond’s old electric car system stands alone on a flood wall nearby.

“This area was really kind of dark,” Trask explains. “Nobody came down here.” But he thought they should: It’s just steps from the river, and is now part of the city’s Canal Walk, a 1.25-mile passage providing access to the James River. “I just had a dream of making it an outdoor gallery,” he says.

The paintings depict river scenes, superheroes, and a giant bull’s-eye with human torsos stuck to it like arrows. At one end of the space, a voluptuous madam’s words, painted on a ribbon floating around her head, whisper, “James, is that you I smell?”

Some locals were upset that she might be implying that their beloved James River has an unsavory aroma. Trask doesn’t mind. “I want to use street art to elicit conversations,” he says.

A second festival in 2013 transformed an abandoned bus depot into a wide corridor of giant murals and sculptures, and the conversation turned to creating more pedestrian-friendly spaces. And a separate effort, the Richmond Mural Project (run by D.C.-based Art Whino), invites internationally renowned street artists to turn Richmond into a gallery of the best street art in the world. Over the last three years, visiting artists have contributed more than 60 murals. The project aims for a total of 100.

The art reveals itself at seemingly every turn: outside cafés and galleries, on the sides of clothing stores and apartment buildings, on the sides of historic townhomes, and in alleyways and boarded-up buildings. Most is commissioned, but much is not.

“These people have nothing,” says Trask of the Richmonders who live near one recent, unsolicited work he painted for a particularly blighted neighborhood. “I wanted to bring in some color.”

THAT SPIRIT OF “anything goes” also carries through to many of the galleries in the city, which range from edgy, experimental art studios run by recent college grads to highly polished, sophisticated showrooms. I set out with my daughter to explore First Friday, which occurs the first Friday of every month when galleries coordinate their openings with special events and other attractions around town.

The heart of First Fridays is Broad Street, a main drag not far from VCU. Mingling with tattooed and pierced millennials, as well as carefully coiffed Southern sons and daughters, we stop at craft booths and a miniature farmers market in one alleyway, then consider whether to play dress up in feather boas or fake beards and have our photo taken.

There are airy abstracts in Gallery EDIT (located inside the Hillside/ World Horizons headquarters on Broad Street), where the artists are missionaries committed to spreading Christianity through their art. Next door, at Art6, we make our way through what appear to be bedrooms converted into art spaces, each with a different artist’s work, and then stand on a balcony to watch a belly dance performance below.

As the evening progresses, we see highly detailed landscapes, fanciful portraits, carefully rendered photography and bold, color-saturated abstracts. We hear a trio of bluegrass musicians, listen to a DJ spin on a street corner and watch fire dancers twirl their batons.

My favorite stop is Atlas, an art center run by Art 180 on Marshall Street, just off Broad Street. More art camp than gallery, Art 180 is a perfect example of how deeply art is integrated into this city. Operating on the concept that art can help kids and communities turn around “180” degrees, its weeks-long instructional programs are designed to give children living in challenging circumstances a way to express themselves. Their creative works are displayed at Atlas on First Fridays.

The night we walk into this lively space, the kids have answered the question “What do you stand for?” with life-size self-portraits. We pick up colored chalk to write or draw our own answers on a community chalkboard. Then we immerse ourselves in some of the children’s comments about art that are posted on the walls:  

“Art lets me concentrate and think about stuff from the past.”

“In this piece of art, I restore peace to the world.”

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibits are more refined. A world-class art center with 33,000 works from almost every major world culture, it underwent a $150 million expansion that was completed in 2010, and now boasts an airy atrium, multiple galleries and enough art to keep me coming back again and again.

On my last visit, I had a few minutes to kill before one of the free guided tours, so I took a seat in the café to wait. It overlooks a lily pond punctuated by artist Dale Chihuly’s slender glass reeds, a remembrance of the spectacular 2012 exhibit when he displayed a 3,000-pound chandelier, among other works. Just beyond the pond, sculptures and shade trees dot a vast lawn, fountains burble, and people from the surrounding neighborhood walk their dogs across the grass.

At 11 a.m., some 20 teenagers gather for the tour, though usually groups are more mixed. The docent begins with a bit of history—the museum was opened during the Depression and saved by a challenge grant met by the Virginia General Assembly—and then leads us to a few highlights, providing juicy details about the works as we go. We learn that American sculptor William Wetmore Story was self-taught, though you’d never guess it from his contemplative Cleopatra, her naked breast signifying great power, her suicide foreshadowed by the viper peering from her headdress. In the European galleries, we learn that the intricately crafted stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral is the original, and once hung in the Louvre.

We see a collection of jeweled Fabergé picture frames and hear that the original owners, the Romanovs, stuffed jewels in their bodices when they fled the Russian revolution. In the Mid to Late 20th-Century gallery, we learn that “the bad boy of art,” Julian Schnabel, wore pajama pants to his openings, and painted his dark Understanding Self-Hate on black velvet.

We also see Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series and one of Mark Rothko’s distilled color compositions. After the tour, I go back to browse the impressionists—Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet—and peek at the art deco collection of furniture and decorative arts, leaving the African, East Asian, Pre-Columbian and Ancient art for another visit.

Summing up the museum’s collection in a style reminiscent of the street art that first captured my attention is Ryan McGinness’ vibrant collage of 200 icons, representing individual works at the museum. The painting, called Art History Is Not Linear, was commissioned for the 2010 opening of the museum’s new wing; and an exhibit, Studio Visit, recreates the process of making it, with paints, spray bottles and propped-up canvases littering the “studio” and a video of the artist at work.

I sit down on the “studio” couch to think about the range of art I’ve seen both at the museum and in Richmond. There is a living quality to it, as if it is constantly being refreshed, and viewed from new perspectives. The museum renovation is one indication; the nature of street art, painted on buildings that may soon be demolished, is another. But the overall affect is enduring.

Acknowledging his murals may be destroyed when development takes over, Trask is undeterred:

“The legacy we start with this art is gonna last forever.”

Virginia Myers lives in Takoma Park, Md., and is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.

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