Murals turn Richmond into free open air museum
Hungry for art? Due to the coronavirus, the VMFA is closed, art exhibits and festivals are cancelled, and galleries are shuttered. It’s hard to get your visual stimulation fix.
But RVA is home to an incredible collection of street mural art, accessible all day, every day. From three-story murals to tiny gems tucked in alleyways, murals have popped up in the Fan, the Carytown district, Jackson Ward, Carver and most recently the Green Gate Shopping Plaza in the far West End.
Artists from all over the world created these vibrant works thanks to RVA Street Art Festivals, the Richmond Mural Project and individual commissions. Richmond also has a local talent pool of mural artists, including recruits from VCU’s lauded art department.
One of these graduates is Nils Westergard. His work can be seen worldwide, on walls in London, Prague, Berlin, the Hague, Belgium and the Czech Republic, as well as throughout Richmond. His 100-foot-tall mural “Kaiya with Tulips,” in Waynesboro, Virginia, was named number one on the list of “One Hundred Best Artworks and Street Artists of the Year” in 2019 by 360 Street Art, an online magazine.
Creating these massive works of art can be logistically and emotionally challenging, Westergard said.
“It is more physicality and nerves than anything else. The basics of it are quite easy — margins of error quite large,” he said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
“It is simply exhausting and terrifying. These huge jobs require the rental of big lifts that can get you up high — and hopefully keep you safely there.”
Westergard creates tender but honest portraits of friends, as in “Kaiya with Crown,” which graces the side of the Pine Street Barber Shop, and the two-story “Girl with Phone,” on the side of a building at Belmont and Patterson.
His work can be ferocious, too: A drooling hyena with a terrifying grin guards the door of the Veil Brewing Company.
Westergard is currently working on plans for a mural of the late singer John Prine, to be installed in Chicago, Prine’s hometown, later this year.
‘Rock climbing’ for art
Nico Cathcart, who lives in the Lakeside area of Henrico County, said she became a mural painter partly because of the challenge.
“It’s a bit like rock climbing,” said Cathcart, who is preparing to work on a mural that requires a three-story scaffold.
“Painting a big wall is very physical work,” she said. “The hardest part is translating the image [from paper to wall], though. I use a grid method, which does require a bunch of work translating the sketch I am using to the size of the wall.”
Cathcart’s colorful, sensual works include “Cosmic Moxie,” a woman in a state of blue bliss floating on the side of the Vitality Spa on South Robinson Street, and the luscious “Among my Swans,” at Cyclebar at Green Gate Shopping Plaza.
She also painted the festive skull with flowers, “Dios De Los Muertos (God of the Dead),” on the exterior wall of the Banditos Burrito Lounge at 2905 Patterson Avenue.
“I like the idea of putting art into communities,” she said. “I like to call murals ‘interventions into the mundane.’ They have the power to change someone’s day.”
Outlaw artists go mainstream
Ed Trask, another VCU grad, has been coloring Richmond’s Fan since 1990. He started as an “outlaw artist,” expressing himself as a punk rock drummer who also did graffiti. Now his work is in constant demand.
One well-known example is “Miss Sidewalk,” cheering up the exterior of the Sidewalk Café on West Main Street. The natural spirit of Ellwood Thompson’s grocery store is expressed in Trask’s breezy mural of pickers in an apple orchard. His more recent work is a spectacular black vulture at Green Gate Shopping Plaza.
Another outlaw, Mickael Broth, also known as the Night Owl, has been painting the town since 2001. In 2004, Broth was sentenced to a 10-month stay in jail for painting without permission. By 2008, however, his work won him a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship.
Since 2012, he has painted more than 200 public murals throughout Richmond, the United States and Europe, in addition to helping curate multiple public art festivals.
Some of Broth’s work appears on the water tower of FFV on Broad Street, the exterior (and interior) of the Mellow Mushroom on West Cary Street, and several cartoon-style murals near the Belmont Butchery on Belmont Street.
These are just a small sample of the many artists who can be viewed right now in the city. Take a ride — the sun is out, and the weather is fine for viewing art in the open.
To learn more about mural art in Richmond, read Murals of RVA, co-authored by Ed Trask and Mickael Broth. After quarantine ends, you can also take a guided walking tour from a company like Would I Lie to You Mural Walks or Richmond Mural Tours, LLC.
To see more images of the area’s murals, visit rvamurals.com.