Emily Herr And Her Massive Mural With A Message

by | Jun 7, 2023 | ART, POP CULTURE, STREET ART

Emily Herr, an acclaimed muralist based in Richmond, has demonstrated a profound appreciation for her subjects and the spaces they inhabit, whether in public murals or private commissions. Herr’s characteristic illustrative style has a sense for narrative and reflects her understanding of the locales she transforms with her art. Herr’s celebrated series, Girls! Girls! Girls!, immerses notable women in the environments they shape and nourish. Similarly, a mural for Vasen’s taproom harmoniously blends the Scandinavian influence of the local brewery with features reminiscent of the James River Park System. From a tranquil university wall in Ferizaj, Kosova, that springs to life with a vibrant center, Herr’s art captures the essence of the spaces she depicts. It’s this depth of understanding and her distinct, layered style that elevated her as a top contender for a mural project in Scott’s Addition.

This project’s genesis traces back to nearly three years ago when a select group of local artists, including Herr, was approached by Quirk Gallery and Architecture Firm to contemplate a mural for a forthcoming development project in Scott’s Addition. Greystar, a D.C.-based firm, was at the helm of this mixed-use building project, their inaugural venture in Richmond. Drawn to the city’s charm and the energetic ambiance of Scott’s Addition, Greystar saw the need to acknowledge the neighborhood’s rich history while ushering in its burgeoning evolution. Incorporating murals into the design of the new building, The Otis, was an early vision that would pay homage to Scott’s Addition’s legacy while showcasing Richmond’s exceptional artistic talent. With limited directives, Herr presented design proposal for the building’s exterior that far exceeded Greystar’s expectations.

Emily Herr Scott Addition mural 2023
Photo courtesy of Emily Herr @herrsuite

It’s interesting to see a healthy mix of murals created for artistic reasons and those commissioned by businesses all over town now. Every working artist has to straddle the line between paid and passion projects — how do you find a good balance between those 2 worlds?

As often as I can, I leverage my paid projects to feed my passion. Occasionally I’ll clear out time for personal mural work, but those opportunities are usually aligned with some other passion in turn – an avenue to travel across the country, or work with a good friend. I find a lot of motivation in working for someone else- allowing their space and context to inspire new ideas for me. The trick is finding the balance inside client work for their needs, my expertise, and my ideas. Sometimes that means turning down jobs where I know I won’t find that balance. Sometimes that means presenting ideas to a client that are informed by their space but fully outside of what they initially requested from me.

For this job, the client’s request was a few degrees away from being perfectly aligned with some of my biggest interests – they wanted to feature the industry of Scott’s Addition to help the building reflect the neighborhood. I wanted to explore the DIY community that had thrived there for decades, a different kind of industry. This community is dispersed and ephemeral, and rarely recognized. To me, this site was a perfect platform to portray and celebrate a kind of creative work that is tangible and common, but easily disappears into the finished product.

Emily Herr Scott Addition mural 2023
Photo courtesy of Emily Herr @herrsuite

Why is the DIY community in Richmond such a driver of culture in the city?

Formal organizations tend to be about serving a long-term goal, or providing space, or platforms, or opportunities. These are important, but at a certain point the setup and preparation and funding and planning comes to the pivot point of doing. The DIY community is where control meets chaos and creation happens. Ideas that people are passionate enough about to do without all that nice stage-setting tend to be the most powerful ones. Whether those ideas flourish or not, they are the potent seeds that I believe inform the rest of the city’s more predictable and established cultural actions.

Emily Herr Scott Addition mural 2023
Photo courtesy of Emily Herr @herrsuite

In the press release you mention the impulse to simply show the people who work and have worked in Scott Addition, and incorporate that into your mural at The Otis. As the area rapidly changes to a place where most artists will not be able to afford to live and work, could this mural be thought of as a historical record of what Scott Addition was or is this a reflection of the present?

It takes space to do this work, experiment, try something and fail. It takes flexibility – tall ceilings and big windows, low rents and lower maintenance standards, and most importantly: little oversight.

This group of people that I’m focused on operates in transition – we visualize what the world could look like, how it could change, and what it would take to make that happen. Then we grab the world as it is with both hands and wrench, guide, encourage it into a new shape. Our impact on our surroundings are strong enough that we can’t stay in the same place – any place we’re in will never stay the same.

I see this mural as an homage to the constant evolution of city space; the fourth panel of the mural shows the neighborhood/city scale of the creative process. Scott’s Addition has had a high concentration of studio spaces, but there are pockets of this kind of space all over the city. Most of the people I interviewed for this project haven’t stayed in one studio or workshop for more than 5 years. Frequently that’s because of slumlord rent changes, sometimes it’s because their business grows, and sometimes because it fails. But for any of these places to start, those big empty spaces with cheap rent and free ‘water features’ on the back wall and in the basement were critical.

That’s a big part of what I want people to consider when seeing this mural. There is conflict here, which your question picks up on. This mural is of people that worked in this neighborhood. I hope this mural calls viewers to ask where are they now? Where is our city allowing space for experimentation, failure, and chaos? Where do ideas start?

Emily Herr Scott Addition mural 2023
Photo courtesy of Emily Herr @herrsuite

At 4000 square feet, is this is your biggest mural yet?

Yes. This is my largest project spatially, conceptually, financially, temporally… all of it. A normal project for me takes between 3 days and 4 weeks on the wall. This project took 14 weeks, with at least one assistant working with me at all times.

Emily Herr Scott Addition mural 2023
Photo courtesy of Emily Herr @herrsuite

It took 2 years to complete. How did your thoughts on what you were creating evolve over that period of time?

For many walls, the image and the concept for the design come together simultaneously. For this one, I did a lot of writing and reflecting before I had any idea what form the image would take. How do you represent a whole community? How do you make it impactful to a public viewer who has no context for the work, but also make it genuine for the people it’s composed from and for?

I methodically broke down all of my ideas that I had cobbled together for the project proposal, and then built the whole concept back together bit by bit. The design process took months because I wanted to approach the whole thing as a research project – noting my own theory, and then interviewing others to gather insight and see what the discussions would lead me to.

My initial impulse was to simply show the people who work and have worked here. Show their hands, bodies, tools, materials, products, workspaces, engaged in the process of work. Hitting upon the transition point between internal and external, idea and reality, was the biggest turning point for this concept. Using that perspective, I could draw a connection between the work of an individual and the growth of a city.

Ultimately I feel that I’ve stuck close to that starting point, and that the work I’ve done is to figure out how to frame these images in a cohesive statement. Each distinct image on the wall is a little portrait of a moment, and taken all together they form a larger portrait of the creative process.

Give Emily Herr a follow @herrsuite
Go by and see the mural at The Otis Apartments at 1661 Roseneath Rd Richmond, VA

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me

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