Jackson Ward arts and history tour highlights street art in former ‘Harlem of the South’ ahead of RMP 2015

by | Jun 29, 2015 | ART

The Richmond Mural Project (RMP) returns to town next month, bringing ten more muralists for round 4 of the project.

The Richmond Mural Project (RMP) returns to town next month, bringing ten more muralists for round 4 of the project.

Art Whino, a DC based art gallery, conducts the Richmond Mural Project every year. Their mission is “to bring together the pioneers and freshest talent from around the world.”

They follow through on this mission by bringing artists from across the country and around the world together to work on various projects, like the one here in Richmond.

However, the Richmond Mural Project isn’t even close to the only organization bringing art to the city walls. Richmond has a collection of projects and organizations that strive to provide engaging street art on par with the world class muralists brought in by Art Whino.

One such organization is Arts in the Alley, which teams artists up with community volunteers to transform the city’s alleys into artistic spaces over the course of a weekend.

The projects are always collaborative and center around the principle of community ownership, among others.

One artist the group works with is Emily Herr, a 2013 graduate of VCU’s Communication Arts program. Herr said Arts in the Alley is concerned with taking neglected wall space and returning the potential of those walls back to the community.

“Coming out and picking up a paint brush and making a really cool mural can be empowering,” Herr said. She appreciates that the organization is a human and neighborhood centric approach to outdoor art.

Herr attended the Jackson Ward History and Mural Tour held by The Valentine earlier this month, which guided visitors through the neighborhood visiting sites of historic and artistic significance.

One stop was an October 2013 mural Herr led through Arts in the Alley.

(image via Arts in the Alley)

The mural is located in the parking garage behind Mama J’s. Herr said she aimed to reflect the creativity she saw within the neighborhood. The mural reads “Sing out your soul,” which is an adaptation of a line she knew from a popular church hymn.

Valentine Tour Guide Liz Farber researched and wrote the Jackson Ward tour. Spanning both murals and historic landmarks in Jackson Ward, Farber said the area was a gateway into the rich and varied history of RVA.

“Jackson Ward is a very innovative neighborhood, there were a lot of immigrants and then after slavery ended, it became a center for black culture,” she said of the neighborhood that has been historically referred to as the Harlem of the South.

Farber said researching the murals in the neighborhood was them most exciting part of preparing for the tour. Meeting some of the artists, like Sir James Thornhill (work is top image, description below), was especially enjoyable because it gave her a deeper understanding of the people in the neighborhood.

Top Image – A James Thornhill mural in Jackson Ward. This section of the mural depicts Harriet Tubman. Thornhill’s symbolic use of light as hope with her figure is significant to the historically African American neighborhood.

“I think the murals that are in there really fit with the culture of the neighborhood of being expressive and artistic,” she said.

(Mural by RVA muralist Earl Mack)

Farber said talking to Herr was particularly interesting because Herr was one of the few female muralists she came across during her research. Herr appreciates the variety of outdoor art based projects in the city because although they may seem very similar to the outside observer, they all have very distinct missions making them unique.

Another organization working to grown RVA’s street art cred is Welcoming Walls, which organizes murals intentionally placed along the highways and gateways into the city. This allows the noticeably bland entryways into the city to reflect the artistic vibrancy that already resides within.

Herr’s favorite organization is the Richmond Street Art Festival, which aims to showcase the creative power of street art and revitalize specific areas in the city. “It gets… incredible artists out to paint, and it gets the whole community out to watch,” she says of the festival. “It’s more about changing that one place than just throwing the stuff all around the city.”

“Art and painting and murals are what I think about all the time every day,” Herr said. She values the variety of outdoor art based projects across the city because they reflect its creativity spirit.

“If you’re a muralist and you’re painting these giant walls, you have a giant voice that you can use,” Herr said. She says people who very effectively or intentionally use that voice impress her and she thinks using that voice is an important aspect of being a muralist.

If you’re interested in following the Richmond Mural Project, RVA Mag will be providing coverage when it is in town July 13th through the 24th.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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