Cathcart’s mural exhibition at BOJUart Gallery is a great example of the growing artistic scene in Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District.
It’s the first First Friday of 2019 in Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District, and Nico Cathcart is beginning her live mural; a 25-ft long stretch of paper, located in the main room of BOJUart Gallery. On it, outlines of birds: halcyon kingfishers, eastern bluebirds, a Gray Jay — an aide-memoire to her previous life in Canada. Cathcart will be painting the mural as a live exhibit spanning the next four weeks, but not just because she finds birds totally super cool.
Cathcart is in the process of becoming deaf. The hairs of her cochlea are slowly balding through a process of tone-based, degenerative hearing loss. She wears hearing aids which helps her hold conversations and listen to some of her old favorite songs, but her condition affects both volume and tone. An avid birdwatcher, Cathcart first took notice of her condition when birds in the woods bordering her home began to go silent.
“I first started noticing when I was missing words,” she said. “But really, the birds I noticed, because my trips to the woods started to go silent. I can’t hear cicadas, birds, crickets — normal stuff along the James. I realized this was gone, and I can’t get that back.” Currently at 30% hearing capacity, Cathcart fully understands that, one day soon, her hearing will stop, its remnants relegated to memory.
Her work has since been a myriad of bird paintings, most oil, pencil, and gouache-based. The majority of these are featured as part of Resilience, her latest exhibit, an immersive, interactive experience curated by BOJUart Gallery. The exhibit encircles the other three-quarters of the room in which she’s painting her mural. The works operate as mementos, whether to her departed loved ones or as chapters of her own mythology.
Cathcart’s exhibit at BOJUart is an example of the growing arts initiative in Virginia Beach, part of the Virginia Beach Arts District’s effort to reclaim a resort town ailing from its own irrelevance.
Though state lawmakers began offering tax incentives for Virginia art localities as early as 2009, it wasn’t until 2015 that an organization, The ViBe Creative District of Virginia Beach, was approved under an ordinance and officially tasked with roping in an ensemble. The ViBe is an official 501(c)(3), recognized by the IRS as a non-profit, with the ability to accept tax-deductible contributions and offer tax incentives to artists and entrepreneurs looking to rehabilitate buildings.
In 2018, the city announced the ViBe Creative District Matching Grant Program, which provides grants to small, locally owned and operated businesses located within the district for building improvements and equipment.
Kate Pittman, Executive Director of the ViBe Creative District nonprofit, is the linchpin of this great machine. She acts as liaison between the city’s public efforts to build the arts district, the private-sector small businesses, and local artists. She knows the right people and speaks in bureaucratic tongues. She knows well in advance which permits to apply for, she attends every First Fridays, shakes the hands, and always wears a smile.
Pittman was hired in November 2016, after she’d spent 11 years working for Virginia MOCA overseeing museum operations. ViBe co-founders Andrew Fine, of The Runnymede Corporation, and Laura Wood Habr, of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro, worked on and off with the City of Virginia Beach’s Office of Cultural Affairs since 2013; researching, holding City stakeholder meetings, and engaging in grass roots efforts with local businesses to discuss the creation of an arts district.
“When I was hired in 2016, the nonprofit and supporting business association were fairly new,” Pittman said. “My role was to get everyone activated, which involved meetings with local government, grant funders, and private donors.”
Since the ViBe’s inception, Pittman and involved artists have overseen the successful expansion of a district unmatched in the Hampton Roads area; an artistic sprawl of artists and creative businesses, including restaurants, galleries, museums, and roasteries, as well as murals and sidewalk art.
“All this has resulted in the creation of 30 new businesses since City Council established the ViBe boundaries and incentives in 2015, and the addition of over 100 works of art in the neighborhood,” Pittman said. “My previous role at Virginia MOCA, and [my] established relationships with City staff, were an absolute benefit… but really, it took everyone involved, from a grass-roots effort all the way to the top of City leadership at City Manager and Council level, for this success to happen.”
Pittman is involved in virtually every function of the district. She’s also the only official staff member, with the exception of her intern. She does a bi-monthly mural tour for interested patrons, 75 tours per year, even when that entails standing out in the cold, Coleman lantern in hand, waiting for strangers to show up. “I run two boards — a non profit board and a business association board,” she said. “We have approximately 75 local business members and engage with over 100 local artists. In addition, I work with around eight different City departments to execute projects, from Cultural Affairs to Public Utilities to the Public Schools.”
Pittman stressed that the key to the ViBe Creative District’s success was to cater to art in a broad sense, and strive for it be self sufficient. This commitment shows in the broad spectrum of organizations they work with; on weekends in the right season, the Old Beach Farmers Market sets up at the corner of 19th and Cypress St. In other parts of the year, the Virginia Beach Flea Market sets up adjacent to convention center on the west end of 19th street. And of course, there’s always a strong connection to the local community — most of the restaurants are farm to table, and anything not grown feet away from the kitchens is usually purchased from local farm stands.
Pittman says the district looks to continue its growth indefinitely. That said, continuing work on the city is visible, and far from complete. Streets along the fringe of the district are still littered with construction blocks, cracked roads, and caterpillar cranes. Stripped down malls, chipped-paint warehouses, and worn-down city streets still appear every other block or so. At 19 square blocks, the district still has the room for expansion.
And as Pittman tells us, that expansion is coming. “In 2019, we look forward to a 2nd annual ViBe Mural Festival, to add ’10 Murals in 10 Days’ throughout the district,” she said. “These large scale works have the greatest impact in our neighborhood. Smaller public art projects, such as sidewalk art, creative crosswalks, and a new utility box project, are also planned this year, with a potential to add 75-plus new works of art to the district.”
And that’s not even all — Pittman also mentioned a new brewery opening up on 18th Street in 2019, the arrival of the Virginia Beach Art Center and Artist’s Gallery on 17th Street, and numerous new commercial tenants coming to the district. “Private development will be big in 2019-2020,” she said.
Virginia Beach has always had the reputation of an up-and-coming resort town, but until recently, the city never seemed to see any real change come to fruition. It was a town of forgotten and misplaced projects. But large gains in tourism over recent years, with 2017 marking its sixth consecutive year of growth, have changed all that.
“Our organization is recognized, and was a catalyst for several others in the city, as a model to follow to engage private sector with city leadership,” Pittman said. “And perhaps most importantly, the positive media attention that the ViBe generates for the City of Virginia Beach is undeniable — we are a point of pride for our city, and represent the authentic Virginia Beach experience.”
However, some city officials are concerned over how much revenue a new arts district is able to bring to the city. With a new slate of leaders elected this past November, it remains to be seen whether the city’s new administration will have the same enthusiasm as previous ones. Former City Councilman Bobby Dyer took office as Virginia Beach’s new mayor after defeating Ben Davenport in the November election. In a November interview with the Virginian-Pilot, Dyer ensured he would “continue to honor [his] promise to build positive bridges with the City Council and my commitment to the public.” We reached out to Dyer’s office for comment, but no response has been sent over.
However, Pittman feels positive about the district’s ability to survive the transition. “We are very positive that our documented success to date will encourage City leadership to continue investing in the ViBe Creative District as the City’s one and only art district,” she said. “Programs that we helped advocate for and administer, such as the ViBe Small Business Matching Grant program, are piloted here to prove success and are transferable to other areas of our City.”
In a corner of BOJUart Gallery’s main room, a poster is taped to the wall, with a wooden stand beneath. On the stand are bowls of cut-out birds and markers, shared so that guests to write in forms of loss and pain they experience. For Nico Cathcart, this part of the project is a way to connect with members of the local community, by sharing their experiences on a murmuration wall. With this communal aspect of the project, Cathcart hopes to make some broader meaning of the grief that accompanies her loss.
Cathcart will be working on her mural at BOJUart Gallery, located at 1703 Mediterranean Ave in Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District, throughout the month of January, with the grand finale taking place on Thursday, January 24 and Friday, January 25 from 6-9 PM. Once it is completed, interested enthusiasts will have the opportunity to purchase the complete mural, or one of the five 4’x5’ panels of which it is comprised, for either indoor or outdoor display.
Top Image: Nico Cathcart, Together, oil on canvas, 24x 48 inches