While he sees himself out west in ten years shooting photos of coyotes and cacti, Norfolk’s Jacob Levesque, known in the art world as Stuntkid, has witnessed first-hand both the successes and failures of the art scene in Virginia but is hopeful for the future of art in areas such as Norfolk and Richmond.
This article was featured in RVAMag #28: Spring 2017. You can read all of issue #28 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
For now, Levesque’s typical day consists of putting his art skills to use as an illustrator and animator at a digital marketing agency in downtown Norfolk called Grow. He just reached his tenth anniversary with the company. “Been with them for a long time,” Levesque said of his tenure at Grow. “They were a baby company with four other employees whenever I first joined. Got to see it gr-…uh, you know what I’m about to say.”
Grow’s CEO and executive creative director, Drew Ungvarsky, has been an instrumental part of what Levesque labels as Norfolk’s “rebirth,” both inside and outside of the arts community. “A lot of the [area’s] leaders kind of look to him as a young, brilliant businessman who kind of knows what it takes to, you know, to make things happen; to make things get started the way we need them to,” Levesque said. “So, they look to him for a lot of insight, and he pours a lot of time into our community.”
Ungvarsky and Grow have specifically had a hand in building up Norfolk’s first official art district, the NEON District. NEON, or New Energy or Norfolk, combines the enduring history of the neighborhood’s automobile industry with new art studios and exhibits, clubs, shops, a comedy theater, and eclectic restaurants. On one street wall in the NEON District, Grow installed an interactive mural, which Levesque painted, called “Transparent Seas,” featuring elements of land, the sky, and the ocean stretched across the see-through profiles of several female figures. The 40-foot mural uses fluidly changing colored lights to transform the painting by exposing unseen features when approached by viewers.
“Of course, Grow footed the bill for that, which was not cheap, but you know, [it] really kind of brought another big corner piece to our newly-birthed NEON district,” Levesque said.
Levesque says that he believes the NEON District, which has played host to shows and pop-up galleries for local talent in multi-use venues, is a necessary ingredient to the larger Norfolk community for forward movement. Still, he sees the district now as a promise that has not yet been fulfilled in its entirety.
“We’ve hosted events there, but we’re really still waiting for the art galleries and the artists to move in,” he said. “We have these pop-up events, some art shows, and local talent coming up and having a venue to show their work. And that’s great, but you know, having more permanent fixtures and having more anchors in the area is going to be necessary for it to be something that lasts.”
Levesque recognizes that utilizing the relationship between the Norfolk and Richmond art scenes could be an untapped strategy for reeling in the more permanent and established galleries and artists that the NEON District requires for sustainability. He says that much of the effort in the district goes to supporting and highlighting local artists, which is good, but not for growth in the way that inviting outside artists, especially via the close proximity to Richmond, could be. He sees Norfolk as insular in a way and without the thought of its neighbors as an extension of the Norfolk art culture.
“There’s a lot of traffic back and forth, very literally. But yeah, no kid here survives without making their trek to Richmond for the big shows that come through there, and I think a little bit of that is true the other way too,” he said. “These cultures are very dependent on each other. You grow by inviting outside influences, and having a neighbor like we have with Richmond, having a lot more of that culture kind of pulled down here would be helping.”
While trying to be delicate in his description, Levesque describes the danger in an insular art community as artists becoming complacent due to having a “big fish in a small pond” mentality. He says that these artists risk losing the drive to become better, more talented artists since it does not seem necessary once a certain level of notoriety is reached.
“When you travel or you pay attention the arts community at large or beyond the borders of your city, you’re exposed to people that are working harder than you are and innovating. They’re creating in different ways, and it pushes you to make yourself better,” Levesque said. He says he feels that he definitely knows artists in the Norfolk area who suffer from that lack of exposure to outside inspiration.
As further evidence of the need of a successful art district like NEON, as well as the necessity for a healthy art market with buyers who appreciate the artwork, Levesque himself has battled in the past with finding profit in the area and has turned instead to areas such as New York and L.A. where he has shown his art, networked, and met other artists whom he views as his contemporaries. He admits that during those times, he has felt a bit depressed to come home to Norfolk where there was little to no art culture pre-NEON. He remembers a time a few years ago in which he invited an artist friend from New York with a similar style to come to Norfolk for a two-man show which had little success.
“He brought his entire catalog here. Between the two of us, I sold maybe $300-$400 worth of prints, to locals and friends that had always meant to buy something from me, and he sold nothing,” Levesque recalled. “Two months later, he was on the cover of, I believe it was Juxtapoz Magazine.” His friend was a big deal in the national arts community but could not sell an $800 painting on the street in Norfolk.
At that point, after experiencing low sales and losing money for both himself and the hosting gallery, Levesque began to pull back from creating art. He did find some success as a co-curator at the Andy Warhol tribute, called ‘I Like Soup,” put on by the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, but even then, the exhibit was not open to online sales, which Levesque says he personally counts on. He found the difficulty to sell to the local audience to be discouraging unlike the sales to “invisible” yet consistent buyers in larger markets.
“You know, I think it’s funny because I think that people don’t realize, I have friends that own some of these successful galleries in L.A., and the buyers are usually invisible. They come through before the opening, and little red dots go up, sometimes before the doors even open. They can just be wealthy collectors, benefactors, sometimes celebrities, but you know they’re consistent buyers,” he said. On the other hand, Levesque describes the average gallery frequenter in Norfolk. “People like us can go into these art shows and enjoy them but probably never drop the $1,000-$2,000 on a painting.”
The strong art economy is not yet there to back up the artists in Norfolk, according to Levesque. “Many galleries work at a loss to keep the art scene alive,” he said. Instead, he describes how some “vanity galleries” show art at the expense of artists who turn over as they run out of money. Or the kind of galleries which are personal investments by a single patron to serve his or her own cause of “we need a good art gallery here,” at a loss of up to $10,000 a month until he or she can no longer afford to keep the doors open. “It’s incredibly frustrating to try to hold on to that culture without the buyers,” Levesque said.
To counter the gallery issues and to garner support for art, Levesque prescribes promotion without and within the area, as well as finding business models which are sustainable and right for the market there. “A white walls gallery here in Norfolk isn’t really sustainable now,” he said. “But a place like Work Release [a venue in the NEON District] that balances art and culture and hosts events; that’s something that’s realistic, and that works for us right now.”
Despite feeling optimistic about the Norfolk art scene, Levesque is ramping up his own work and will soon head out west toward new adventures. “I’m hopeful for Norfolk, but I’m here only for one more year, unfortunately. And then I’m getting on the Great Migration train. My culture has always been kind of Southern California; that’s where I make friends quickly; that’s where the big adventure waits for me I feel,” he said. He plans to continue to promote Norfolk artists, even from L.A., and is excited by the prospect of someday being a visiting artist in Norfolk.
In the past when he has hit a slow period, Levesque says he has fallen back on photography due to the quicker results and social aspect. He sees the switching of mediums to keep busy to be a survival technique for refocusing and gaining momentum, which he believes is very important for an artist to feel like he or she has. For now, he senses a transition back to drawing because he is more excited about the drawings he has envisioned than the photos he would like to take.
“I’ve always loved to create these strong moments that are like a still from a beautifully animated movie,” Levesque said. “To look at them, you feel like there must be a story. And I really feel like that’s the direction that I want to go with.” He is also considering getting back into doing magazine covers again. “I had a strong relationship with L.A. Weekly and had some good conversations with [the person] who runs that magazine about the direction of my work, and he would be very happy of course to see me come back to doing covers,” he said.
Levesque says he is also excited to get back into illustrating work with limited colors for screen prints. He is currently working with a Norfolk company called the Prince Ink Company, which will soon be printing and distributing shirts with his designs in a limited release. “They’re actually located, now, two doors down from where I work at Grow and real close to the arts district, so actually having them here has been really good,” Levesque said.
When asked what his life in art will look like in ten years, Levesque says that he will hopefully have a beautiful home in the desert and a Joshua tree and will still be shooting. He says he has been blessed with a day job which many people work toward their entire lives but that he hopes he will not need a day job ten years from now and can instead focus solely on his art, writing books and working on large-scale projects.
“That’s the dream,” he said. “I’ve never smoked pot, and I don’t believe in a single lick of magic, so they’ll probably reject me but I’ll do my best.” Still, Levesque’s art seems to incorporate some aspects of fantasy and magic. “Yeah, fantasy. And definitely drawing as many mushrooms as I do people get a wrong idea about me,” he joked.
As to leaving Norfolk in the near future, Levesque sees it as bittersweet. He says that he expects that eventually, as the people born in Norfolk – the type who are proud to say they bought art in Norfolk – age and have more money to spend, the white wall galleries that will not currently work in the area will start to appear, and out-of-town artists will come to Norfolk to sell their artwork.
“I’ll be excited to make the move,” Levesque said. “But it’ll also be a little sad to be out of the bush for something that’s going uphill.”
Interview by R. Anthony Harris. Words by Jill Smith