New project aims to make Richmond look more colorful to outsiders.
Mickael Broth thinks Richmond’s got a lot going for it.
“We’ve got an incredible public art scene. We’ve got one of the best art schools in the country. We’ve got thriving cultural institutions. It’s a great place with tons of creativity,” he said. “But you really wouldn’t get that impression driving along the highway, or the first time that somebody enters the city at pretty much any of the major exits.”
For example, he proposed a family from out-of-town visits VCU with their high-school son or daughter to scope the school. They’re first impression of Richmond may be the Belividere exit off I-95. “It’s not…a glowing example of what our city has to offer,” said Broth, a local artist who, among other things, has participated in past RVA Street Art Festivals. “There’s room for improvement.”
While VDOT has plans to improve highway landscapes around the city (PDF), Broth thinks local artists can go a long way to showing off Richmond’s creative juices. For about a year, he’s envisioned murals greeting motorists as they pass through the city’s gateways, finally launching Welcoming Walls earlier this month.
“Being involved in the Street Art Festivals over the past few years, it seemed like this is very possible,” he said. “In a city that’s already embraced murals and public art so completely, it seemed like this is a way we can make big changes and really put a welcoming face on the city without major price tags.”
Broth said Welcoming Walls will get various artists to complete 10 large murals by September 2015, ahead of the UCI Road World Championships. “That seemed like a logical goal post.”
Murals will go up along stretches of I-95 and I-64, along at the Boulevard and Belvidere exits. “But there’s definitely room for this project at most of the exits from the highway into the city,” Broth said.
Convincing artists to participate hasn’t been difficult. “So far the response from other artists has been just overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “People who live here have pride in our city. We live in a great place, and we want to be part of developing its reputation and growing it.”
Local artists Andre Shank and Chris Milk recently completed the first mural at the Boulevard exit from I-95 North. “Chris actually grew up just about three blocks away from where the mural is…and his parents still live there,” Broth said. “This is his neighborhood. Literally.”
Even before completing the first mural, Welcoming Walls has already proven its worth.
While Shank, Milk, and Broth were working earlier this month, a car pulled up. “This young guy gets out, probably in his mid-to-late 20s and starts asking us about other murals around town, saying he had heard that Richmond had a reputation for murals,” Broth said. “In talking to him, we found out that he’s actually from the west coast of Canada and he’s been traveling around the US for the past couple of months.”
After directing the traveling Canadian to some of the best murals around town, Broth realized the project was already working. “It was immediate confirmation: OK, this project does have merit…and it’s already having the positive effect it’s supposed to have,” he said.
Welcoming Walls will announce future sites in due time, and while Broth couldn’t comment on specific artists who’ll participate, he said they’ll be “primarily drawn from local artists.”
“We’ve got a lot of really talented people here who just haven’t had the chance to shine yet, and this project is also about the people who live here getting their chance to put their artistic stamp on the city,” he said. “These are Richmonders. They should be able to have a voice and be able to put their mark on the city in a way that I think anyone here can appreciate.”
Broth said the public can help Welcoming Walls efforts by finding locations. “If people know of or have a property that falls into the realm of a gateway, or along the highway, we’d love to talk to them,” he said. Welcoming Walls will also create a crowd funding campaign in the near future to fund additional murals.
Broth said he’s particularly excited that Welcoming Walls has struck a cultural partnership with The Valentine. Broth said artists will get a “behind the scenes tour of the archive of The Valentine in the hopes that the work they create for this project will somehow be inspired by the things that they see, by Richmond’s history.”
Broth said Welcoming Walls will also partner with nonprofit Hands On Greater Richmond to have people in the community aid artists as they paint murals. “This is about developing the community, and we want the community to be involved,” Broth said.
“We want this to be the best project it can be.”
Photos by Mickael Broth