Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tag This

The bottom line is: you have to do something you think is fun.

It's not like I didn't leave my house - in the pitch black, mind you, since street lights throughout Jackson Ward and Carver were dark - already aware of that fact, but tonight I had plenty of confirmation from my betters.

My destination was Pine Camp Center for a panel of four mural artists: Sir James Thornhill, Ed Trask, Hamilton Glass and Matt Lively talking about the highs and lows of using buildings for a canvas.

Waiting for the panel to start, I wandered over to the gallery where former boxer Everett Mayo's new exhibit "Driftwood Comes to Life" turned out to be a delight. Using pieces of found driftwood, Mayo searches for the eye of the animal trapped within and creates from there.

All kinds of animals had been coaxed from driftwood and painted: a reindeer, a giraffe, an iguana, a duck in flight. The most magnificent was a lion, although unlike the others, it was created from many pieces of driftwood, not just one.

Back in the room for the panel, I heard person after person greet the older gentleman sitting nearest me. Finally, I had to ask why everyone knew him.

A native born in the Navy Hill neighborhood 87 years ago, Mr. Taylor was a photographer (he's in a group show next month), involved with Boy Scouting and active in the local Catholic church. In fact, he informed me that the now-shuttered convent I'd seen so many times on First Street was the site of the first black Catholic church in the entire South. Altogether, a most delightful man.

A woman approached me and while I recognized her, I couldn't place her. She pointed at me and nailed the place (VMFA) and the conversation we'd had. From there, we talked about everything from the Afrikana film festival to shows at Capital Ale House and Balliceaux.

Our only difference of opinion is that she abstains from events where parking is challenging and I suck it up and go anyway.

The panel discussion began with the four artists introducing themselves and a slide show of their murals around town. I'd been especially eager to see and hear from Thornhill since I walk by his Bob Marley mural on Marshall Street almost every day of my life. I was pleased to learn he was a Jackson Ward native.

Lively introduced himself as the first Lamaze baby born in Richmond, insisting he was only an artist because he didn't want a real job, but that was just the introduction to his offbeat sense of humor throughout the evening. Trask, I knew, came up through VCU and the punk rock scene while Glass started out as an architect before jumping ship to mural painting after a job layoff.

While a moderator asked questions to facilitate the discussion, many tangents were taken and it felt more like a conversation between an artistic brotherhood. All four agreed that the first rule of being an artist was to have fun, to truly enjoy what you do so you want to keep doing it.

They discussed the importance of a good work ethic, that it was key not to be afraid to make mistakes and that rejection was part of the process. Lively said his mother had broken his heart when she'd criticized a figure he'd drawn at age five because it had too many fingers.

Saying his mother had remained critical, he said, "Ed knows. He met my Mom. She criticized him." Trask nodded. "She criticized me pretty hard. It hurt."

Thornhill talked about the importance of getting involved in the community, going to civic meetings and talking to people to get some sense of their interests and priorities.

Part of the discussion was about the differences between graffiti, murals and street art. "Graffiti is painting on a building that's not yours. A mural is the same but you get paid," Lively said in his deadpan way. Trask saw graffiti as an identifier of buildings in decay, but an egalitarian one since everyone, not just people who go to galleries, get to see it. "I like that."

"Graffiti is language that says this place is messed up," Glass explained, saying graffiti artists don't get their just due. It was impressive talk for a man who only began mural painting full time two years ago.

The moderator told us the real definitions: a mural is commissioned and with street art, there are no rules for what is to be created. "If people like it, great," Lively said. "If they hate it, great. If they paint over it, long as I've taken a picture of it."

Thornhill shared how the owner of the Jamaican restaurant on Marshall Street wanted him to do a mural but had limited funds. "You can eat here for the rest of your life," the owner had promised but Thornhill said it wasn't long before he was sick of red beans and rice while the mural took several months to complete. He said the satisfaction was in how traffic slowed down and backed up to look at it every day.

That made Trask point out that art needs to be put where people can see it, and not just people who go to galleries; he suggested restaurants, community centers and every unlikely place you could think of.

After the panel spoke, there was a Q & A from the audience, including a woman with an attitude who wanted to know why Happy the Artist wasn't on the panel (probably traveling for yet another big commission). Lively got right back at her, demanding to know why no girls were on the panel.

Another man wanted help understanding a mural so he could explain it to his granddaughter, but Trask said interpretation was up to the viewer. One woman asked how she could help paint a wall on the next Street Art project and Trask told her to leave her name because there are a lot of walls in Manchester and she'd be contacted. Everyone onstage also expressed interest.

That led us to the final point of the evening: recent history has shown that when decaying neighborhoods get shown some love with street art, gentrification soon follows. Such is the power of public art.

As Glass said, a mural is the biggest business card you could ever have. Listening to people who have fun doing what they love is the best reminder that I made the right choice after my job layoff six years ago.

The only difference is that my business card ends up at the bottom of birdcages every week. I guess that's sort of like getting painted over. If it is, great.

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