The Charlottesville Mural Project begins work at Ix

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Charlottesville’s largest piece of public art received its inaugural brushstrokes last weekend, as a 3,160-square-foot wall on Monticello Avenue became the first canvas of the Charlottesville Mural Project. By the time that Ross McDermott and Avery Lawrence add the last layer of paint, the north side of the Ix complex will be one of the most eye-catching blocks in the city. As for the Mural Project—well, so much for humble beginnings.

A mock-up for the Charlottesville Mural Project’s first piece, by local artist Avery Lawrence. Photo by Ross McDermott.

Last spring, photographer Ross McDermott founded the CMP with Greg Kelly of The Bridge/Progressive Arts Initiative and Sarah Lawson of CommonPlace Arts, with plans for at least two murals a year—one done through community outreach, the other by an artist. McDermott and Kelly then travelled to Philadelphia to meet with the directors of the city’s famous Mural Arts Program, and tour some of the over 3,000 images that the organization inspired within the city. 

“There’s mutually symbiotic visions behind the project,” said Kelly. “Ross came to me with this drive to cover walls and beautify the city, but we decided to meet with the folks at MAP, because they’re really good at incorporating the communities that surrounds the walls, which is very important to us.”

In April, the CMP announced a design competition for the Ix wall, and local artist Avery Lawrence’s design—which features a menagerie of multi-colored, intertwined hands squeezing, tickling and pinching one another, with a few giving an amiable thumbs-up—was chosen from over 30 submissions by an eight-member jury that includes Mayor Dave Norris and Beth Turner, UVA’s vice provost for the arts.

“I wanted it to be pretty, but I also wanted complexity,” said Lawrence. “You’ll be able to drive by and understand it from that perspective, or walk right up and stand below an enormous 20′ hand.”

And while any mural with multi-colored, intertwining hands risks giving off the warm-fuzzy, “We Are the World” vibe that is so prevalent in public art, Lawrence’s piece is flirtatious and provocative, even after the selection committee asked him to up the whimsy and downplay the tension when creating his final draft.

McDermott and Lawrence outline at night, via projector.

“I think what Avery came up with really embodies the diversity of the city and its relationships, whether they’re mutually beneficial or awkward or playful,” said Kelly. “That’s sort of how community works. The figures in the piece are alien in their skin tone, but you get the point very quickly that there’s a diversity of age and ethnicity, which makes it a beautiful first mural to have.”

So far, work on the mural has mostly been done by McDermott and Lawrence, with help from friends and a few local high school students. Supplies were financed by the Ix Complex, Blue Ridge Building Supply, Benjamin Moore Paints, United Rentals, and Gropen. They hope to finish up in three weeks, and invite any and all to come lend a hand, although participants under 18 will need to have a parent sign the waiver. 

In the future, McDermott and Kelly hope to work more with local communities in planning and creating murals, but were hemmed in by time constraints this first time around. Over the coming year, they plan to work with kids in Westhaven and Southwood to plan smaller murals for basketball courts, and for local Boys and Girls Clubs. A mural is also being planned with the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and Charlottesville High School, which will invite a group of students participating in the Big Read program from Charlottesville High School to design a school mural based on themes from their assigned book, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. According to a press release, the CMP also hopes to work on a large mural in Vinegar Hill. The proposed wall wraps up Market Street, below the McGuffey Art Center.

A work in progress. Photo by Ross McDermott.

McDermott and Kelly hope that the Ix mural will make it easier to find support for future works. By being done with prior approval on private property, it has already avoided minor controversy of the kind surrounding the student-created mural of two Native Americans next to Random Row Books, the subjects of which may or may not be leering at the Lewis and Clarke statue and its diminutive Sacagawea.

“Murals can be contentious,” said Lawrence. “They can be very divisive. People inevitably call them a waste of time and money. Putting paint on a dilapidated building; does that make a community better? Is that going to solve some social issue? I just like the idea of a community having something to look at, even if they’re not necessarily proud of it. A mural ideally excites people, and gets them thinking about what art means, in their community and in their lives. But I do hope this one can be inspiring in some way.”

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