A new look: Murals bring Harris Street history to life

Richmond artist Hamilton Glass brings art and history together in two bright murals that capture the industrial vibe of Harris Street. “My hope is that it raises some questions,” says Glass. Photo by Eze Amos Richmond artist Hamilton Glass brings art and history together in two bright murals that capture the industrial vibe of Harris Street. “My hope is that it raises some questions,” says Glass. Photo by Eze Amos

Head south on Harris Street, cruise past Napa Auto Parts and Sarisand Tile. Hug the first curve in the road before The Habitat Store, and there on the left, above the roof of Intrastate Pest Control, the dusty rumble of Allied Concrete cement mixers in the near distance, you’ll see it: a mural.

Spools of thread, a railroad crossing signal and an old-fashioned steam locomotive, a hand holding a hammer ready to strike an anvil: Icons of a bygone era are juxtaposed with a modern, almost architectural sprinkling of bright orange, yellow, blue, and red rectangles.

It’s one of two new murals painted on the building at 1216 Harris St. Together, they’re meant “to give some recognition to the industrial history of the neighborhood, and the people who work here and have their livelihoods,” says Dr. Martin Chapman, owner of the building and founder of Indoor Biotechnologies, who funded the pair of murals.

A few years ago, Chapman heard Steve Thompson from Rivanna Archaeological Services give a talk about the history of the neighborhood, including the Silk Mills Building at number 700, Rose Hill Plantation, and Booker T. Washington Park—all referenced on the second of the two new murals.

Chapman wanted to bring more awareness to that history, and to how Harris Street is presently home to a variety of industries—Intrastate Pest Control is right next door to male birth control developer Contraline, which is next to an entrance to Allied Concrete. He also wanted to bring public art into the neighborhood and knew just the person for the job: Richmond- based artist Hamilton Glass.

In the last half decade or so, Glass has made a significant contribution to Richmond’s mural boom. At last tally, he had painted more than 150 public murals throughout the city (he’s stopped counting).

Glass grew up in West Philadelphia, surrounded by public art. Graffiti was everywhere, and in the 1980s—when he was a kid—initiatives such as Mural Arts Philadelphia helped transform the City of Brotherly Love into what some say is the unofficial mural capital of the world.

Though Glass was a creative kid who appreciated and admired the murals and did plenty of paintings of his own, he never thought he’d be the one to paint a mural. The opportunity to do so came during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when Glass, who trained as an architect, lost his job and decided to focus on his art while he looked for another full-time gig. Someone saw his work and asked him if he wanted to do a mural.

It was then that he fell in love with the process. “The end result is for everyone else,” he says, but the process is for him—even when it involves standing on a roof during some of the hottest, sunniest days of the year (as it did for this particular project). “If murals were all snap your fingers, quick, make a good mural, I don’t think I’d be doing it,” he says.

Glass’ style shifts slightly from mural to mural—some are more realistic, others are dreamlike, or abstract. “I don’t want to put my style in a box,” he says, and the composition and execution of each mural depends on the content.

Hamilton Glass is one of the artists who has contributed to Richmond’s recent mural boom. Now, we have some of his work here in Charlottesville. Photo by Eze Amos

All of Glass’ murals have some sort of architectural element to them—the creation of space via shape and movement—and all of his murals are extremely colorful. “I’m really into color theory,” he says. Glass has also exhibited work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (where he met Chapman).

For the two murals at 1216 Harris St., Glass had complete creative control over the compositions, though he consulted with Chapman and with Thompson to get up to speed on the varied history of the neighborhood.

“My hope is that it raises some questions,” says Glass of his work on Harris Street. Some people might look at the pair of hands holding knitting needles wrapped in pink yarn and wonder where the knitting factory is (or, more accurately, was). He hopes others will wonder about the Rose Hill Plantation, and Google it when they get home. “If people are asking that question, to be honest, that’s a big thing,” says Glass. “Then people are looking into the neighborhood and what was here before now.”

Whenever possible, Glass gets local folks involved in the mural painting process. Once the image is laid out on the wall, he’ll tag sections and shapes with the colors so that other folks can fill them in. For the mural facing the parking lot (not the rooftop mural), Glass had some help from local chapters of the Wounded Warriors Project and the Boys & Girls Club. “If this mural is going to live in their community, why shouldn’t they have a stake in it?” asks Glass.

Perhaps that’s the Philly in him. “The power of art has really influenced me. I thought about the murals that I saw, growing up in Philadelphia, and they were all community-based,” he says, adding that being constantly surrounded by art helped him understand “the power that [lies] in creative placement.”

And if Glass can be, for at least one kid, the example he never had—the example of a working artist, making a living while making work that can have a positive effect on his community—he’s all for it.

“If I have a chance to get people involved in the power of art,” he says, “Why not?”

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