On a chilly Friday in late November, Ross McDermott of the Charlottesville Mural Project gathered a large group on the railroad crossing at First Street to dedicate the organization’s newest mural, designed by local artist Kaki Dimock.
The mural’s theme is the Rivanna River, a subject originally proposed by Rose Brown of the organization StreamWatch, who contacted the Mural Project with the idea.
“We knew we had to find an artist that would do a good job of representing the life that might be represented in the Rivanna, if you could go underwater and look at it,” McDermott said, “and I immediately thought of Kaki Dimock—she’s the perfect artist. She usually involves the animal kingdom, and often underwater scenes as well.” Development on the project took two years, and was sponsored by StreamWatch, the Rivanna Conservation Society, and the Rivanna River Basin Commission. “Public art really takes the whole community to make it happen,” McDermott said. “This mural was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, that raised $11,000—we were only going for $8,000, but we raised 11. And we had over 150 people from the community give money to support this mural. So this really is a group effort from our community.”
Facing the train tracks on the back of a Pilates classroom may not seem like the ideal spot for a large public mural, but the First Street crossing, located two blocks south of the mall between ACAC and South Street does get a lot of heavy foot traffic—after the dedication, I spotted three different acquaintances who happened to be passing by. Its location, and sufficient distance from the Historic Downtown zone, frees it from needing the approval of the Board of Architectural Review, who have clashed with McDermott over specifics in the design of past murals. Matt Pamer’s 2012 design for “Kingdom Animalia,” at West Main Street and Sixth Street, underwent multiple revisions before approval. Dimock’s is the fifth public mural for McDermott’s project, and seventh overall, if you include the two recent murals at Buford Middle School and St. Anne’s Belfield.
Dimock is indeed a great choice of artist for the subject. She’s well-known in the local art community, often working in ink and watercolor, and her work is more masterful than it might appear at first glance. Rather than perspectival representation, Dimock extrapolates from a child’s style of drawing landscapes. A pseudo-cutaway with a river basin at the bottom and the elements drawn in proportion to their significance rather than their visual size are executed with attention to detail and a composition that recalls pre-Renaissance European religious and iconographic painting. “The animal world is drawn in huge, out-of-perspective format,” Dimock said, “because I think that’s how important the animal world is.”
The central design element of the mural depicts the shad species of fish, which recently returned to the Rivanna after the Woolen Mills Dam was removed in 2007. “Shad are a bellweather species,” Dimock said. “They only live in waters that are really clean, well-oxygenated, the right chilly temperature, moving at the right speed. So it’s an important indicator of our success in restoring any given river, whether the shad want to come back and live there. In this image, the shad are back and the other fish are welcoming them there. You’ll also see that there’s a giant squirrel celebrating above Monticello, there’s a squirrel driving a tractor, there’s a frog eating a donut. The design really evolved over these incredible conversations with people who know about the river, and know about the species that live in the river, and then we took great creative liberties with that.”
Like so many other local art projects, the mural also received assistance from developer Gabe Silverman, who passed away last month. “[Gabe] was a longtime supporter of the mural project,” McDermott said. “He donated a free space for us to paint this mural, off-site, because we couldn’t paint it right next to the railroad tracks. We’re very grateful to him and his support for the arts in Charlottesville.”
Because the location is so close to the train tracks, it took a bit of convincing. “We had to work closely with Buckingham Branch Railroad, who at first didn’t like our presence on the tracks,” McDermott said. “But we worked with them, and we’re thankful for their cooperation.”
The project was also covered by an insurance policy under the city’s Neighborhood Development Services thanks to Jim Tolbert. Blue Ridge Builders Supply donated Benjamin Moore paints at a discounted price. “It was painted on a cloth called parachute cloth, and then basically glued to the wall in one day,” McDermott said. “There’s four long panels, and we sliced it up and pieced it back together, with the help of some good installers.” The initial installation date had to be postponed because the weather on the initial date made it too cold to apply the glue.
On November 22 McDermott and Dimock led a dedication ceremony for the mural, along with several representatives and sponsors of the project including Robbi Savage of the volunteer group the Rivanna Conservation Society, Marvin Moss of the state organization the Rivanna River Basin Commission, and David Hannah of StreamWatch, all of whom spoke at the dedication. In addition to many of McDermott and Dimock’s friends and supporters from the arts community, there was a surprise appearance by a class from the nearby Village School, whose students brought handmade signs bearing pro-environmentalist messages about water conservation.
See more by the Charlottesville Mural Project.