You walk by it or drive around it, maybe not directly seeing it but subconsciously enjoying it. Occasionally, you glance directly at it and smile. Maybe you even stop and study it.
The “it” is public art—the life-size elephant put together with 20,000 aluminum butterflies at the entrance to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk. The larger-than-life rebar deer welcoming visitors to Deer Park in Newport News. Or the colorfully painted parking spaces and meters dotting the landscape in the 15-block ViBe Creative District near the oceanfront in Virginia Beach.
“Public art immediately uplifts a community,” said Anne Noland Edwards, who studied art history and is a founding member of the Newport News Public Art Foundation, which has placed 22 sculptures throughout the long, narrow city. “It’s something free and available to everyone. It brings a community together.”
Let’s meet a few women behind public art venues in our region. Hopefully they’ll inspire you to pay more attention to our public art offerings, like The Navigator, a 30-foot-tall heron made from recycled airplanes at the Norfolk International Airport or the 50+ murals that hang on a 300-foot-long community fence at the 18th Street Parklet in Virginia Beach.
Public art is always there for you, always free, any day or hour of the week.
Wendy Klemperer: “Public Art Opens the Mind...”
Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond: “It Celebrates Unity”
Metal sculptor Wendy Klemperer believes that public art opens the mind to new thought and the body to new feeling about space and the environment. “Of course, nowadays the ‘selfie’ is a dominant way people relate to public art,” said Wendy, a New York artist who created the “Whitetail Crossing” deer piece installed in 2015 at Deer Park.
“The positive side of all this is people having all those photos in their memories, sharing them, and sharing the work as well,” she added.
To make her welded animal sculptures, Wendy scavenges scrap yards and construction sites for metal, mostly rebar, and hauls it in her pickup truck back to her studio.
“Animals, even more than humans, express themselves through body language,” she said. “[M]y work is about what it is to be a living being, what it feels like. Though I work with images of animals, I believe the feeling and emotion of the work is shared by humans. We are ultimately all animals on the planet together.”
Public art brings people together. This summer the “Unity in Community Public Art Walk Along the Boardwalk” mural project beautified the Virginia Beach oceanfront. The larger-than-life murals brought inspiring, positive messages about strong community bonds and spotlighted the multicultural arts community, according to Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond. She is founder and chairman of the proposed Virginia African American Cultural Center, which partnered with the City of Virginia Beach to do the murals.
“As a celebration of unity and inclusion in our city, we put a call for mural artists, expecting 20 and received 74 submissions,” she said.
Thirty-one entries were selected and placed along 15th to 31th Streets. Many were created to include inspirational words such as “love, acceptance, understanding, kindness, unity and community.”
“The arts can bring life-changing, cross-cultural, and intergenerational experiences that prepare children and help build character, which is very much needed for a stronger, healthier child and community,” Amelia said.
“The arts in its various forms of interpretation are worth a thousand words,” she added. “It keeps our hope of one day opening the cultural center for all to enjoy.”
Kate Pittman, Executive Director of ViBe Creative District.
“Environmentally Friendly, All-Inclusive Arts” Mission
For the most part, public art in the ViBe District is different from the pieces you’ll find in Virginia Beach’s sister cities.
“The district has what I call a ‘funky footprint,’” said Kate Pittman, executive director of the city’s ViBe Creative District. The 15-block district spans 22nd Street to 17th Street east to Pacific Avenue and west to Park Avenue. Funky and fun, it features everything that everyday people know and understand, all of it colorfully and creatively painted—community fences, sidewalks, crosswalks, utility boxes, parking meters and spaces, banners and murals, along with some sculpture.
More than 250 artists contributed to more than 350 pieces of art, and at least 90 percent of them are from Virginia, mostly Hampton Roads and Richmond, according to Kate. Residents are invited to lend their own touches during special events such as Oct. 21-23, when teens are welcome to paint new public artwork along 19th Street.
Kate, 39 and the mother of six-year-old twin boys, moved to Virginia Beach in 2005 and began working at the Virginia MOCA art museum. She has a degree in arts management and 16 years of non-profit experience. Husband, Matt, is a captain with the Virginia Beach Fire Department.
While at the museum, Kate volunteered on committees that started the ViBe District, and she was the first employee of the nonprofit, which has raised more than $1 million for its “environmentally-friendly, all-inclusive arts” mission since 2015.
“Public art is important because it breaks down barriers and offers everyone an equal opportunity to dream,” she said. “Whether you look at colorful banners or explore murals, you can talk about creativity and self-expression. [Public art] says interesting people live here and inserts an emotional human quality into the city’s landscape.”
The 18th Street Parklet holds a special place in her heart because it was a rough, neglected space that volunteers transformed into a nature-inspired gathering spot filled with art. It’s a simple fence, she said, painted by Virginia artist Ed Trask, who invited the public to paint with him in a paint-by-number fashion that allowed people to understand how art can activate an area.
“Not everyone can afford to travel, visit cultural cities, or pay to have access to museums or other forms of art education. Public art is for everyone,” Kate said.
100+ Public Art Pieces for Norfolk Arts
Enhancing an Urban Environment
Public art triggers joy and creativity and is all about humanity, according to art enthusiasts Karen Rudd and Rachel McCall.
“The process of bringing public art to a community is more important to me than the final artwork,” said Karen, manager of Norfolk Arts, which has built and created more than 100 bond-funded public pieces in the city since 2006. Karen has a degree in fine arts and was project manager for Art in Public Places in New Mexico.
“Community members tell what they love most about their neighborhood and express their hopes. They develop a RFP, or request for proposals, review submissions, select an artist, and work through the design process,” explained Karen. “I get to share their world and share the importance of art.”
In 2014, Rachel joined the Downtown Norfolk Council as the special projects manager and eventually took on the role of planning and contracting public art for the downtown NEON District, or New Energy of Norfolk. Since then, more than 130 permanent and temporary pieces have joined the district.
Her favorite piece is “Seep NFK,” which was installed in 2016 on the side of 801 Granby St. Chicago-based artist Erik Peterson created the monumental pink neon ooze sculpture that magically lights up the night sky.
“It was such a labor of love to bring an inside neon piece typically shown in a gallery to the outside realm,” said Rachel, who has a degree in art history from the College of William and Mary.
“As someone who loves cities and architecture, I feel that public art enhances and enlivens an urban environment. It brings in visitors and makes them feel connected to a space and a time. The street is the gallery that is always accessible, always open, always free. Anyone can experience artwork with no barriers. That, to me, is the beauty of public art.”
Tips for Discovering Local Public Art
Plus Upcoming Events and Walking/Driving Tours
ViBe Creative District in Virginia Beach
Don’t miss the district’s story exchange finale performance at the Virginia Beach Literary Arts Festival in ViBe Park 2-5 p.m. Sept. 17. In October local teens are invited to paint the Neighborhood Identifiers along 19th Street with new public artworks Oct 21-23. www.vibecreativedistrict.org
The NEON District in Norfolk
The district offers free monthly guided walking tours through a partnership with Norfolk Tour Company, leaving from the Pilot building on Brambleton Avenue. The 7th annual NEON Festival returns to Norfolk Oct. 20-21. Virtually tour Norfolk’s public art collection at norfolkarts.net/public-art. Or hop in the car for a downloadable driving tour at norfolkarts.net/take-a-drive-to-see-public-art-in-norfolk-va. www.neonnfk.com
Newport News Public Art Foundation
Take a guided tour of the major works of art on your cell phone at nnpaf.org/take-a-tour. Find other ways to enjoy the art at www.nnpaf.org/look-and-learn/