In 2010, a celebration of local creativity entitled Art Everywhere took shape in the form of an aspirational block party. Through a grassroots collaboration between AltDaily.com, the Downtown Norfolk Council (DNC), re:vision Norfolk, and Grow Interactive, empty storefronts were converted into a series of pop-up art galleries, all in an effort to showcase the potential of an otherwise dilapidated streetscape. The successes of that event galvanized the community to permanently transform a nearby lackluster urban strip into a space devoted to advancing the arts in Norfolk.
Jesse Scaccia, editor of AltDaily.com, recalled working with Hannah Seranno on these original efforts. “We looked around and saw an area of town that was connected by some major art institutions like The Chrysler Museum and The Harrison Opera House,” he said. “There was an opportunity to build something special.” Over the past six years, this provocatively named NEON District (AKA New Energy of Norfolk) has blossomed with the addition of new galleries, venues, restaurants, and most visibly, a plethora of progressive public art installations. Now administered by the DNC through a collection of public commissions, it stands as a testament to the transformative power of art to revitalize a neighborhood.
This month, NEON turns a corner as it prepares for its second annual eponymous arts festival. New installations play a big part of the four-day long affair and Cheryl White, Chair of NEON’s Public Art Committee and Director of Glass Wheel Studio, discussed some of this year’s plans. “We’ve raised funds to highlight the walls that define the boundaries of the NEON District. Three major murals have been okayed and we’ve matched those projects with artists and funding.”
The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters is sponsoring artist Hampton Boyer to paint a kid-friendly mural at their thrift store outlet building. He will be fusing his love of monster trucks with an environmentally friendly message in a piece entitled “Green Machine.”
Solomon Isekeije, the Nigerian-born head of Norfolk State University’s Art Department, will adorn the rear wall of the former Alchemy project space with a mural of European and African motifs. His multi-figure composition draws inspiration from sources ranging from Nigerian textile patterns to traditional African masquerades with nods to the Cubist and Surrealist works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
The Magazine Lane-facing wall of Stark & Legum, one of Norfolk’s oldest retail shops, will get a new piece by muralist Clyde Santana. That composition will focus on the intersectionality of art, music, and technology with an approach inspired stylistically by Cubist and Harlem Renaissance-era paintings.
Richmond-based Amelia Langford will paint an intricate design infusing floral patterns with sea-life on the back of the Triumph Vaping building. This particular project is part of an effort to make that area more pedestrian friendly, thereby creating a walkable loop for visitors to see the murals in the area.
These large-scale projects will be juxtaposed with some smaller, temporary ones designed to open up participation in the creation of public art to a wider audience. For example, as part of a micro-grant project, local artist Alan Jeleric recently completed a workshop on wheatpaste poster techniques. “It was a great opportunity for people to get their art up in front of people for the festival,” said White.
In addition to all the mural activity, there are other special presentations scheduled. The Chrysler Museum of Art kicks things into gear with its Third Thursday event. Pyrrhic Whim and DJP and MrT will start off the evening with a musical performance, followed by a discussion with Norfolk-born artist Brian Bress. Currently based in Los Angeles, he will be debuting his latest framed video installation, “Man with a Cigarette.”
Saturday will notably feature fundraising efforts for the newly reopened d’Art Center, a mainstay of the Norfolk art community for over three decades. d’Art provides studio space for a diverse group of working artists, but after their previous location was damaged by an electrical fire, many resident artists struggled to find a new home. The new facility is located on the first two floors of the Duke Grace building at 740 Duke Street, but the arrangement is a temporary measure while the organization seeks a more permanent location.
With all these moving parts, planning the growth of NEON is a challenge. “We’re still a really young arts district,” White explained. “Every time we do one of these projects, we learn something new.” As the district continues to find its feet, the DNC is positioning itself to act primarily as a middleman by facilitating connections between creatives and property owners. In coming years, White envisions projects positioned on the back of the Virginia Pilot’s headquarters and other highly visible spaces. “There are several property owners in the district who are really on board,” said White. “They see the quality of what’s happening here.” Between the availability of money-matching grants and support from extremely passionate community members, the possibilities truly are wide open. White implored, “If you’re an artist who sees a space that you love and have a vision, we encourage you to contact the Downtown Norfolk Council.”
Reflecting on the overall value of these efforts, Scaccia opined, “I think the NEON District and the festival are so healthy for this area.” True to his words, the district has attracted new businesses to locate there, a recent notable example being the Bearded Bird Brewery. Though tourism is a major aspect, he would also like to see more work done to make NEON into a better place to live, not just visit. “The next step is to see some affordable housing that allows for creative-minded people and artists to take residence in the community and continue the transformation efforts.” All in all, the festival is a key component in the overall cause of advancing public art in Norfolk, bringing into sharp focus this active community of dynamic artists and their development efforts in the neighborhood. As Scaccia stated, “It’s a great time to live and grow in Norfolk.”
Programming for The NEON Festival will be held each night from Thursday, September 15 through Sunday, September 18 from 5–9 PM. Nightly features include live music, a beer garden, and guided mural tours. For a full schedule of events, visit neonnfk.com.
Photography by Jeff Hewitt