(Amber Robinson-Pierce’s mural expresses beauty from within.)

By Betsy DiJulio

There are some new faces in the crowd.  Faces of color by people of color projecting love, healing, connection, and understanding when it is needed most.

As racial protests roiled around the globe, here at home, the ViBe Creative District at the Virginia Beach oceanfront and Utopia Feni in Kempsville teamed-up on a pop-up mural project to create three colorful messages of hope. Aligned with the local grassroots initiative, “LISTEN, LEARN, and LOVE,” this project adds “LOOK” to the mix.

Utopia Feni is a non-profit creative space and community offering exhibitions, classes, open mic nights, concerts, art markets, and a boutique of locally and globally sourced handmade items.  This “creative village” was founded in 2015 by Raeesah Islam—an ODC (now ODS)/Governor’s School/London College of Fashion alum—to benefit her father’s village of Feni in Bangladesh.  Geared to a diverse group of 20-to-30-something creatives with an entrepreneurial spirit, Utopia Feni was on ViBe executive director Kate Pittman’s radar for a partnership.

With funding from a Covid-cancelled Mother’s Day art show available through a grant from the Virginia Beach Department of Cultural Affairs, ViBe joined forces with Islam to hire minority artists—and purchase all necessary supplies—to paint three 8 x 12” murals on structures repurposed from the 2019 Something in the Water art walk.  The artists’ vibrant visions came to life between June 26 and 28 as they painted their colorful statements on-site and were celebrated at a First Friday’s event on July 3. 

Leaving their mark on the ViBe through September are artists Chris Green (with “neo-rock art” inclusions by Tyler Muntz), Islam, Poetry Jackson, and Amber Robinson-Pierce (with contributions by her husband, Matthew Pierce).  Green’s mural features a figure in the cross-legged Sukhasana pose on a pink lotus blossom surrounded by a golden glow and verdant green leaves against a violet field inscribed with Muntz’s tone-on-tone petroglyphs.  Says Green, “I wanted to represent healing through inner-peace and the beauty of nature.”

Together, Robinson-Pierce’s standing male and female figures create an allegory of connection and cultivation using flowers, which symbolize the beauty within, “erupting” from their inner beings and forming a bridge or path between them.  Islam and Jackson’s collaboration features a portrait of Islam’s Nanu (maternal grandmother), who was a well-respected leader in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Islam’s artistic muse. In their interpretation, the beautifully intense eyes of a gray-skinned woman, reminiscent of Amy Sherald’s approach to skin-tone (she painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait), gaze out over a gloriously patterned and colored veil that she holds over her nose and mouth with a perfectly manicured hand.  

At the end of September, the murals will move to their permanent home at Utopia Feni (1314 Kempsville Road, Virginia Beach, 757.570.7744, utopiafeni.com).  But from August 21-30, 10 more murals will emerge on the walls of ViBe businesses as part of Mural Fest 2020, what Pittman calls “The perfect socially distanced event.”  This year’s iteration of the highly successful and economically-impactful project will spotlight, among other highlights, a teen muralist competition, a partnership with MOCA, and artist Marleigh Culver whose art has been featured on Coach bags and puzzles featured in Vogue.

Also on view — and not to miss — will be Clayton Singleton’s stand-alone mural “Dream an Awesome Dream at 18th Street & Mediterranean Ave.

With a budget of $60,000 clams, $40K of which is paid directly to the artists and creatives, the initiative has no theme and gives no awards.  Everyone’s a winner, according to Pittman, especially in the midst of this pandemic during which artists need the income and businesses, who have a “big say on what goes on their walls,” need the “boost.”