Murals Inspired by the Story of Virginia

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For centuries, murals have been painted on the walls and ceilings of tombs, palaces, churches, and other public buildings. In recent years, outdoor murals have become prominent features of Virginia’s landscape. These works of art not only inspire awe by their scale and beauty but also serve as expressions of a community’s history, aesthetics, and values. Richmond, for example, is now home to more than 100 outdoor murals, and this popular form of artwork reflects the city’s modernity and diversity and has done much to bring communities together. Similar mural movements can be found across Virginia. 

The VMHC exhibition, Fresh Paint: Murals Inspired by the Story of Virginia, began with a survey of dozens of regional artists whose portfolios included painting large-scale murals. Nico Cathcart, a Richmond-based mural artist and co-curator of Fresh Paint, lent to the project an understanding of the landscape as well as extensive knowledge of the mural painting process. 

The museum invited ten Virginia artists to participate in the project. The group visited the museum, toured its exhibitions, and accessed its vast collection of books, letters, maps, and objects. They each selected an object or objects whose stories they would use as inspiration for an original artwork that reflected on Virginia’s past. 


Chris Milk Hulburt with his mural at The Cask Café & Market, Richmond, Virginia.

Some quickly found their inspiration in the collection. Amelia Blair Langford was immediately drawn to the work of 18th- and 19th-century naturalists Mark Catesby and John J. Audubon. Her mural features native species of fox, rabbit, deer, and numerous insects set against a mountain-like silhouette of the state of Virginia. On display with Amelia’s striking 10-foot-tall by 15-foot-wide mural is a rare copy of Catesby’s 1754 Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  

Many of the artists participating in Fresh Paint had portfolios that suggested an affinity toward realism. But Wing Chow’s typical works inhabit a strange world of floating blobs, swirling colors, and shape shifting creatures. She was drawn to an 1880s photograph of Natural Bridge by Rockbridge County photographer Michael Miley, whose photograph exaggerates the appearance of the bridge to remind us of the powerful forces of nature. Chow’s mural reflects the sublime quality of the photograph as she portrays the bridge as a star-filled portal into the metaphysical. 

Chris Milk Hulburt taught himself to paint in his twenties while he was painting houses and found his own house filled with leftover paint. His murals are whimsical and contain wonderfully quirky, partially autobiographical, narratives. His painting Higgle & Company was styled after the cartoon-like cover of the Hard Cider and Log Cabin Almanac for 1841­ — a piece of political propaganda from the campaign to elect William Henry Harrison. His fictional Virginia pioneer-turned-artisan potter displays stoneware crocks modeled after those in the museum’s collection and sells his wares from a Conestoga Wagon seen in the background. 


Ed Trask painting his mural Still Relevant in the Virginia Sargeant Reynolds Gallery.

Some artists drew their inspiration more literally from the objects in the collection. Mickael Broth (the Nightowl) is perhaps best known for his “dancing” Bernie Sanders mural in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition, seen by more than 1.5 million online viewers in less than a week in 2016, but he is also an avid student of World War I. Broth was inspired by objects associated with Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson and the many Virginians who served during the war. His painting ­­ ­— featuring Woodrow Wilson and a grieving mother — explores how the decision of a single person can affect the lives of millions of Americans. 

Loudoun County native Ed Trask was attracted to a 19th-century copper still used by the McConnell family of Washington County, Virginia. His work portrays elements of Virginia’s nearly 400-year history of distilled liquor and its transformation from an American tradition to a covert operation. 


Brass Seal of the Roanoke Navigation Company, 1830. (VMHC 0000.80)

Toobz Muir was immediately drawn to one of the collection’s smallest objects—a 1-3/4” brass seal used by the Roanoke Navigation Company. Established in 1812, the company was formed to build and maintain improvements to the Roanoke River system to allow commercial traffic to travel from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Albemarle Sound. Toobz’s mural depicts the crew of a bateau in his surreal style that is perhaps more reminiscent of Charon, the ferryman of Hades from Greek mythology. 

Hamilton Glass, whose inspiration often reflects his architecture and design background, found himself drawn to the pivotal role of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Symbolized by the bound hands of an African American soldier, Glass’s painting encourages viewers to understand the discrimination faced by black soldiers from their enemies and comrades during the war.


Hamilton Glass with his mural Think at Richmond Cycling Corp, Richmond, Virginia.

Noah Scalin, best known for his award-winning Skull-a-Day project, replaces Confederate officers with civil rights activists in Charles Hoffbauer’s “Lee and His Generals” to contrast the black struggle to achieve rights of full citizenship with efforts by white southerners to regain political and social dominance after the Civil War. 

Nico Cathcart’s 15-foot-tall mural focuses on three Virginia women—a former slave turned confidante to Mary Lincoln, a member of the Virginia Equal Suffrage League, and a woman’s rights activist—each working toward fulfilling the promise of freedom and reinforcing the role of women as agents of social change.  

VCUArts graduate Austin “Auz” Miles was also drawn to Virginia women and was inspired by two of African descent—Mary Smith Peake and Barbara Johns. In 1861, on the grounds of what is today Hampton University, Peake began teaching former slaves previously denied formal education. Nearly a century later, Johns led a student walkout to protest unequal conditions in Farmville’s segregated public schools. Both demonstrate how women used and pursued education as a tool to free themselves from mental enslavement. 

The murals and objects displayed in Fresh Paint highlight Virginia’s natural wonders, reflect the determination and ingenuity of its people, and ask questions about injustice and inequality. Many expose individuals and episodes overlooked in earlier narratives, and all of them encourage us to use our past as examples that can prepare us to shape the future.