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(Left to right) Richmond artists Keith M. Ramsey, Michon Pittman, David Marion, “Sir” James Thornhill and Hamilton Glass are the forces behind the U.N.I.T.Y Street Project. (Photo by Dwight Snead)
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Conceptual art by Hamilton Glass for the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project (Photo courtesy Hamilton Glass)
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Conceptual art by David Marion for the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project (Photo courtesy David Marion)
Sir James Thornhill is not a knight.
The Jackson Ward-born artist, whose sun-splattered, incense-infused Second Street studio is filled with his vibrant oil paintings, years ago discovered a kindred soul in another Sir James Thornhill, a 17th-century English painter knighted by King George I whose most notable works include Italian Baroque-style scenes in the dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“It must have been preordained for me to meet him in spirit,” Thornhill surmises, his eyes intense through black-framed spectacles.
Thornhill is the visionary and founder of the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project, a series of history-laden murals featuring lesser-known Jackson Ward heroes, painted by a group of independent Richmond artists. Thornhill, who completed a mural of pioneering black cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor at First and Marshall streets in conjunction with the UCI Road World Championships last year, lends his brush and brains to the project, as do illustrator Michon Pittman, multimedia contemporary artist Keith M. Ramsey, fine artist David Marion and muralist Hamilton Glass.
“U.N.I.T.Y. stands for “Upholding, Networking and Inspiring Together in celebration of Yesterday,’” says sculptor and project administrator Dawn Cherry in the pleasant, honeyed drawl of a Southern grandmother. “We’re doing this to preserve the history of the Jackson Ward area through mural art.”
Among the Jackson Ward leaders the project will honor are Rosa D. Bowser, a teacher and Jackson Ward community builder who, in 1887, became president of the first African-American professional education organization in Virginia, and Giles B. Jackson, a man who was born enslaved in 1853 and who became the first black attorney certified to argue cases before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Complete with a QR code routing to each subject’s profile when scanned with a smartphone, the murals will serve as virtual portals through time.
“What I can’t stress enough,” says Glass, his baritone voice resonating in Thornhill’s small studio, “is that history and education set this project apart from other Richmond murals.” A Richmond transplant by way of his native Philadelphia, Glass says this isn’t Richmond’s typical mural art. “What’s different is that [U.N.I.T.Y Street Project] is history-based. We’re trying to educate the people who are moving into Jackson Ward.”
The project would never have grown its wings without the community’s input and support, says Thornhill, who also leads the beautification committee of the Historic Jackson Ward Association. “Before we even thought about putting any murals up, before we did anything, we talked to the business owners in Jackson Ward, we talked to the residents … because we needed them to be on board with this.”
The murals, slated for installation throughout Jackson Ward, will be a featured exhibit at this year’s 2nd Street Festival, Oct. 1 and 2. Mavis Wynn is events operation manager at Venture Richmond, which oversees the festival, a 28-year-running celebration of Jackson Ward’s history and culture that draws about 35,000 guests annually.
“Including the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project adds another layer of history,” says Wynn, “because they’re using subjects who were vital to the history of Jackson Ward, like Maggie Walker and Neverett Eggleston. We certainly wanted to include that.” The artists will work on their murals as festival attendees watch.
Marion, a fine artist who moved to Richmond from South Carolina in 2005 and was commissioned to design the event poster for last year’s 2nd Street Festival, says one of his goals for the poster’s art mirrors U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project’s mission. “Working with [2nd Street Festival’s] organizers, we really wanted to illustrate not only Jackson Ward’s history, but also the liveliness, the vibrancy of the people who are there now and the energy that’s building there.”
Thornhill says the project is also a response to the graffiti scrawled on a number of vacant buildings in the Ward. He doesn’t like it, but he understands.
“In a way, it’s the voice of people who’ve been given no voice. They see all these dilapidated buildings in Jackson Ward that are just sitting there anyway, so they deface them. These murals will offset that, and give everyone something to be proud of.”
The group estimates the cost of the project at $75,000, to cover everything from artists’ fees, equipment and materials to marketing and advertising. They’ve been funded through private donations from individuals and corporations, and have a GoFundMe page so the public may contribute (gofundme.com/unitystreetproject).
“This is a catalyst of the celebration of Jackson Ward’s true history,” says Thornhill, who believes the project could be duplicated in the historic districts of other cities. “This is just the beginning.”