Nestled on Sycamore Street, a quiet vein in Petersburg’s Old Town historic district, Walton Gallery is celebrating its half-decade anniversary this month with a color-drenched, group art exhibition entitled “Celebration.”
Mere miles from historically black college Virginia State University, the gallery operates under the director of Eric Walton, a Brooklyn, New York, native and graduate of the school.
“I went to State and never went home,” Walton says. He first came to the area in 1992 and bought the building 13 years ago. It took two years to renovate the structure, which includes the main gallery space and private residences on the top two floors. Since its founding in 2012, the gallery has hosted a variety of works by noted regional and national artists, including civil rights/anti-war photographer LeRoy Henderson, painter Najee Dorsey, sculptor Carren Clarke-McAdoo and Ronald J. Walton, the gallery owner’s father.
1 of 2
Eric Walton, director of Walton Gallery and son of fine artist Ronald Walton (Photo by Samantha Willis)
2 of 2
Inside Walton Gallery's main exhibition space on the first floor (Photo by Samantha Willis)
“Dad’s been in the art game for 50 years,” says the younger Walton, reclining in a chair in the light-filled main gallery. “When I was a little kid, he used to take me around to the galleries, and seeing the work of black artists really made an impression on me early on,” says Walton. Murry DePillars — whose intricate, geometric paintings are on display at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward until June — was one of his father’s mentors, says Walton. As a teen, Eric worked at a few different art galleries, including Dorsey Art Gallery in Brooklyn. Walton’s mother is a jewelry artist, whose beaded creations are also for sale at the gallery. With such a background, founding an art gallery was a natural progression in the young man’s career.
For the fifth anniversary show, “Celebration,” Walton displays contemporary works from four artists: Larry “Poncho” Brown and Calvin Coleman, both of Baltimore, Maryland; and Lamerol Gatewood and Deborah Shedrick, both of Brooklyn, New York. The paintings, most of them oil on canvas, exude warmth, community and joy, as seen in Brown’s piece, “Celebrate Freedom,” depicting four figures frolicking, hands joined and raised, bodies facing each other.
1 of 2
One of the paintings on display in Walton Gallery's "Celebration" group exhibition, entitled "Celebrate Freedom" by Baltimore artist, Poncho Brown (Photo courtesy Walton Gallery)
2 of 2
"Love Is..." by Calvin Coleman is also part of the group showing at Walton Gallery, open through April 23. (Photo courtesy Walton Gallery)
The city of Petersburg’s financial woes have been widely publicized, including a near-shutdown of city government last year under the weight of tens of millions of dollars in debt, and its leadership struggles continue. How is Walton Gallery weathering the stormy times, and how does it see the community faring?
“I hope that we’re doing our part to bring downtown Petersburg back,” says Walton. “Petersburg was built on history; we’re trying to add some African-American culture to the mix, [and] show people we have something to offer here, that they don’t have to go to Richmond to see and buy quality art.” Walton notes that the gallery also offers its space to the community, hosting shows displaying the art of Appomattox Governor’s School students, and holding benefit shows like its Ladies First series, the proceeds of which go toward domestic violence awareness organizations.
Although larger institutions like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are making a dedicated effort to showcase the work of local and national black artists, Walton Gallery is one of the only black-owned, standalone art galleries in the region. “Many of the black-owned galleries in D.C., in Raleigh and other places, which were the first to really feature black art before it became popular to do that, are gone,” says Walton.
While he understands that not everyone may have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on the artwork Walton Gallery displays and sells, Walton encourages Petersburg residents and Richmonders, too, to stop by, if only for a visit.
“A lot of folks still don’t know that we’re here,” he says. “If you can’t support the gallery with your pocket, support it with your presence. We’re here, and we’re offering something something valuable to this community.”
The group exhibition “Celebration” remains on display at Walton Gallery (17 N. Sycamore St., Petersburg) through April 23. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday, 3 to 7 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.; or by appointment. Free admission.