Dodging power lines, working around crumbling bricks, and balancing on failing equipment, Richmond artist Nils Westergard turned the south face of Waynesboro’s old ice house into a gigantic portrait, both haunting and whimsical. His mural of a woman with tulips won first place in “Street Art 360’s” 2019 international competition of street artists.
Westergard, who’s a filmmaker, and an accomplished graffiti artist as well as a muralist, has worked all over the world, asking nothing for his work but the tools to complete it. In this case the tools fell short, the artist said, and the one lift that was available and affordable would allow him to reach only a portion of the windowless wall of the tallest building in the city. When that lift broke, another inadequate lift was rounded up for the project. From the platform, he could reach only about half the mural. The right side of the figure— everything from the model’s eye to the edge—was painted using a pole with a brush. “Her shoulder and hood were an unbelievably painful and difficult undertaking,” Westergard said.
Because of power lines, the only access was from the lower left. “I had to hug the wall the entire time,” Westergard said. “The wall itself is in an abysmal state, and bricks would regularly chip or fall off as I worked. It was extremely difficult to get paint into the surface on the right side.” Westergard said he had originally planned to create a drop shadow, but it was simply impossible to reach that far.
Piper Grove, director of the Shenandoah Art Center, had the chance to observe Westergard’s technique. “Many mural artists use a projector,” she said, “especially with a painting this size.” Westergard, though, worked from a small likeness, enlarging it by eye as he sketched it out with spray paint. The figure itself is painted in somber tones of bluish black, the outlines filled in with the painstaking repetition of brush strokes.
“I’d say he was working within the guidelines of traditional portraiture,” Grove said. “Most often, people in older portraits maintained a solemn expression, with no attempt to convey joviality.”
The monochromatic portrait and the woman’s inscrutable expression are brightened by rosy tulips, tucked haphazardly into the model’s hair and the opening of her hooded jacket. Why tulips? Westergard said it was a personal choice: “I am simply a massive fan of tulips. Their shape and color is so simple and elegant, and when I started working with the kind of floral growth imagery we have here, it was natural for me to gravitate toward tulips. I spend a great deal of time in the Netherlands and they are, of course, tulip kings of the world, so it all comes full circle.”
The ice house mural was completed in October, part of The Virginia Street Arts festival organized and supported by E-N computers in Waynesboro. The festival has been going on for three years and other well-known muralists have graced Waynesboro’s walls with murals that adorn the remnants of the city’s industrial past. Other murals can be found in the Basic City area, on Main Street, and on Race Avenue.
Westergard himself has been there every year since the festival started. “I came from the world of graffiti,” he said. “There is a constant itch to paint walls, the bigger the better. I can’t tell you what drives it, but it’s extremely satisfying to step down and look upon the giant I wrought.”
The Casco ice plant mural is especially significant, not only because of its first-place award, but because it’s 93 feet tall and placed in such a way that visitors coming from the east as well as those driving or walking around town can’t help but see it. Grove believes it has single-handedly changed the downtown landscape. “Other cities have murals painted at one entrance or another,” she said. “But they’re almost always focused on tourism. We have a museum-quality portrait.”
Grove says it sends a message that the area is home to a community of artists and art lovers that you might not expect to find in a small Valley town. Also, like all good art, it starts conversations. “People might love it or hate it, but they talk about it,” she said.
Some of the talk concerns the “message” contained in the giant portrait; what the tulips might symbolize, or the emotions behind the model’s expression. Westergard doesn’t explain: “That seems more the job of the beholder in this case,” he said.
The Virginia Street Art Festival has been held in conjunction with Waynesboro’s Fall Foliage Festival for the last three years. Other murals can be seen on the side of the Wayne Theatre, at the Basic City Brewing Company, and at the E-N Computer building on Commerce Avenue.