Poetry and Paint Combine in Charlottesville Mural

Aug 3, 2016

If you’ve driven through the UVa campus recently, you may have noticed a mural going up on the side of the Graduate Hotel. It’s a collaboration with the Charlottesville Mural Project, a Philadelphia artist and a prize-winning poet.  WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

Artist David Guinn is balancing on a narrow metal swing stage 30 feet above the sidewalk. With one hand, he’s operating a motor that pulls the platform up a thick cable, and with the other he’s repeatedly shoving himself away from the wall next to him, much like a skipper might keep a boat from bashing into a dock.

DAVID GUINN: This lift is really the funkiest part because it’s suspended from one cable. And as you move on it, it sways back and forth but also up and down, so you’re really on a rough seas.

For the last 3 weeks, David has been ascending and descending the walls here at the Graduate Hotel in Charlottesville. The nine-story mural he and his assistant are painting faces the University of Virginia. 

GUINN: From the scaffolding you look out over the trees and there's the rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson -- like what a wild place to be in, to be contributing to this environment that's already so rich.

The location itself was part of the appeal for David when he was first approached about this project 17 months ago. But the other part that hooked him was who he would be collaborating with.

RITA DOVE: Hi, I’m Rita Dove. I’m a professor of English here at the University of Virginia.

A professor, sure, but Dove is also a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, and a former Poet Laureate. Here’s a video clip of her being introduced by President Obama during a poetry evening at the White House a few years back.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: As Rita Dove says, “If poetry doesn’t affect you on some level that cannot be explained in words, then the poem hasn’t done its job.” Also known as it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Back on the swing stage in Charlottesville, muralist David Guinn admits he saw that video too, and was a little cowed by Rita Dove at first.

GUINN: It's very intimidating and incredible really and so — really an amazing experience to get to spend time with someone who is that accomplished in the arts.

Of course, David is also an accomplished artist, albeit of the wall, not the page. He estimates that he’s painted about 45 murals — many in Philadelphia, where’s he’s from — but some in other states and even several overseas. The mural he’s creating here is based on one of Rita Dove’s poems, which — it turns out — worried her a bit at first.

DOVE: My concern, as the poet, is that the poem itself just becomes a prop for someone, you know, to put flowers around it or something. And I thought the visual and the words, should have a dance with one another in a way.

The poem that Dove and Guinn ultimately selected?

DOVE: Testimonial. Back when the earth was new and heaven just a whisper. Back when the names of things hadn't had time to stick …   (Background song called "Pink Blossoms" by Podington Bear)

GUINN: That was inspiring to me to create something abstract because I thought of a time before time, like an elemental time, when there's just shapes.

DOVE:The world called, and I answered …

That line — “the world called and I answered” — will be painted in 2-foot tall letters on the main face of the mural, some seventy feet above the ground. Beneath the text, the mural will be a riot of geometric shapes dancing across the wall in a rainbow of colors — piercing triangles and languid arcs, in blues, yellows, oranges and greens. Together, they suggest a landscape — a horizon, perhaps — a sun, a road stretching off into the distance. 

DOVE:I gave my promise to the world, and the world followed me here.

Back outside in the blazing sun, David is comparing a small paint-splattered print of his design to the wall of colors rising before him. He’s standing side-by-side with Ross McDermott, the outgoing head of the Charlottesville Mural Project, which hired David and coordinated this installation.

ROSS MCDERMOTT: In Charlottesville we're taking what were dead spaces and we're transforming them into beautiful spaces.

Working with the New City Arts Initiative, Graduate Hotels, and UVA Arts, McDermott spent nearly two years pulling this project together. But he says it was well worth the effort.

MCDERMOTT: The whole project just really gelled and I think it’s this perfect piece and the visuals are really fitting.

With a week’s worth of work left to do, artist David Guinn is already thinking about what he’ll leave behind when he returns to Philadelphia.   

GUINN: My hope is that people passing by will see this and just say, “That's cool!” And then go deeper and then be like, “Oh hey, what's this text on the wall?” Ultimately, hopefully experience that spirit that's in the poem of “I'm beginning my life and I'm really excited about it.”

The poem, in its entirety, will be integrated into the mural at sidewalk level. So beginning next week — and for the next 20 or 30 years — passers-by will be able to read it, and see the mural that it inspired.