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Mural Fulfills Alumna’s Vision

By Amy Matzke-Fawcett

A new mural by an Old Dominion University professor is one piece of an alumna's big plans for advancing community art in rural Virginia.

Richard Nickel, professor of ceramics in the Department of Art, was one of three artists to create a mural with the help of the community in Orange, Virginia, this summer. The artwork is part of an initiative imagined by Anna Pillow ('10 BFA), executive director of the Arts Center in Orange.

Pillow grew up visiting family, including her late grandmother, in Orange, a small town about 30 minutes from Charlottesville. After graduating from ODU with her bachelor's degree in fine art, she took the opportunity to study abroad in Japan to learn ceramic techniques that she would later incorporate into her work. She went on to graduate school at Sotheby's of London for her master's degree. From there, she worked with international galleries and artists in New York City, including the renowned Takashi Murakami. But when the job came open in Orange, she realized the potential of the town where she'd taken summer art classes and made money during college by selling her artwork.

"I saw the opportunity to take what I'd learned to a really cool organization that did a lot of things for the community," Pillow said. "In a place like New York, where galleries are everywhere, it's easy to be exposed to art. But in smaller towns these organizations might be the only place to bring in artists or exhibitions that are accessible to the community."

Pillow worked with Nickel as an undergraduate at ODU, but the two lost touch until she moved back to Virginia to take over the arts center in late 2019. She invited Nickel to exhibit pieces at the Arts Center, which led to conversations about Pillow's hopes for re-incorporating murals into the town. Nickel is a muralist as well as a ceramics artist, and during Pillow's time at ODU she worked extensively in the ceramics studio.

After a competitive selection process (which Pillow recused herself from), Nickel and two other artists' concepts were chosen to be painted on buildings in Orange. Nickel's mural was the first, and went up over four days in June with the help of community volunteers painting on the side of the Arts Center, which serves as a "gateway" to the town.

"There were people waiting to help when I pulled up," Nickel said. "I was pouring paint as soon as I got out of my car."

About 30 volunteers ­- people in classes at the center, residents of the town and surrounding area, a youth group, a pair of sisters and art students from the nearby University of Mary Washington and their professor ­- spent 12-hour days painting with Nickel. At the end of his time there, the center threw a party to celebrate the mural and their community garden next door. Pillow had done other projects as director - including keeping the center running during COVID-19 social distancing- but the murals were a large part of the vision for the town.

"I think that project was the first one that made it real for the community," she said. "There had been other murals in the past, but they never brought the community together."

Nickel said this project and others like it are more than just decoration because residents were empowered to help choose designs and participate in its creation. It's a memory for everyone who worked on it, and something to show off to friends, family and visitors.

"To me, Anna had the idea but is really telling the community 'put a mark on something that's yours, adding beauty to a place you love and believe in,'" Nickel said. "It's the shared experience that makes it important, and a wonderful part of the human experience."

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