Article by Bridget Manley, publisher, with photos by contributor Matt Young
Statues and mosaics around public buildings and murals on the walls of downtown restaurants are part of the artistic lifeblood of Harrisonburg.
Now there is an easy way to learn more about the art and artists around town. The Harrisonburg Downtown Art Walk is a free public resource created by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and the Arts Council of the Valley to give context and history to free art all around the ‘burg.
The idea started when Kyle Kirby wrote an article in The Citizen — “From a duck in a drain to the walls across Hburg — a mural artist’s journey” —about Harrisonburg artist Andre Shank’s series of murals.
Shank’s work can be seen in Ruby’s Arcade, the Elizabeth Street Parking Deck, the Golden Pony, the RISE Church and other area in the city. And those murals are part of a larger thriving art scene in Harrisonburg. Kirby, an artist himself, was impressed with the scope of public art around the city.
The piece inspired Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
“Dono saw [the article] and approached me and said, ‘hey, I really like this article, and I think we could make this into something bigger,’” said Kirby, who stopped writing for The Citizen at the time he took on this project. “So, she came up with this idea of an art tour.”
Brochures for the Art Walk are now available at the Hardesty-Higgins Visitor Center, Smith House Galleries and OASIS Fine Arts & Craft, as well as online.
With the help of The Arts Council of the Valley and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, Kirby began reaching out to artists and researching various installations around town. For two years, Kirby collected stories about various pieces, eventually putting the entire walk together.
“I hand drew a map of downtown, and then figure out how I could form a path through [the city] and what would be the easiest way to walk, and what would bring them by the most art and bring them to more businesses downtown,” Kirby said.
Emily Winter, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s director of marketing, said part of the idea for the Art Walk was to get people to come downtown, learn about the art and spend time (and money) in shops and restaurants.
“We definitely want people to come downtown and make a day out of it,” Winter said. “We want them to walk around, grab lunch, poke into some of the shops…It’s a gorgeous time to stop in and say hello to the local businesses.”
Winter said the walk includes two new pieces that have debuted downtown in 2021.
“We have the mural that was created by Tyler Kauffman over by Nest Realty, and it depicts the biking culture in Harrisonburg,” Winter said, referring to mural along the train tracks that intersect with Wolfe Street. “And we also included the Language of Love sculpture, behind city hall. That was made by Jeff Guinn.”
And the walk is designed to grow as downtown and its art expand.
“Because there is this foundation, it will also encourage more art to be made,” Kirby said.
Old-timey graffiti and other cool stories
One of the oldest pieces on the Arts Walk was discovered by accident. In 2012, the Harrisonburg Homes Team were renovating their offices when they discovered what looked like very old graffiti.
It was photographed and sealed away again until 2018 when it was again uncovered, and a sliding door was installed to showcase the art.
The artist is unknown, and the art is believed to have been created in the 1890s.
“It’s just really cool because it’s really old, and it’s kind of a mystery,” Kirby said. “We don’t know if it was one person — if it was multiple people or what the back story is. But they are very cool little drawings. And the fact they are so old, and they survived there untouched for so long, it’s pretty cool.”
Winter believes the historic graffiti is the oldest art on the tour.
“A lot of people probably don’t know it exists,” Winter said.
Another story involves the Virtue Statue outside Rockingham County Circuit Courthouse in Court Square.
“They literally ripped her head off,” Kirby said.
The statue was purchased and installed by the local chapter of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1904. Over the years, the statue was vandalized repeatedly. Someone stole the head. It got replaced, then stolen again along with her right hand.
The hand was eventually recovered, but the original head was never found.
For a while, the statue was taken inside and stored in the basement of the courthouse and has been restored with a grant by the Margaret Grattan-Weaver Foundation.
“One of her heads is still out there,” Kirby said.
For Kirby, he remains drawn to the murals of Andre Shank.
“I just really like his art style,” Kirby said. “I love the big, vibrant colors, a little more abstract vibe, and he has done quite a few.”
Kirby said Shank’s guerrilla-style art located in a storm drain in the north end of city fascinated him, but he didn’t put it in the Art Walk because of potential safety issues.
“I will not disclose the location or encourage people to go into it, because I went into it, and it’s literally a storm drain, and it’s a little dangerous,” Kirby said, laughing. “It’s just cool that it’s there.”
Art imitates life in Harrisonburg
For Kirby, the art around town matches the creativity and diversity of the people who live here.
“Harrisonburg is such a strange place,” Kirby said. “It’s a college town. It’s a truck stop town. It’s Virginia’s one and only culinary district. It’s a place for immigrants to come and live and work. It has all these vastly different groups of people, and it shows itself in the art, and the food, and the creative scene in general. For a small place tucked up in the Shenandoah Valley, it has so many different cultures that mush together there.”
And that is reflected in the art.
“It’s really interesting being to see the variety of art from different cultures around Harrisonburg,” Winter said. “I think that is conveyed by the art that is available on this tour.”
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