When you’re an artist competing for attention with one of the world’s biggest battleships and stunning water views on three sides of the city, you’ve got to pull out the stops to get noticed.
Artists in Norfolk, Virginia, have risen to the challenge, judging by spectacles enlivening the waterfront, walls, sidewalks, parks, even garages. Hot glass-art demos, wild wall murals with 3-D adornments, sun-catching sculptures and 30-foot-tall shape- and color-shifting flowers are among new visual treats in this walk-friendly port city. And in May, the world-respected Chrysler Museum of Art reopened with 220,000 square feet of revamped space, including two new wings and an airy cafe.
Exploring on foot and bike makes it easy to sample the art, Norfolk’s four centuries of landmarks and made-from-scratch global cuisine. The sensations don’t stop at sunset, either.
FLAMING FEATS OF GLASS
Performance art that’s actually fun to watch? There’s no better place than the Chrysler Museum of Art’s Glass Studio, which attracts artists from around the world. In exchange for using the studio’s cutting-edge glassblowing, flameworking, fusing, sandcasting and other equipment, they present free demos that involve blowing, rolling, spinning, twirling, coloring and shaping glass. They also perform dazzling feats of glass after dark at Third Thursday parties.
Just $5 gets you into this sense-surround scene: Miami club-worthy light and sound show, DJs, bands, nibbles and bargain-priced craft beer and wine made locally, and glassmaking at fiery stage-side furnaces reaching 2200 degrees. It out-sparkles discos, and there’s no need to dress up — though some do.
On a stage separated from spectators by a mere ribbon, artists perform mad-scientist experiments such as stretching and inflating molten glass and creating Rube Goldberg-esque glass machines.
Combining art, magic and choreography, artists glide around one another carrying torches, pipes and tongs. “The rule: Always look where you’re moving,” says glassblower Ryan Tanner between acts.
Some artists dance while glass heats. “Is the dancing just part of the show?” I ask Kathy Little, a glass-master from California. “No, there’s a real joy to glassmaking. It’s intense, full of suspense — dancing’s a release.” As glass wizard Mike Butzine, from Hawaii, shimmies by the furnace, Little grins: “Some dance better than others.”
PAINTING THE TOWN
“For an artist, Norfolk is an amazing place to be,” says Josh Solomon, who moved here from New York City. “There’s huge support for the arts” — a robust public-arts program, art collectives and businesses offering commissions, studio space and walls as canvases.
Downtown’s flooded with evidence: Visionary exhibits fill Selden Arcade, a grand 1930 building turned cultural center … haunting Eyes of God collages peer from MacArthur Center’s parking tower … flocks of hand-made ducks and whimsical vignettes brighten garage walls and alleys.
Outdoor murals include Anne Bousquet’s Book Migration, book-like birds, or bird-like books, printed on aluminum panels siding a downtown post office. In the newly minted Norfolk Art and Design District, mythic beasts, floating musicians and amusing hybrid creatures add visual vitality to blocks of Granby Street reclaimed by artists.
“Doodlings keep popping up,” says Careyann Weinberg, an artist at Alchemy NFK, a warehouse now housing studios. “First Friday” and other free art-music-food events “showcase the area’s hidden talent.”
Steps away, a five-story wall on Bob’s Gun Shop catches my eye. This spring, local artist Nick Kuszyk won a contest-commission to paint it edge-to-edge with a dazzling tapestry of optical patterns.
Nearby, Nicole Harp, a mixed-media artist/teacher who has exhibited at the Chrysler and East Coast galleries, and 15 high-schoolers used a basket-crane to hang giant self-portraits on a highrise. They were participating in Inside Out, a global self-expression project by French street artist JR.
The urban eye candy also includes sculptures. Four colored-aluminum futuristic sentries on Granby Street reflect ripples of sun and, at night, glow with solar light.
A bigger, shinier creation animates MacArthur Square downtown. MetalMatisse is a 30-foot-tall bouquet of glowing steel flowers that move, sing tones and change colors in response to the movement of passersby. After dark, its colored lights bloom against the night sky.
Sculpted fauna also inhabit Norfolk’s artscape. North on Granby by the Virginia Zoo is All Things Within All Things, a life-size elephant figure composed of thousands of stamped-metal butterflies sparkled by the sun.
HISTORY TOLD IN ART
New spectacles vie for eyes with well-aged works. Sixteen giant Windows on History wallpaper downtown’s MacArthur Center shopping mall. Two blocks away on the Elizabeth River Trail, a classic sculpture called The Lone Soldier faces the USS Wisconsin, one of the mightiest battleships in the world (decommissioned, it still bears frighteningly huge guns).
The trail passes an authentic pagoda, bronzed reproductions of letters written by soldiers fighting wars from the American Revolution to Vietnam. The Tourists, an amusing modernist sculpture, watches a dock where you can board a paddlewheel ferry for a $3 roundtrip cruise.
Steps off the trail you can view marine mammals 24/7 — huge humpback whales painted on a high-rise. Round the corner and look closely: there’s a whale calf.
UP THE RIVER
Hugging the Lafayette River, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens is free to stroll every day except Wednesday and Thursday. Romantic paths weave around the Arts and Crafts-style mansion, through formal and wild gardens, along river banks and around trees and wetlands. Look for kiosks that describe river preservation efforts, antique millstones and superb wood-carvings of shore birds. Or rest on a bench with splendid views in every direction.
Inside the mansion — recently designated a Smithsonian affiliate — I find exquisite carved walls and several thousand artworks collected by philanthropist Florence Sloane, who built the estate as both her residence and a community cultural center.
What a collection: embroidered art from India, ancient Buddha figures, Russian tea cups, Chinese snuff bottles, early Coptic tapestries, Spanish lace, stained-glass windows. Upstairs are contemporary pieces by resident artists fortunate enough to have studios on the grounds. Feeling inspired? Take a Hermitage drop-in class in scarf-weaving, paper-making or ceramics.
Come back after dark: From Oct. 12 to Jan. 10, interactive sculptures crafted by Bruce Munro illuminate the Hermitage gardens, woods and shore. They include mazes of water-bottle towers, light showers, flickering firefly figures and glowing waves.
As I head back through town, art pops up at every turn. Locals direct me to their favorites, such as Mermaids on Parade. For Norfolk’s signature public/private project, local artists sculpted dozens of mermaids, each unique in decoration and attitude.
My favorite mermaid escorts a fantasy submarine that surfaced on Renova Wellness Club’s building near the opera house. T.A.L.ENT — local muralists Todd and Eric Lindbergh — cleverly integrated the building’s glass-block windows into their submarine. Fish, sea turtles and the mermaid swim in 3-D relief.
This submarine lacks Battleship Wisconsin’s magnitude, but coasts merrily along on charisma.
Going to Norfolk
Getting there: Norfolk borders the Chesapeake Bay and Elizabeth River. American flies nonstop from Miami, a 21/2-hour flight. US Airways and Delta make the trip in about four hours with a connecting flight from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Roundtrip airfare starts at $280 from Miami, $455 from Fort Lauderdale in mid-October.
Getting around: Take a taxi for the 15-minute drive into town; it’s easier to explore by foot and Norfolk’s recently modernized transit system than by car. www.gohrt.com/services/the-tide/.
WHAT TO DO
Event listings including First Friday NFK art walks and Granby Street concerts: www.facebook.com/pages/Norfolk-Arts-District/147691442051313
Chrysler Museum of Art and Glass Studio: One Memorial Place, 757-664-6200, www.chrysler.org. Open every day but Monday. Free admission to the museum and studio, and free glassmaking demonstrations at noon Tuesday through Sunday. Third Thursday evening glass performance art parties with local bands, DJs and libations. $5.
Selden Arcade Gallery, plus information about public art locations: 208 E. Main St., 757-664-6880, www.norfolkpublicart.org. Open daily.
Norfolk Visual Arts Week: 20-plus free events around town from gallery parties to DRAWtoberfest live drawing, Oct. 11-19. www.norfolkpublicart.org/norfolk-visual-arts-week.
Hermitage Museum & Gardens: 7637 N. Shore Rd., 757-423-2052, www.thehermitagemuseum.org. Open Friday-Tuesday. Adults $5.50, students $3.30, ages 6-18 $2.20.
Stockley Gardens Fall Arts Festival: Free annual event featuring works from 130 established and emerging artists; Ghent, Oct. 18-19. www.hope-house.org/events
WHERE TO EAT
Handsome Biscuit: 2511 Colonial Ave., no phone, www.handsomebiscuit.com. Sweet potato biscuit sandwiches $3.50-$6.50; sides $2-$3; biscuit pudding $3. Hours vary; closed Monday.
Pasha Mezze: 340 W. 22nd St., 757-627-1318, www.pashamezze.com. Zesty small plates from $4.95; open breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Field Guide: 429 Granby St., 757-943-9805, www.fieldguide.is. Salads and sandwiches from $4.50, sweet potato chips $1.50; open lunch and dinner ‘til midnight.
Chartreuse Bistro: 205 E. City Hall Ave., 757-965-2137, www.chartreusebistro.us. Farm-to-table menu changes daily; dinner from $17-$27.
Elliot’s Fair Grounds: 806 Baldwin Ave., 757-640-2899, www.fairgroundscoffee.com. Fresh-roasted coffee and locally baked treats.
WHERE TO STAY
Norfolk Waterside Marriott: 235 E. Main St., 855-297-1426, www.norfolkwatersidemarriott.com. Nice, comfortable rooms by the river. $119-$165
Page House Inn: 323 Fairfax Ave., 757-625-5033, www.pagehouseinn.com. Beautifully decorated rooms and suites, private baths and home-cooked breakfast. $145-$230.
Tazewell Hotel and Suites: 245 Granby St., 757-623-6200, www.thetazewell.com. Centrally located historic property. $99-$119.