In vivid hues and geometric strokes, an homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is taking shape at the eastern end of the bridge in Richmond that bears his name.
Stars, butterflies and an image of King himself will grace what was once a drab concrete wall. And, of course, the mural will feature the most famous four-word refrain to leap off the page of a speech: I have a dream.
Four mornings a week, in temperatures at times approaching triple digits, young art apprentices have toiled at this span linking Leigh Street and downtown Richmond to Mosby Court and Church Hill. Their vision is to enliven the bridge — and by extension, its adjacent community — with a vibrant message of love, hope, freedom and equality.
The mural is a byproduct of the Apprentice Mural Arts Project, a collaboration of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and local artists from the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project, whose acronym stands for Upholding, Networking and Inspiring Togetherness in celebration of Yesterday.
Local artists Hamilton Glass and Sir James Thornhill — who last year organized the Battery Park mural project honoring Richmond native Arthur Ashe — are schooling about a half-dozen apprentices participating in the MLK bridge project, with help from local artist Jowarnise Caston and Azure Davis, an art education major at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge opened in September 1976 as a replacement for the former Marshall Street Viaduct.
The 2,130-foot bridge over Shockoe Valley was named one of the 21 most beautiful steel bridges opened to traffic during 1977 by the American Institute of Steel Construction. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., in a dedication letter, called it “a structure befitting the memory of my son.”
Four decades later, it’s hard to imagine the now-dreary span was the subject of such accolades.
“This bridge just kind of needs some help,” said Glass, who designed the mural and said he hopes the splash of art will not only add color but “also, hopefully, an invigorating kind of spirit for this community.”
“People seeing things done here, sometimes, can inspire more great things,” he said.
The project deadline is Aug. 3. In the fall, U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project will work across the street with students from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, based on a mural concept by the youngsters. “Different project but same vision,” Glass said.
The fee for the six-week program was $300, but scholarships were available to participants. Breakfast and lunch are provided to the young artists.
Diane Hayes, cultural arts manager with the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, said the goal of the apprentice mural project is “to give students who are truly interested in going into one of the arts fields hands-on experience working with artists.”
Khepera Martin, 13, signed up for the project because “I just thought it would be nice to help out the community.” But Khepera, who attended MLK Middle last year, is absorbing life lessons in the process.
“Art is not just drawing and sketching. It’s also a learning experience, and being able to vibe with others and make friends,” he said.
Matthew Burton, a freshman at Highland Springs High School, is a fan of graffiti and the artist Kehinde Wiley, whose portrait of former President Barack Obama hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
“I’ve learned how to paint a lot neater than I was, because when I first started out, it was all sloppy,” he said. “But I’ve learned different types of techniques and how to hold a brush and everything like that.”
The steadfast crew on hand Wednesday also included Binford Middle School seventh-grader Isabelle Winning, Collegiate School freshman Alexander Trimmingham, the home-schooled Layla Pitts and VCU junior Hoang Ma.
“They’re making it happen. They’re doing most of the work,” Glass said. “They’re certainly dedicated. We’ve been out here on 98-degree days ... and they came back.”
Cultivating that level of dedication and perseverance is what the project is all about, Glass said.
“You don’t have to be an artist to create a mural. It’s something that you just have to have the time and the discipline to do,” he said.
“Whether the kids are artists or not — or consider themselves artists or not — doing something like this, I think, is really just an act of discipline. It’s an act of accomplishment, too. There’s going to be nothing that can come close to driving past this thing and say, ‘Hey, that thing is 108 feet long, and I did it!’”
In the late morning heat, taking a short break from adding a bright yellow shine to the mural’s stars, Khepera envisioned what he’d do upon the mural’s completion.
“I would ride by it every single day and say, ‘Wow, I was a part of that!’” he said. “And I did something positive for the community.”