I love Portsmouth and I’m not afraid to say it.
We rented a house in Portsmouth when we moved here from Detroit two years ago. It was a beautiful home with a stunning view on the James River. We discovered Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation, a gem of a nature center with kayaks on the river, the Portsmouth Olde Towne Farmers Market, the Children’s Museum of Virginia, a huge hit with the grandchildren, the Portsmouth Community Concert Series, lots of great restaurants, a ferry ‘cross the river for a hassle free way to go to Norfolk, and much more.
We were happy to be so close to a riverfront town that had so much going on.
Then I found out that some people in Hampton Roads (I’m talking to you Norfolk and Virginia Beach), look down their collective noses at Portsmouth and think of the city as a poor second cousin who showed up at your door for dinner on a Tuesday. I started reading about the politics, the schools, the tolls and the taxes. Then I went to the Gosport Arts Festival, Gospelrama on the river on a warm summer night, visited the Portmouth Arts and Cultural Center, and made up my mind that someone, maybe a lot of people, are doing something right in Portsmouth.
I met two of those people last week at The Coffee Shoppe on High Street, kitty-corner from the Children’s Museum. It’s a cozy place for coffee and conversation on a rainy day, and I found out there is lots going on in Portsmouth and lots of people love Portsmouth just like I do.
Barbara Vincent and John Joyce should be included as examples under the definition of “grassroots movement – positive actions that happen organically by people at the local level.” They don’t just talk about it; they do it. Both are long time Portsmouth residents and art lovers. They put together the annual curated Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition that runs every year from spring through fall in the courtyard of the historic Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center.
Barbara and John wanted some sculpture to stay in Portsmouth. A grassroots movement was formed “around a kitchen table” in 2010 when Barbara, John, and other “friends and neighbors” raised the money to buy the large bronze toad that every child (and some grown-ups) wanted to kiss in the annual sculpture exhibit.
They raised the money and purchased “I’ve Been Kissed” by sculptor Pokey Park (top right). The toad was installed in a prime location just outside the entrance to the Children’s Museum of Virginia, where just about every kid who passes by needs to give it a kiss (or a chomp). They decided to form an organization for “more than just the toad.”
They formed Support Portsmouth Public Art, a non-profit organization dedicated to “purchasing and installing public art in Portsmouth.”
The next big project was a mural. “The Children,” painted by local artist Sam Welty, is hidden from street view, but children and parents are delighted when they discover it out the window at the top of the staircase in the Children’s Museum of Virginia. There, way larger than life, are two Portsmouth kids, peeking out from behind a curtain, looking right through the window of the museum. Barbara says that this mural “shows the curiosity and creativity of children.”
image | David Neef
Support Portsmouth Public Art has been focusing on murals in the last few years. The organization tries to highlight Portsmouth history and it’s people. John says, “history did not stop in 1865 in Portsmouth.” Three well-known musicians with Portsmouth roots are painted on the wall of the Colony Theater on High Street. Ruth Brown, the “Queen of Rhythm and Blues”, Tommy Newsome, famous for being part of the Johnny Carson show, and Bill Deal, of Bill Deal and the Rhondels were painted by Mandy Smith.
image | David Neef
Support Portsmouth Public Art has more murals around town and more in the works. The organization wants to spread art throughout Portsmouth, not just downtown. A mural of former mayor James W. Holley III is planned for the Pavilion in City Park. Mayor Holley was recalled twice, but he was beloved by many in Portsmouth. He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mayor Holley’s tagline was “creating the Portsmouth family.”
Raising funds to support public art in Portsmouth is tough. They have fundraisers and art sales. Barbara wants everyone to know they recycle art for the cause. If you have a piece of art that you no longer want, donate it to Support Portsmouth Public Art and they will sell it at the Farmers Market or their next event. Local businesses contribute in the form of money, supplies, and walls to paint on.
The bottom line is that these people care about Portsmouth. Barbara says, “we are really focused on getting the younger people in this city interested in the arts; they are the ones who will be living with it.” John has pulled out his own checkbook more than once to make art happen in his city. Both want a “vibrant Portsmouth, the arts are part of that.”
Stop by this weekend to watch a mural go up!