News & Features » Miscellany

Art of the State



Lost and Foundation

Some hang art in the world, some wear art into the world, and some ride it back and forth across the world like a secret train. Awer Bul is one of this last group, a Lost Boy of Sudan who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya from 1994 to 2000 after escaping the war in his home country. He used his paintings to communicate with aid workers, and his art is what brought him to Richmond, where the 24-year-old is now an art student at VCU and using his art to return to Africa.

With a VCU grant, Bul returned in June to one of Africa's largest refugee camps, his home for six years, to make a documentary on the lives of the 70,000 or so people from Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and mainly Sudan who have been displaced by ongoing war in East Africa.

He filmed the conditions there, capturing life without water, permanent shelter or schools -- and certainly without art. He found that for the people who have lived in the camp for all its 16 years and the children who were born there, life lacks more than the basics.

"When you look at it, you think people only need food and security" he says. But under these circumstances they also lose their identities. "They don't know who they are."

Bul also taught workshops in painting and stretching canvas while he was there. He wants the refugees to find an identity and be able to leave like he did, though he knows it's not as easy as returning home.

Peace has been re-established in many places, but when people leave the camps to return home, they often find their towns erased by war. So many of them return to the camp, where there's at least something there. "The only hope I have for these people is just to build a foundation for [them]," Bul says.

And that's the goal of Art for Refuge, an art auction Nov. 3, 6-8 p.m., at The Camel (353-4901), with music and talks by Bul and activist and aid worker Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana. Local artists will contribute work to the cause, which Bul plans to use to build a school in a town in southern Sudan so that people can leave the camps and find something waiting for them on the other side of the trip.

Catching Monotype

Like Awer Bul, Andrea Olson heads up a mission, but closer to home, spreading art around Richmond. Along with fellow Savannah College of Art & Design students Kevin Orlosky and Rachel Kettenacker, Olson founded Art on Wheels in March to teach youngsters and the elderly artistic techniques that are a little more involved than macaroni portraits of their favorite deposed South American presidents. We're talking printmaking here — drypoint, monotype, lithography — as well as oil painting and making frescoes, "things that historically played a pretty big role," Olson says.

The organization (, which got public charity status in June, carries its works around town and sets up shop in day-cares, summer camps and senior centers, expanding the horizons where school curricula drop off and where, as Olson notes, the elderly often fall through the cracks. Right now the trio teaches 26 different introductory classes for a small fee. The group would like to start regular programs in the venues and run them for free.

"We really want to be able to customize a curriculum," Olson says. So at long last, art can join the ranks of ice cream, pizza and religion, coming right to your door.

Tee Up

As with fruit, eggs and marriage, there's now a movement to buy local when it comes to T-shirts. And why not? Does the local Target really know its market well enough to bank on reprints of old Spider-Man tees or "I ♥ Hot Moms"? Those may be universal messages, but that doesn't mean you can't be better represented by locally designed gear.

For one option, look to Pierre Botardo, Brian Villalon and Jamey Sutton, the talent behind Civilize (, available at Henry on Broad Street). The three VCU art grads formed the T-shirt company after they took stock of the scene.

"We would always talk about a certain product," Botardo says — "what we liked and disliked about a certain brand." Not wanting to embark on the involved cut-and-sew process, Botardo says, Civilize is content to do tees for now, producing the designs and producing them at a screen-printer at Willow Lawn.

Botardo says Civilize's emphasis is on street culture, like hip-hop and skateboarding, but he says this cautiously, because the company's not trying to label its label: "As far as the T-shirts go, we don't want to bring just one style."

So no brass-knuckle images or guns or whatever. Or wait — there is one gun, a print of a revolver with a pastel Confederate bandanna tied around the barrel. But it's a mix of designs, stemming from Botardo's illustration, Villalon's graphic design and Sutton's fine art backgrounds. There are naked ladies with strategically placed bars, peppermint barbershop poles and dollar bill logos, all representing us far better than Wal-Mart's selection.

But not just us. Civilize is in almost a dozen shops in New York, New Jersey, Canada, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Ink Tank is another shop in the T-shirt game. Heide Trepanier and Matt Lively founded the artists collective to, as Trepanier says, "create the clichés of tomorrow." What she means is that the collective is designed to give local artists a platform for exposure, to "figure out a way to promote them and get it done."

Ink Tank ( has a blog and showed at Plant Zero in August. And perhaps most accessibly, it makes T-shirts featuring the work of such local artists as Kristin Polich and David Culpepper. Trepanier figures a T-shirt can reach more people than a piece in a gallery, so why not send it out into the world on somebody's chest?

It's "art for anyone that can wear something," she says.

  • Click here for more Arts & Culture
  • Tags

    Add a comment