Knock down walls…or paint them?

A Black man wearing a black t-shirt and black backpack.
Hamilton Glass

You could say that One Small Step (OSS) is all about breaking down walls – those metaphorical barriers that we build around ourselves that keep us disconnected from those who see the world differently.  Eliminate those walls, and now we’re getting somewhere.

There’s a nonprofit organization in Richmond that sees walls a bit differently – actually, a lot differently – even though its objective closely mirrors that of OSS: to get disparate sets of people talking.

Mending Walls is the brainchild of Hamilton Glass, who describes the nonprofit he founded as “a community-engaged collaborative art project that pairs artists from different backgrounds together to have conversations and create connection and empathy between them.”  

The walls in this case are the sides of buildings, which serve as canvases for giant, multi-story murals that populate Richmond’s urban landscape. Richmond was recently ranked fourth in the country for its murals – not so much for the sheer number of them, but for their richness.  

That richness grows out of a process, a collaboration that starts with the pairing of two artists whose sensibilities – either artistic or political – are not necessarily in sync.  The idea first took root around the period of social unrest following the death of George Floyd.

A Black man in a grey hoody and black pants and a white stripe going along the side of his pants.

“What really started the conversation was that dynamic time when there were people protesting in the streets while artists were painting,” Hamilton remembers.  “Imagine the accountability you had to have behind your work with news stations and protestors all around. Collaboration, in general, is a really hard thing to do, and then throw in social and racial justice on top of that, and that adds to the dynamic. The art allowed the community to be a partner in the conversation.”

That community-engagement piece is a critical element to what Mending Walls is all about. Each mural is more than a collaborative art installation.

“The murals are just the candy to get people there,” Hamilton says. “Every single mural has a podcast, and we program civic talks around those podcasts. With every project, we have community engagement days where the community gets to participate in actually learning about the work.”

One mural attracted its share of attention. Painted by two local artists—one Black, the other white—depicted a giant fist near a highly trafficked area on Broad Street, an image that got folks talking. 

“It really brought people in, and I thought that it was so genius because of the amount of people who are going to be asking questions around what was happening with that mural,” Hamilton says. “There was just the whole point of getting people to talk and have their own conversations about the work.”

While Hamilton is not shy about opening up to difficult conversations, his experience having an OSS conversation largely steered clear of anything contentious.  

“We just spoke on the human level and I almost felt like I was doing it wrong, to be honest with you,” he recalls.  “I don’t know why that sounds weird, but my partner genuinely came at it exactly like I did, which was like ‘I just want to meet somebody new.’  None of it was hard at all.  We had a really good conversation.  We didn’t even bring up politics.”

In other words, why build walls that aren’t there? 

Unless you plan to paint on them.