RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond, despite its decades-long bout with low self-esteem, has long been a recognized Mecca for art and music, thanks largely to the talent magnet and magnifier that is Virginia Commonwealth University - particularly its art school.
Many of its students and graduates (not always the same thing) have helped shape RVA’s increasingly recognized rep for eclectic and distinctive coolness.
There have been more than a few standouts who have excelled at both music and art.
One of them is Wes Freed, now 53 and still doing his art and music here in the city’s Fan District.
It was 1983 - 35 years ago - when Wes left his home in the Shenandoah valley to major in painting and printmaking (with a minor in sculpture) at VCU.
“Those first years when you just moved to town and you’re just in college,” he recalled this week from his garage studio off Hanover Avenue. “Everything is so new and fresh and you’re still young . . . and, woo-hoo!”
Practically as soon as he arrived in Richmond, he started singing in heavy music bands. First the Mutant Drones, then Mudd Helmut, then the more countrified Dirt Ball and now, the MagBats.
“Being in a band, being in art school . . . It was a blast,” he said. “There were a lot of really good bands, a lot of great places to play. The shows were (he laughed) crazy.”
I was the rock music critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time and loved Mudd Helmut’s shows because they were basically out of control.
“The thing with Mudd Helmut was, the band was so loud you could hardly hear the vocals,” Wes said. “I had to give people something since you’re really couldn’t hear me singing much, so I’d flop around on stage and hurt myself, draw a little blood, whatever . . . I’m still feeling the slings and arrows of some of the falls I took.”
Those were wild years for RVA punk, which was becoming known around the world.
Wes said he started doing show posters for his band and his distinctive style caught on.
The Drive By Truckers - a huge band with a vast and loyal following - fell in love with Freed’s art. Which meant many of their fans did, too.
“We hooked up with the Drive By Truckers in ‘98, did a record cover for them and shortly after that we started doing show posters, and more and more show posters.”
That steady stream of album covers, and posters has created a demand for Freed’s distinctive style. One glance at one of his pieces and you know it’s his.
It’s been like that practically from the start, he said.
“Some of my professors were like, ‘you seem to have found what you want to do. I guess that’s good, uh, it might not be good. But if you can make it work, then it’s good. Have at it.”
It has been good. He also dabbled in movie acting and TV commercials for junkyards. “I was fairly comfortable in the junkyard,” he said.
In his 35 years here, Wes’ music has headed south and west to the mountains and valleys, while his art just keeps on truckin’ on.
He loves it here.
“I think initially when I was in high school I wanted to go to New York and be an artist and do all that,” he recalled. “I came to Richmond and I was like, I don’t know . . . Richmond seems like it might be big enough.’ Then I went to New York and I was like, ‘Yes, Richmond is definitely big enough.’
It’s one of those places that once you call it home, you just want to stay here.”
We talked about some of the many artists and musicians who came here and stayed, contributing to the distinctive vibe that more and more people across the nation are appreciating.
“I’ve seen it forever,” he said. “I don’t know what the reason is, but the art scene is just so based here in the Fan, and the Fan is such a singular place. There’s really no place quite like it. It’s always been this sort of bohemian enclave in the midst of a conservative surrounding. It makes for a really good art scene.”