Exploring Hampton’s Road to Culture in Norfolk, Virginia

As I left the airport in Norfolk, Virginia for a cultural adventure in this city, I was greeted with a large sign that read “Life Celebrated Daily.”

And my first exposure to the downtown area saw culture take center stage through viewing the city’s public art projects created at the turn of the 21st century: sculptures of colorful-looking mermaids, which were produced to symbolize the city’s civic pride.  And given that 42.6 square miles of the city’s total area of 96.3 square miles is water, it is fitting, even though I managed to keep my shoes dry.

I found out why Norfolk is considered the cultural heart of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area one beautiful October weekend.  It’s a city of renowned festivals and unusual music spots.  It features an art museum housing exhibits that showcase some of the most striking paintings, photos, and glass art I’ve ever seen.

Getting acquainted with a “Jewish mother” on Granby Street

Granby Street is the longest street in the city, and contains many music and dance venues.  The street exudes the sound of music even when none of the live music venues are open.  During a Friday or Saturday night, clubbers can be heard raising hell at the historic Granby Theater, even though on my Sunday morning jog, I could hear praise music to the Almighty coming through the open doors of the same venue.   And along the sidewalk (of the 300 block) and in front of the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Ruth Brown are honored with bronze stars on the Legends of Music Walk of Fame.

I’m not normally one who fashions going to a drinking establishment in order to hear live music, but when I passed by The Jewish Mother for the first time, I just had to break my normal convention to satisfy my curiosity. It’s named after the one of the original owners’ mothers, who is Jewish.  She inspired the first incarnation in Virginia Beach to add Jewish deli menu items like bagels, corned beef, and brisket.

I listened to the North Carolina-based trio called Birds & Arrows, whose front singer is guitar-strumming Andrea Connolly.  She’s backed up by her husband Pete on the drums and vocals.  Josh Starmer plays cello, adding a really haunting quality to the group’s rock and folk hybrid sound which captivated the crowded venue, which has a really long corridor that leads to the stage area.  Looking upward, I noticed a ceiling containing Asian-like artwork to ponder while enjoying the live sound of a regional band.

Savoring rain scenes during a sunny afternoon in Norfolk’s first suburb

Norfolk is a city of festivals.  The weekend I was there, the renowned Town Point Virginia Wine Festival was taking place at the waterfront.  But since I hardly drink and have no interest in fine wine, another event caught my attention, the Stockley Gardens Fall Arts Festival.  It took place on three square blocks of green space surrounded by grand Victorian style domiciles in the artsy neighborhood of Ghent, the city’s first suburb.  It was founded in 1890 on what was once marshland, and named after the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812.

The sunny and lightly breezy weather made for a beautiful setting amidst some 140 booths full of jewelry, ceramics, paintings, prints, shaved ice and kettle corn stands.  The musical soundtrack during my stint there was provided by a traditional-sounding bluegrass band Brian Dobbins and Friends, helping to underscore the peaceful environment of this lazy Sunday.

As a lover of cityscapes, my eyes feasted on some of the rain scene paintings of Faye F. Vander Veer, including her work on oil called “Time to Leave.”   The festival drew artists from all over the country, and I even ran into two artists who happen to be based in my home state of Wyoming, husband and wife team A.B. Word and Barrie Lynn Bryant.  Word creates imaginative realism works while Bryant frames the artwork for sale.   In order to make ends meet, they must travel some six months out of the year, which includes many events in the South.

Eye-catching vintage and shattered glass at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Glass is something that has so much potential when it comes to art.  I was among the spectators who found that out during a sneak peek preview of various glass making demonstrations at the Chrysler Museum of Art‘s Glass Studio, which opened officially in early November.   The builders’ goal with this new addition to the art venue is to bring in artists to showcase performances with glass and other media.

The heat from the studio was quite noticeable, thanks to the new “Hot Shop” that contains a furnace heated to 2150 degrees Fahrenheit that can hold some 560 pounds of molten glass.  The glassmakers even called a couple of people from the audience to help in a demo.  They were given some guidance on how to inflate some molten glass through blowing, which would create a glass bubble that acted like a paper bag when one inhales and exhales; that is, until it suddenly shattered, making some in the audience squeamish, even though we were at a safe distance.

Yet this museum, which has free general admission, had to add the words “Museum of Art” to its title because people were often inquiring about Chrysler automobiles.  Instead, it contains a wealth of vintage glass, especially that made by Tiffany – paperweights, lamps, vases, lava and cameo glass, etc.   I walked many rooms and saw some of the 13,500 pieces of American and European glass dating back from the 19th century, but kept my eyes especially fixated on some of those Tiffany pieces, that are so intricately-designed and fashioned.  Tradesman who made $15 a week a century ago couldn’t afford to buy many of the creations they made, like a large wisteria lamp that sold in 1906 for $400.

The museum contains galleries full of antiquities, paintings, prints, sculpture, and more from all over the world, including those from the Egyptian, Pre-Columbian, Indian-Islamic, and Asian periods.  But awaiting me was the chance to be very captivated by one particular painting and a print.   The 1852 painting of Gustave Dore called “After the Storm,” reminded me of my recent visit to Wales, where the main theme of the painting looked very much like the Welsh Dinas Bran castle.  The painted natural surroundings on a large canvas made me want to walk into the picture because of its realistic capture of a moment in time.

Furthermore, the chormogenic print of Edward Burtynsky called “Shipbreaking #26 Chittagong, Bangledesh, 2001” captured so beautifully a graveyard of discarded ships.  I kept coming back to look at and ponder it, given my fascination with industrial ruins.

Like perfect moments caught in paintings

I came away savoring some of the cultural aspects of this city wanting a little bit more of what I experienced, whether listening to the music, pondering a work of art or relaxing during a patio lunch in an artfully-conscious neighborhood; that is, I hoped time would stop so I could stay in those moments forever, in such a way that a skilled painter captures a moment of time just perfectly.

Norfolk restaurant recommendations in Ghent

I really enjoyed the lunchtime fare served at The Ten Top, which features meat, seafood, and vegetable sandwiches.  I found the California Vegetable Flatbread Pizza to be utterly scrumptious, which is loaded with carrots, tomatoes, and chick pea on a 7” pita crust.  And the Toasted Curry Veggie Wrap featured a moderate spicy taste, and was quite filling.  Most of the items are less than $7.  The motif is quite funky, blending nostalgia through retro cola signs and pinball machines with some modern art pieces.

After attending the art festival, I enjoyed the artfully-created and rib-sticking Fried Green Tomato Sandwich containing romaine lettuce, red onions, and goat cheese on Texas toast at The Public House during Sunday brunch.  On a sunny and warm day, there’s nothing like dining outdoors and watching the unique people stroll by.  The brunch menu includes more filling dishes like the Banana & Caramel Stuffed French Toast, Scrapyard Quiche (with changing ingredients) and Fried Grit Cakes, with no dish over $12.  The establishment isn’t shy about warning customers to not request to view certain programs on its large screen TV in the bar, like “Survivor,” lest they face being ejected from the premises.

Norfolk tourist information here

Pictures credit to Roy A. Barnes and may not be used without permission.  Prices and menu items quoted are subject to change.

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Roy A. Barnes attended a press trip sponsored by Visit Norfolk, but what he wrote are his impressions without any vetting by the sponsor.  He’s a frequent contributor to BootsNAll.com, and writes from southeastern Wyoming.

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