For five days last week, local artist Eric B. Ricks was working on a mural on the back side of 6925 Blair Road NW, a building that’s occupied by a liquor store and a small upstairs office. Ever since the park closed on nearby 4th Street, forcing out the few winos and neighborhood guys that hung out there to relocate, this little patch of land wedged between two roads and the train tracks has been their spot. Now, they have something nice to look at.
Ricks, who painted it as part of MuralsDC, a partnership between several public and non profit agencies including the District’s Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and Words Beats & Life Inc., says it represents what he thinks the world should really be about. “This particular piece is something near and dear to my heart. First of all it’s about empathy, love, passion. Things that I believe are the pillar of any healthy and driving, community,” Ricks, 38 explained Thursday. “The image of the little girl is my daughter. So, it’s kind of like a message in a bottle as well. Also, not just to the community, but also passing those words on to her, those higher aspirations, you know?”
Around the edges of the piece, is a flower transformation. They go from grey, to pink, to red, and back to pink. There are four total words: Passion, which runs along the bottom of the toy train track with a purple gradient; Takoma, in black letters signifying a Metro station stop; Empathy, in a rainbow of letters emanating from the tunnel on the left; Love, which technically only reads “LOV” is red letters outlined in yellow, appearing more like a marquee sign similar to that of nearby Takoma Theatre.
Ricks still can’t believe it happened at all. He’s worked with the program before, but this one is special.
“I’m so honored to be on this particular wall at this location. Some of the artists coming up that I used to admire, it’s like almost as if this street was the urban gallery, it’s like right now I feel like I just put my piece next to the D.C. legends. Sam Gilliam around the corner, Colby Kennedy across the street?” he said, referring to the mural across the tracks and the one on the wall below the track bridge. He didn’t even finish his sentence. Those two artists spoke for themselves for anyone familiar with public art.
Also, it might be the last thing he does in the District for a while. Wednesday, he’s leaving for Harlem, where he’ll work with a friend on a project before he basically just let’s the wind take him. His goal is to paint a mural in every state he can. He plans to be at it for about a year. If it sounds a nebulous and slightly scattershot life path, it is. That’s by design.
“I set myself on a path, and I decided to remove the obstacle of waiting to find the connection. And the funny is, the closer I get, people are calling me, doors are opening, people want to be a part of what I’m doing so, I honestly am not afraid of the hows and the whys, but I just want to be there, and it’ll happen,” Ricks, who came to the U.S. from Liberia when he was 14, said Tuesday. “I do have a base idea of the way I’m formulating my style. But when I get to every place I want to feed off the environment, I want to be inspired by the area, so I’m not just putting my art that’s just my interpretation or my view. I wanted to include everybody. So, it’s not just my voice, it’s their voice and something everybody can appreciate.”
But this is all a far cry from what he was doing with his life seven years ago. That’s when he got divorced and his whole world changed. From then on, he decided to dedicate himself to art full time. He’d been into art since he was a kid, but he sort of put it away after high school. After his marriage ended, he began painting around the clock, crafting his style as a graffiti artist and more generally, too.
“[I] kind of lost everything, including my sanity. And that was the only thing there. And I kind of had that epiphany like, from this point on, I don’t want to give up on things that I want to do. Because it was all that I had. I still felt like I was missing out on something and that was this. I never felt more fulfilled in all my life, than doing this thing,” the Quince Orchard High School grad reflected on his career. And after his mentor George de Vincent died in March, he had to find a new journey.
Getting ready for the trip Tuesday afternoon, he reveals what proves to be his most impressive skill. As much as he likes to paint, Ricks is also quite adept at sculpture. Standing in front of a dozen crates with hundreds of paint cans, he explains how it’s about more than murals. “Six-hundred cans, when you’re done painting, becomes 600 cans of litter. So I decided to take my cans and transform my waste. When I turned 36, I made 3,600 butterflies. I took the cans and started cutting up the cans,” Ricks said. “Then I started creating roses. Because I wasn’t consuming enough with the butterflies. With the roses, it’s 6 cans to one rose, so everything gets used up. That idea I want to take on the road as well. Go to places, clean up the litter, you make the place truly beautiful, so everywhere you go you’re adding something. You’re showing people that everything can be used and nothing goes to waste.”
After I spent a week marveling at the progress of his mural, he pulled out a few of the butterflies and roses he’d built from cans he’d painted with. I sheepishly explained that I probably liked those more than the wall at Takoma. He let out his infectious laugh and forgave me. He plans to link up with a Venice, Calif., company that specializes in that particular medium when he makes it there. It’s a way to make money beyond being less wasteful.
As I left, Ricks was smoking a cigarette on his buddy’s stoop near McMillan Reservoir, wearing sweatpants and a white Art Primo t-shirt. That buddy, another artist, is looking at the construction project across the street, which has put up fences with occasional wood doors all along the block. It blocks all view. Eric wants to paint it. After a talk with a construction worker, the two both get exited, and you can see the wheels turning. The journey never ends.
“I’d definitely come back to D.C., for that,” he said.