It’s hardly Washington’s biggest art showcase, but the D.C. Alley Museum boasts several other distinctions. The selection of murals and mosaics is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s entirely homegrown and do-it-yourself, without any bureaucratic overlords or even a website. And, according to co-curator Bill Warrell, it’s just steps from “the best coffee in the world.”
La Colombe, the coffee shop Warrell endorses, opened about two years ago on the east side of Blagden Alley and is among a half-dozen businesses that have significantly increased foot traffic in the H-shaped labyrinth near the Washington Convention Center. But the alley was a lively place long before its recent upscaling. In the 19th century, it housed horses and hansom cabs. By the 1990s, it was known for galleries, artist studios and performance spaces.
Warrell is a visual artist and former jazz and experimental-music impresario who’s probably best known for running d.c. space at Seventh and E streets NW from 1977 to 1991. He first rented his Blagden Alley loft in 2003, joining the migration north from the downtown arts scene for which d.c. space once served as the unofficial clubhouse.
This history isn’t just pertinent to Warrell, who can see some of the Alley Museum works from his home. It’s also celebrated in the art itself. Both Cita Sadeli Chelove’s “7th & E Streets NW DC” and Warrell’s own “A System of Politics and Art” depict the d.c. space building (now a Starbucks), and Aniekan Udofia’s “Space Is the Place” is named after the venue’s slogan. Rozeal’s “Maker of Saints Mural” is less rooted in downtown’s heritage, but it does include a horse.
Several of the murals portray people who performed at d.c. space, including jazz visionary Sun Ra, artist-musician Laurie Anderson, Bad Brains singer H.R. and German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. Warrell is still filling in his black-and-white painting with faces from recent local history; it already features former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, 9:30 Club co-founder Dody DiSanto, poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron and many more.
The five new murals were funded by grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, which, Warrell says, asked him not to include Barry in a larger version of his painting that he had proposed for another site.
“This is a piece about a period that was incredibly creative because of everybody jumping in and swimming together. We all did it. And Barry was a big part of it,” the artist notes.
“To me these are like monuments,” Warrell says of the murals. “But they’re not presidents. They’re not generals.”
Warrell’s partner in organizing the open-air museum is Lisa Marie Thalhammer, whose painting commemorates a different sort of history.
Two years ago, Thalhammer fell from a ladder in her O Street NW studio and suffered a concussion. She recovered with the help of yoga and meditation, which she now teaches. (Marking the second anniversary of her injury, Thalhammer will conduct two yoga classes Saturday at U Street’s Buddha B Yoga Center.) Her mural, “Meditation,” shows a vital woman, flexing her biceps — and, presumably, her brain.
None of the participants are graffiti artists, although most used enamel spray paint, and all worked on a classic urban canvas: roll-down metal gates. Udofia and Thalhammer have done outdoor murals before and learned a few things about making them as well as about community reaction.
Thalhammer’s “Boxer Girl” got mixed reviews from Bloomingdale neighbors after its 2009 unveiling — until, she recalls, “a member of the police department came to a neighborhood meeting and reported that crime had decreased by 55 percent since the mural had gone up. And then no one ever bothered me again about the artwork.”
The new murals join one painted by Kelly Towles in 2007 and several mosaics by Craig Nelsen, who used to have a studio in the alley. (The latter depict everyday people who lived in the neighborhood.) The project actually began when Warrell and Thalhammer were asked to repaint a badly chipped copy of a Gauguin painting that adorned one of the metal gates. Instead, they offered original art.
The museum’s curators will soon ask the arts commission to fund more murals. They’ve already talked to four artists about adding pieces to the collection. “We’re approaching it a bit like an art museum. We’re going to take our time and see what people are proposing,” Warrell says.
Warrell and Thalhammer have budgeted money to revarnish the paintings every few years, and they have agreements with the owners of the buildings not to paint over the art while they own the properties. But they recognize that the outdoor murals, like the character of urban neighborhoods, won’t last forever.
When the murals fade, Warrell says, “I’m hoping it will just inspire new ones to come in.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Blagden Alley, between M and N streets and Ninth and 10th streets NW.
Dates: Open 24/7, 365 days a year.