The late artist Val Lewton was captivated by the yin and yang of destruction and construction, so he might appreciate what’s going on around his largest and best-known work, on the exhaust tower on H Street NW, near Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The trompe l’oeil mural seems to pierce the air shaft, revealing the Capitol dome beyond.
The 1988 mural is a witness to the redevelopment going on in the neighborhood. Val, who died in 2015, was a pretty good witness himself. A retrospective of his work is on display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center through Aug. 13.
There are paintings of gas stations and taxi garages, dump trucks and firetrucks, traffic jams and starter homes, wrecking balls and wrecked buildings.
“He wasn’t interested in the monumental city,” retired Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey said of Val at a gallery talk last month. “It was almost propaganda to him.”
Val made many of the paintings in the 1980s and ’90s, during a redevelopment upheaval. And yet, Washington looks like that more than ever these days. If you’ve found yourself walking a downtown street you haven’t trod in a while, only to wonder where a familiar building went, you will recognize the city that Val captured.
Val was a California native, the son of the Hollywood producer and screenwriter who created “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie.” He brought a bit of California with him when he came to Washington in 1963. He was entranced by sprawling suburban developments such as Dale City, Va., and sprawling transportation hubs such as Breezewood, Pa., capturing both on canvas.
“He liked industrial things,” said Val’s widow, painter Claudia Minicozzi. “When other artists would be painting the sea, Val would be painting the boat yard.”
In Lewes, Del., Val was fascinated by the Beebe Medical Center, a hospital that happened to be next to a graveyard — “which Val called ‘one-stop shopping,’ ” Claudia said.
His day job was as an exhibit designer, creating the settings for shows at the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of American Art.
Val designed the artwork inside a pair of police call boxes on 16th Street NW near Carter Barron Amphitheatre, not far from where he lived with Claudia. I pass them when I drive to work, and when I was at the AU gallery, I was delighted to see that one of his paintings had a call box. It was the sort of nonmonumental detail he liked.
As for that air shaft, which vents exhaust from vehicles on the subterranean Interstate 395, Val was the second artist to try to tame it. The first had given up before the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities found Val. The original stipend was something like $10,000, Claudia said.
“And he went to Marion Barry and got him to give him an extra $10,000,” she said. “Even when Marion Barry had been in jail and ran for mayor, Val was a staunch loyalist.”
Claudia worries that the dirt and grime kicked up by construction around Massachusetts Avenue may be harming the mural. When the work is done, and the neighborhood settles back into stasis, she hopes it can be cleaned and conserved. Then it can await the next transformation.
The District is on a winning streak when it comes to a certain kind of competition. The current and previous Miss USAs represented Washington. And now Skye Bork has been named the Distinguished Young Woman of America.
DYW? It used to be known as Junior Miss, but don’t call it a beauty pageant.
“It’s not a pageant. It’s a scholarship program,” said Skye, an 18-year-old National Cathedral School grad. She was awarded $36,500 in scholarships, which will prove helpful when she starts at Columbia in the fall.
Unlike most other District pageant, er, scholarship program participants, Skye actually was born and raised here, in Georgetown. She’s no carpetbagger.
“I’m totally for D.C. statehood,” she said.
The competition in Mobile, Ala., in June stretched over nearly two weeks. Skye spent a lot of her time setting the record straight about her home town.
“Girls would come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t realize people actually lived there,’ ” Skye said. “They thought it was mostly politicians and lobbyists. I was there to say I was living evidence that it’s more than that. It’s a home. It’s more than the postcards. It’s more than the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s about the people that live here.”
And while the DYW organizers didn’t have a District flag for the competition — they had ones for the 50 states — D.C. DYW chair Mohra Gavankar is making sure they’ll have one for next year.
“It’s coming any day now from Amazon,” she said.
Clarification: This column has been updated to clarify that the Val Lewton exhibit is at the American University Museum, which is in the Katzen Arts Center.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.