Public Art for Public Spaces

In his duties as an art teacher, Barry O’Keefe wants his students to consider their work as living things that can exist outside the classroom for a purpose larger than a letter grade.
The Richmond-based artist and new Collegiate art teacher Barry O’Keefe has the hands of a creator: palms and wrists stained with ink, his fingers cut in places from carving grooves in wood. In between classes, in his office in the Hershey Center, O’Keefe goes to work whittling the details of a face. He’s been working on an eight-by-eight wood carving of Carter Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, a piece O’Keefe has been commissioned to make by the Carter G. Woodson National Historic Site, in Washington, D.C. He’s at the stage in the work where he can enter what he calls a “flow state,” the part of the process he enjoys the most, once the idea has been fleshed out and approved, where he allows his mind to wander and lose itself within the space of his creation. 

Within any act of creation there is this form of meditative freedom, but O’Keefe never wants to lose sight of who he is making his pieces for. He wants his art to be encountered not as an object that exists in isolation but as an experience open to the public. “I think in a lot of my work the ideas that I’m really interested in are ideas that have to do with history and public space and the social dynamics of that space,” he says. “I’m interested in art that is for everybody, that has a social function and lives with the public.” 

His work is a reconciliation with the past, a way of elevating the stories of historical figures often overlooked or forgotten. Although his work can be found in private museum collections, he prefers to showcase his pieces publicly. “Historically, art has been the shared possession of a culture,” he explains. “So, for example, a grandma makes a quilt. That quilt goes on your bed, and then, later, you give that quilt to your child, and now your child sleeps with it every night. Art should be something that is part of your life, and I’m interested in what makes art a living thing — not separated from a culture in a museum but as part of a culture in a public space.” 

In 2021, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jackson Ward, O’Keefe collaborated with the JXN Project to produce portraits of Richmond luminaries to be displayed around the streets of Jackson Ward. Each portrait, later converted into banners and displayed around Jackson Ward, were intended to replace the names of racist Civil War-era generals that have dominated the spaces of Richmond streets for centuries. Because of the project, the 20th century civil rights activist Giles Beecher Jackson suddenly replaced Stonewall Jackson. The portraits stimulate memory and help nourish an impoverished history. “The initial question that motivated us was, Who was the Jackson in Jackson Ward? The short answer is probably Stonewall Jackson, and we wanted to reimagine that name,” O’Keefe explains. “So we started to honor the streets with different names, like Giles Beecher Jackson. We had parties out in the streets, concerts. The project — the art — became something that was like a living thing happening in the neighborhood.” 

In his duties as a teacher, he wants his students to consider their work with the same kind of intention — as living things that can exist outside the classroom for a purpose larger than a letter grade. “I think part of my mandate as a teacher is to get students making art that has something to do with conversations happening outside the School,” he says. “Ideally, I want to get art to be in conversation with the city of Richmond.” 

Although he’s been at Collegiate for only a few months, O’Keefe has jumped right into his charge. For one of his first class projects, he partnered with Director of Sustainability Sandra Marr and climate organizers from Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond. Together, the students created what O’Keefe calls movement art — loud and colorful banners and posters — that would then travel with the college students to New York City, where the posters were displayed to the public. “So art got made,” O’Keefe says, in his relaxed, level way of explanation, “and it went on to serve a purpose in the public that relates to important problems, in this case the health of our planet.” 

Inspiration arrives, in art, spontaneously, like a fish finally biting the hook, but to arrive at that lurch of inspiration takes studious work. O’Keefe wants his students to be free to create as they please, but he also wants them to think deeply about their subjects. Like his portrait of Woodson, reaching that flow state takes time. “When we think about creating public art, I want students to learn as much as they can about the history of that place, because it’s easier to care about things when they are meaningful to you or if you understand them on a deeper level,” O’Keefe says. In this way, working in an art studio gives students the opportunity to learn from and make an impact on the places they live. “So, if we make art, and then it’s going to go out and live in the world, well, it’s not just me who is going to see it anymore. That makes anything you create feel more real and tangible.”