Norfolk’s NEON District promises to immerse visitors in the arts

Attractions include museums, murals, artist studios, art classes and more.
hot glass sculpting shot with Robin Rogers

Credit: Echard Wheeler Photography

Credit: Echard Wheeler Photography

An instructor at Perry Glass Studio in Norfolk, Virginia, demonstrates the art of glass blowing. (Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art)

Wearing protective goggles and a shirt that reads “Get Fired Up,” Matthew Jacob blows into a metal pipe, producing a radiant orange orb from the other end. Using a pair of long tweezers called jacks, he shapes the glass, which he occasionally heats up in the 2150-degree furnace to keep it malleable. The neck of the vessel is fashioned using a long metal rod called a punty. When Jacob is satisfied with his creation, he places it in the kiln to cool for at least a day. When removed, the viscous orange glass will be a hardened purple vase marked with a feathered white pattern.

Jacob is demonstrating the ancient art of glass making at Perry Glass Studio at the Chrysler Art Museum, which anchors the NEON District, Norfolk, Virginia’s first arts district.

The free presentation is meant to instill a deeper appreciation for the museum’s 10,236-piece glass collection, one of the largest in the country, that spans glassmaking techniques from ancient times to modern day.

Great artistry in glass can be observed in a wide range of functional and decorative objects, including a 1st-century mold-blown glass bowl, a cut-glass candelabra, a 19th-century whale oil lamp with a pressed glass handle and art deco sculptures in glazed terra-cotta.

Friends of Museum Reopening Preview. May 8, 2014. Photo by Charlie Gunter.

Credit: Charlie Gunter

icon to expand image

Credit: Charlie Gunter

For those inspired to try their hand at the art form, workshops are available. Jacob welcomes aspiring glassmakers, but he warns beginners to manage their expectations.

“Failing over and over again is a big part of learning to work with glass,” Jacob said. “You have to spend a couple of years being bad at it, but having fun in the process, before you really start to understand the material and make things you like.”

Soon, the studio will accommodate more emerging and established glass artist. An 18,000-square-foot expansion that will triple its current footprint is underway. When completed in late 2024, a new building adjacent to the current studio will house three hot shops, dedicated classrooms for various glassmaking techniques and a 200-seat performance theater.

The $30 million expansion will be one more reason to visit the 12-block NEON District, renowned for its eye-catching murals and public art, including the iconic NEON Cube, an illuminated neon sign that spins atop the old Greyhound Bus Station at the corner of Granby Street and Brambleton Avenue. This beacon to the neighborhood is a nod to its midcentury past when it was called “Auto Row” because car dealerships with flashing neon signs sprawled in every direction.

Near the museum is D’Art Center, a non-profit community art hub with three galleries and more than 30 resident artists who specialize in glassmaking, painting, pottery, jewelry-making and more. The organization has had many addresses around Norfolk since its founding in 1986, but in 2021, it found its forever home in the old Atlantic Permanent bank headquarters. The center occupies the first floor, with apartments on the upper floors. An old bank vault and the former bank lobby serve as galleries for new and nationally curated rotating exhibits, while the Artist Wing features local artists.

The public is welcome to drop in on artists at work. Many are willing to discuss their artistic journey or the inspiration behind current projects.

Artist Cathy-Jo Ramsey illustrates a glass making technique at her studio at D'Art Center.
(Courtesy of Tracey Teo)

Credit: Tracey Teo

icon to expand image

Credit: Tracey Teo

Cathy-Jo Ramsey is a retired middle school teacher turned glass artist, who has been at D’Art for 18 years. She makes small animal figures, everything from pandas to possums, by the process of lampworking – glass blowing using an open flame. But she’s especially proud of her luminescent oyster plates. Colored glass plates topped with whimsical glass oysters on the half shell are swirled with blue, green and purple.

Ramsey is a native of Chincoteague, a coastal Virginia island known for briny oysters, so creating art that features the mollusks comes naturally.

Her interest in glass making started with a present from her son — a beautiful glass paperweight. A story about the artist had just run in the local newspaper, so she found his studio and approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Outside of school hours, she would work for him for no compensation if he would teach her his skills. He accepted and the teacher became a student for three years.

“It was sort of liking getting on a train and not knowing where the train was going,” Ramsey said. “But I got on it.” And she never looked back.

Stories like hers are what make artists here so approachable.

Abstract painter Ken Wright has been at D'Art Center in Norfolk since its inception in 1986. 
(Courtesy of Tracey Teo)

Credit: Tracey Teo

icon to expand image

Credit: Tracey Teo

“When you go to museums or galleries, you don’t get the chance to meet the artists,” said Ken Wright, an abstract painter at D’Art. “You see their works, but you don’t get a one-on-one with the artist.”

Wright has been with D’Art since its inception 37 years ago, longer than any other resident artist. He’s currently working on a series of paintings titled “Door of No Return.” It’s a reference to a former slave-trade outpost in Ghana and the doorway millions of Africans passed through before being forced onto slave ships headed to the Americas.

“Remember,” the first painting in the series, is a haunting depiction of a fog-swirled doorway with a small, solitary figure at its center. Slave ships appear to sail along the fortress wall. When examined closely, details at the bottom of the painting illustrate the inhumane conditions of the Middle Passage. The series is a testament to the resiliency of the African American spirit.

To learn more about the NEON District murals, join the Norfolk Tour Company for a free guided walking tour. The one-hour excursion covers five blocks and is like walking through a box of crayons. A kaleidoscope of colors is plastered prominently on low-rise buildings and in unexpected places like tucked-away alleys and even on the pavement. Some convey messages about social and racial justice, like William Payne’s mural, “Say Their Names,” that protests police brutality, while others are light-hearted and fun, like one of a roller-skating chameleon.

Gourmandizing" is a mural in Norfolk's NEON District that highlights local foods. 
(Courtesy of Tracey Teo)

Credit: Tracey Teo

icon to expand image

Credit: Tracey Teo

After strolling past the Harrison Opera House and Push Comedy Theater, “Gourmandizing” pops up in all its delicious glory. The Granby Street mural illustrates the history of lunchtime in Norfolk and is sure to arouse a craving for local eats. London-based artist Matthew McGuinness led a team of high school students from The Governor’s School for the Arts in creating depictions of Virginia’s famous ham and oysters, as well as comfort foods like mac and cheese and hotdogs.

The NEON District was once illuminated by a rainbow of neon signs advertising new cars. Today, the neighborhood is just as colorful, but the magic springs from wells of artists’ creativity, not from a culture of commercialism.


IF YOU GO

Norfolk, Virginia, is 565 miles northeast of Atlanta. Drive nine hours north on I-85 or take a 90-minute direct flight from Jackson Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

Attractions

Chrysler Museum of Art. Free admission. One Memorial Place, Norfolk, Virginia. 757-664-6200, chrysler.org

D’Art Center. 740 Boush St., Norfolk, Virginia. 757-625-4211, d-artcenter.org

Norfolk Tour Company. Free public walking tours. Tours of the NEON District start at The Plot. 776 Granby St., Norfolk, Virginia. toursofnorfolk.com

Where to stay

Glass Light Hotel & Gallery. Hotel in the historic district with a glass-themed art gallery. $119-$195 201 Granby St., Norfolk, Virginia. 757-222-3033, glasslighthotel.com

Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel. Downtown hotel with views of Elizabeth River. $131-$141. 777 Waterside Drive, Norfolk, Virginia. 757-622-6664, marriott.com/orfsi

Where to eat

Saltine. Seasonal shellfish and seafood restaurant. Entrees $36-$85. 100 E. Main St., Norfolk, Virginia. 757-763-6280, saltinenorfolk.com

Codex. Farm-to-table menu in an intimate dining space. Entrees $16-$52. 429 Granby St., Norfolk, Virginia. 757-904-6546, codexva.com

Tourist Info

VisitNorfolk. 232 E. Main St., Norfolk, Virginia. 800-368-3097, visitnorfolk.com

About the Author