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Richmond muralist paints his way from Waynesboro to Amsterdam and beyond

Randi B. Hagi
Nils Westergard holds up a stencil in his Richmond studio.

Nils Westergard has graced buildings with his evocative portraits everywhere from Los Angeles to Berlin. Five of his murals reside in Waynesboro, and WMRA's Randi B. Hagi caught up with him in his Richmond studio to discuss those works and what life is like as a globetrotting artist.

[sound of car driving by playing music, birds]

There's a girl with a mesmerizing gaze in downtown Waynesboro – her face, looming seven stories over Constitution Park, is framed with pink blooms and bisected by nearby power lines. Her name is "Kaiya with Tulips," and she's one of five murals there painted by the artist Nils Westergard. He was kind enough to let me visit his studio space in Richmond.

Randi B. Hagi
"Kaiya with Tulips" near Constitution Park in Waynesboro.

NILS WESTERGARD: It's the second story of an old carriage house. The walls are rather covered with … drawings and graffiti and splattered paint and pamphlets and things I tape up, I suppose … It's a very messy place and I like that. But it's – [sniffs] it's the smell of the place … sun on old wood, kind of like an old library or an old book or something.

He splits his time between Richmond and Amsterdam, when he isn't jetting off to one international project or another.

WESTERGARD: So we're painting a boat in Switzerland next week. Yeah, like we're floating on little things next to it … never in my life did I think I'd be painting a barge in Switzerland! [laughs]

Randi B. Hagi
Westergard recently rediscovered the first stencil he ever made, as a 12-year-old -- Joseph Stalin.

Westergard grew up in Falls Church – which he jokes is a "great shame" as a Richmond resident. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University, originally for painting, but he said that wasn't a conducive environment for someone working in spray paint. So, he switched to film. Then, the Richmond Mural Project started up in 2012, bringing international artists – quite literally – to his backyard.

WESTERGARD: I realized they were just very normal dudes, and watched them do it and I was like this is – I could do that!

His first real foray into the street art world was on a trip to Australia, where Westergard said he just showed up and asked around to paint some walls. He said people are much more open to that overseas than they often are in the States.

WESTERGARD: I went to Europe after I graduated, bought a one-way ticket essentially, and was like, "I'm going to bounce around." … It's like a little international family … so I did, essentially a different city every week for like six months like that.

Not surprisingly, his parents were a tad bit concerned about how he'd support himself.

WESTERGARD: My parents asked me – they were like, what are you going to do for money when you move to Holland? And I was like, I don't know what I do for money right now! … It just, it keeps working.

He said that many of the projects he does, for festivals or Scandinavian municipal governments, will cover his room and board and supplies, but don't actually turn him a profit. He relies on the occasional private commission for what income he does need.

WESTERGARD: Like, you know, come to this island in Norway and we'll pay for everything for you to come here, pay for the paint, you're fed the whole time … but you're not getting any money for it. But, like, who cares? That sounds great! [laughs] So I get one more dot on the map, I get to do a fun project, have the great fortune of having an incredible amount of super beautiful interactions with people, and get to travel in a way that's incredibly unique.

It helps that his nearly pro-bono work also functions as a billboard for his paid services. He first got connected to Waynesboro when Ian MacRae, founder of the annual Virginia Street Arts Festival, was looking to expand the pool of participating artists.

IAN MACRAE: I think with Nils, it was the professionalism before anything else that gave me the confidence that the work would get done … You know, he did it on time and on budget. These are big pieces, you're working out in the hot sun. That time he was on a ladder – other times he's been up on a lift. So it's tough conditions.

Randi B. Hagi
On his first trip to Waynesboro, Westergard painted "After" on a 120-foot long wall on Commerce Avenue.

That first year, Westergard painted a couple in repose on a 120-foot-long wall of Ian MacRae's computer shop on Commerce Avenue.

WESTERGARD: Someone later came and rolled over the nipple, like a year later, and it just looked like a bigger nipple … I almost don't want to fix it! … We have a thing with equating nudity to sexuality in the States, which is just not the same thing.

The next year, in 2017, he returned to adorn a wall at Basic City Beer Co. with a woman gazing up into the sky, her mouth unfurling into a vibrant yellow flower.

WESTERGARD: They had a lift there that I think was literally from the '30's or something … and my friend, who I brought to assist me, got caught – his pants like caught on the thing – he had borrowed my pants and they just ripped … the belly dancing girls were laughing at him.

Randi B. Hagi
Westergard's "Poochie" on a wall next to the Wayne Theater downtown.

2018 saw "Poochie" come to life on a wall next to the Wayne Theater, her hair brimming with pink and yellow blossoms.

WESTERGARD: Poochie – where did I meet Poochie? She's, oof, I was painting Michael Millions outside Mama J's in Jackson Ward. Michael Millions' a local rapper, and a friend of mine. And she somehow knows him, and she came out of Mama J's, I want to say.

She had her hair up à la Marge Simpson, and Westergard thought her image would be perfect for a painting he'd been envisioning – with a bird's nest in someone's hair. By the time they connected for photos, though, she had a big afro.

WESTERGARD: So I had the idea to shove, just a whole bunch of flowers in there, and really make a garden on her head.

Randi B. Hagi
The Waynesboro YMCA mural of Westergard's friend with his daughter.

The following year, he created "Kaiya with Tulips," and in 2020, he painted the side of the Waynesboro YMCA with a portrait of his friend, a Richmond-based muralist named Prentice, playing with his young daughter in a pool. Westergard was shocked to find how many people saw a sweet, simple painting of a Black family through a politicized lens.

WESTERGARD: People got kind of pissed in Waynesboro. People were complaining … that it was like a Black Lives Matter mural or something … Like, literally, it was not a conscious decision. It's just a father and daughter swimming. … People were calling and complaining. And then other people would hear people complaining, and they'd call and they donated money … nice barometer for America right there.

Randi B. Hagi
Westergard rifles through a stack of hand-cut stencils.

While we spent the majority of the interview talking about his murals, he spends much more time on multi-layered, incredibly intricate stenciled works in the studio. In comparison –

WESTERGARD: I really think of the walls more as like a sport. I'm in this city for four days, here's this big wall, and I have to physically get that done.

Before I left, he had a message for our listeners in rural Virginia.

WESTERGARD: [directly into the mic] I want to paint barns. … an old, messed up barn, especially if it's got hills or anything scenic behind it. I'm trying to paint barns!

You and your barn can check out more of his work and get in touch with Nils, spelled N-I-L-S, at nilswestergard.com.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.