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City Arts District in Old Town North Takes Public Art to the StreetZ

The Alexandria Office of the Arts has turned its attention north to the new City Arts District. Read about the call for artists to submit work!

Tom Fruin’s 18-foot high steel, glass, and lights mosaic sculpture in front of the Gables at 525 Montgomery Street in Old Town North.

Alexandria, VA – The Alexandria Office of the Arts has turned its attention north to the new City Arts District. A call went out this spring for art proposals to decorate the storm drain covers and surrounding cement aprons at up to 24 locations on the streets of Old Town North. Similar projects in London and San Francisco have been praised by the public.

Three selected artists may each submit a maximum of two designs. The artwork must be newly created specifically for the Old Town North storm drain cover project and depict images inspired by the history of Old Town North.

A fractured face sculpture surprises perambulators strolling the riverwalk in North Old Town.

At one time, this section of Old Town was a diverse community with a strong African American presence, rich in local history, which has evolved from mainly business office and light commercial to a thriving mecca for foodies and nouveau urbanites.

There was once an agricultural component to the neighborhood. Sheep used to graze at the site where the new Metro Stage is under construction on the former Crowne Plaza Hotel site at North Fairfax and Montgomery Street. One block north, crossing the abandoned railroad tracks that served the old Washington Post Terminals, is a recreated lock of the former Alexandria Canal that extended from the Potomac River to the Georgetown Aqueduct. There it connected with the C&O Canal, a vital commercial trade route in the Antebellum DMV.

Canine companions rule in Alexandria but Old Town North has definitely gone to the dogZ!

In addition to a mock lock marking the historic location of the Alexandria Canal terminus, there’s a promenade along the riverfront that leads to the closed Mirant Power Plant and beyond. Along the riverwalk is an obelisk, a mini-monument to George Washington, and interesting fractured facial sculptures: gargantuan eyes scattered about, a mammoth mouth, an arrow burrowed into a scattered rock like the sword Excalibur.

Development in recent years has created an exciting and eclectic, more urban than colonial, neighborhood with a decidedly urbane vibe. On any given spring or summer day, outdoor dining options are packed with locals and visitors alike. So many dogs enjoying walks with their humans pass by that it can begin to resemble a dog party.

Sisters Thai restaurant opened in Old Town North last fall during the middle of the COVID epidemic in tandem with Magnolia to great fanfare and success.
The eclectic interior design of Sisters Thai restaurant is as inviting inside as the art and activity outside.

Among the first commissioned public art projects unveiled in Old Town North is Tom Fruin’s towering mosaic obelisk of steel, glass, and lights. It is a beacon situated outside Magnolia and Sisters Thai restaurants in the Gables residences at 525 Montgomery Street.

How fitting for the Office of the Arts to select Alexandria’s own Nina Tisara, founder of the Living Legends of Alexandria and accomplished photographer, photojournalist, and mosaicist, as one of three artists for the latest art happening in ALXOTN.

When asked how she felt on hearing the news, Nina said that at first glance, she did not believe she was chosen because the notification began by noting that the Call for Entry response was “robust.” But, Nina says, she quickly became “Happy.

Excited. And a little scared. I haven’t done public art before. But I’ve already started drawing in my mind. And I’m really pleased to think that my designs will be a part of Alexandria for a long time.”

Nina Tisara demonstrating mosaic artistry at Del Ray Artisans Gallery during Art on the Avenue.

Nina’s mosaic work frequently features images iconic to the everyday experience of life along the Potomac River: Great Blue Herons, black-eyed Susans, sunset kaleidoscopes, magical woodland fantasies. While the art for the stormwater covers and aprons won’t be mosaic or in color, Nina remains undaunted in her usual indomitable fashion, already studying the vector formatting required to submit her designs.

What prompted Nina to bravely go where she has never gone before? If you know Nina Tisara, you wouldn’t need to ask. Nina says her motivation was her artist friends and family encouraging her but that Alexandria City itself is her ongoing inspiration. Alexandrians share Nina’s can-do true grit spirit that anything is possible if we try. In fact, borrowing from the marquee inside Sisters restaurant…Extraordinary is possible.

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Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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