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A native West Virginian who kicked off his career as a mural artist more than 15 years ago at a Charleston bookstore is back making art in the city.

The artist, who goes by Zulu Painter, said he did his first mural in the basement annex of Taylor Books, in downtown Charleston, in 2004 or 2005. He’s done murals in several states and is working on his third Charleston mural — on a building at 517 Elizabeth St.

“It’s great [being back],” he said. “I love the mountains and the air. West Virginia is its own animal, and it’s good just to be able to see the places and things that I grew up around and to be able to make a contribution to the beauty of the state.”

Zulu Painter grew up in West Virginia and left the state in 2005. He now lives in Florida and works as a scenic artist for television, commercials and for a special effects company.

“I’m really, really proud of Charleston, West Virginia, for growing art the way it is, and showing that progress and diversity in the community,” he said. “It’s going to come back. It’s going to come back as this great big ball of great energy. And I just can’t wait for that to happen.”

The Elizabeth Street mural depicts two Black women among rhododendron blooms and blue skies.

“We definitely need to see something that’s showing women strong and not just those commercial images where everybody looks so pretty and so Photoshopped,” he said.

The mural is a project of the city of Charleston, the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority and the building’s owner, YWCA Charleston.

“The main idea — the overarching idea — was that we wanted a person of color,” said Jeff Pierson, the city’s public art director. “Because I can go out and do all these projects. But really, we want people to see, young people especially, to see someone like them working.”

Zulu Painter, whose colorful artwork celebrates people of color, was a perfect match, Pierson said.

Funding for the mural and another mural being planned for the West Side will come from the urban renewal authority. Director Ron Butlin said the agency had about $15,000 left over from a small-business grant program.

“We really didn’t want to do another round of grant requests, because it seem like that might create a lot of expectation but then not meet very many needs,” Butlin said. “So we decided to split that money and do what we’re hoping is a high-impact mural on the East End and a similar large mural on the West [Side].”

YWCA Charleston is using the building for storage, executive director Deb Weinstein said. The building sits beside the YWCA’s Shanklin Center for Senior Enrichment and its Empowerment Homes for Women.

Weinstein said the organization plans to raise funds to contract with the artist to paint the side facing the housing units for elder abuse victims.

“When [residents] saw what he was doing on the Elizabeth Street side, probably every one of them approached him and said, ‘Can’t you do our side? We can’t see your beautiful artwork. We have to look at this ugly building.’

“I decided I need to do a fundraiser I need to raise $7,000 to do this side.”

Ultimately, she’d like to have the artist paint the side of the building facing Laidley Field and the interstate, as well. She hopes painting the building will make the city more attractive to people driving past on the interstate.

Weinstein said the artwork encapsulates the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

“If you look at that artwork on Elizabeth Street, it is empowered women of color that exude strength and pride and joy,” she said. “Then he’s got almost heaven in there in a little cloud, and it’s just amazing.”

The public will have a chance to contribute to the mural. The city’s Office of Public Art is seeking volunteers to help prep, prime and paint the mural. The community input on the mural will be very simple, Pierson said.

“But it does give people the sense of ownership and community pride, collective pride in the piece itself. And that’s exactly what we want to do,” Pierson said.

Volunteers will work in small teams that will be divided into shifts, according to a news release from the city. Dates for mural work will be dependent on weather and artist availability.

Community members interested in joining the effort may sign up online or by calling 304-720-7054.

Lori Kersey covers the city and county. She can be reached at 304-348-1240 or Follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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