It could be argued that murals are art in its purest form. They’re both provocative and pleasurable, designed for public consumption, and, in Nils Westergard’s case, are typically produced out of the goodness of his heart (as long as he’s licensed to follow his heart when making the image, that is).
The Falls Church native is an artist on the rise thanks to his distinctive stencil-driven style that has graced brick, concrete and stucco sidings everywhere from Australia to the Czech Republic to his current home in Richmond. A 2010 graduate from George Mason High School and 2014 Virginia Commonwealth University film school grad, Westergard’s dedication to his craft led him to his inaugural solo exhibit, “A Tender Risk,” currently showing at The Fridge in southeast Washington, D.C.
“It’s exciting, I’ve always wanted to have [a solo show], so I’m looking forward to the experience,” said Westergard whose exhibit opened last Friday and runs through the end of the month. “It’s a bit nerve-wracking — getting everything in the car, getting up there and I want to it to go well — but I’m really excited.”
Westergard has come a long way from his initial plunge into the art world. After finishing up at VCU, he booked a one-way flight to Europe to feel out how far his work could carry him. It turned out his talent had legs, taking him all across the continent and allowing him to leave his mark in Antwerp, Amsterdam and London, to name a few.
It wasn’t a lavish lifestyle. Westergard was often given a stipend that just covered his meals, airfare and a bed to sleep in. And even though he could parlay those appearances into commissioned studio work from time to time, he preferred the pro-bono employment, as the free work granted him creative freedom and unchecked publicity. The experience was also invaluable. Painting a mural in a different city every week for the first six months following his graduation was a litmus test into the ebbs and flows of the profession for Westergard, while also a bold introduction of his trademark aesthetic to the masses.
That same style has come to define Westergard’s portfolio. Photorealistic visages are developed in layers and hard lines (much like a stencil) by his blackened brush and evoke a perceivable emotional edge. At times, those dark images are contrasted by infusions of abstract or colorful elements, but the paintings and people they contain pay tribute to those most influential in Westergard’s life.
“When I was young I had done…images taken from newspapers of political upheaval. I got tired of being angry all the time, so when I went to Europe I needed a large wealth of images to work from [and] resorted to painting pictures of friends of mine because a large majority of them were photographers since we went to school together for photo and film,” Westergard added. “It’s a testament to them and a way to make a living memorial to them — even though they’re still living, why not?”
Westergard’s work has expectedly evolved as he’s become more attune with his artistic direction. Friends may be hard-pressed to find their faces on walls with Westergard’s focus shifting to pieces that serve as melancholy interpretations of human nature.
Murals such as one titled “After,” located in Waynesboro and designed as a part of the Virginia Street Art Festival in 2016 covers one length of a warehouse and is a frontal shot of a nude woman after having sex. Observers’ eyes gravitate toward the image’s most striking aspect – the woman’s blank gaze that oozes of malaise following what most would consider is an impassioned interaction in their lives. Or take “Embrace,” a studio piece, which again involves a nude woman who’s wrapped in the arms of a faceless man. Just like “After,” this picture also has the woman donning a thousand-yard stare that suggests she’d rather be elsewhere than with her partner.
“The work now is much more of an introspective search with themes of intimacy between people…it’s a different kind of focus than the earlier work,” Westergard said. “For me, it’s more of a cathartic thing. Most people who meet me wouldn’t expect me to paint a gloomy piece but part of that is because I can get that out through the painting.”
Clearly Westergard’s efforts have paid off. A refined technique coupled with an appetite for pensive productions accelerated his ascent in the art community and what ultimately landed him the solo exhibition at The Fridge. It won’t be long before Westergard is beyond merely treading water to stay afloat and will be living comfortably off the fruits of his labor.
But that’s down the line. Until then, he continues to steady his stroke, find time for animating and lobby for one of his murals to be emblazoned on a building in Little City (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). When that moment arrives is when we’ll all know how far this local talent has come.
Nils Westergard’s solo exhibit, “A Tender Risk,” is now showing at The Fridge at 516 8th St. SE, Washington, D.C. through May 31.