Walking through downtown Norfolk, Virginia, it’s easy to miss the Virginia Maritime Association. With sights like the Battleship Wisconsin and Chrysler Museum of Art by the waterfront, odds are most folks aren’t even looking for the VMA. But, thanks to the artistry of Coast Guard Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Adam Stanton, the building now doubles as a dynamic street mural telling an important local story.
In 2020, the VMA put out a call for mural design submissions to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The organization began in 1920 as the Norfolk Maritime Exchange, and over the years it has grown to encompass the entire state and its diverse commerce, nearly all of which channels through the Port of Virginia, located in Norfolk.
“The VMA is based in community and connection,” shared VMA Marketing Coordinator Laura Bird. “We knew we wanted the mural done by a local artist.”
When Stanton submitted his design, the VMA was thrilled to discover that the talented artist was also a member of the Coast Guard.
“We work with the Coast Guard on a daily basis,” Bird said, so finding an artist with that connection to the maritime industry felt right.
That March, Stanton took three weeks of leave, climbed into a crane, and got to work sketching out and painting the four-story mural.
“I definitely maxed out that crane,” he chuckled. “I’m not traditionally trained at all, but art has been the only constant in my life.”
He started doodling in elementary school and never stopped.
“I’m a creator at heart,” he said. “It started with drawing and videography, then to canvasses, which turned into murals and then recently music production.”
In his spare time, he creates artwork for commission and has even done a few gallery exhibits. Once he discovers an interest in something, he has to master it.
“I just have that drive and that addictive personality to juggle everything at once,” he said.
That drive has empowered him to not only balance his military career and passion for art but find ways to combine them.
“My career and my passions all say to create,” he said.
Before joining the Coast Guard, Stanton was a high school graduate in a town of 900 staring at a short list of career options. One day he saw a commercial for the Coast Guard and decided to enlist.
“They save people,” he said, “and that was interesting to me. When I found out that people in Public Affairs are essentially journalists with video, photos, and writing, it appealed to me because it is arguably one of the most creative things you can do in the Coast Guard. That became another outlet for me to plug into.”
Stanton leveraged his Coast Guard experience to design a vibrant mural rich in maritime storytelling, despite never having lived in Virginia before. More than a historic homage, the VMA wanted the mural to be, in Bird’s words, “about who Norfolk is now and where we want to go.”
Stanton delivered. His design featured expected components of the maritime industry like tugboats, ships, and cranes, but also included lesser-considered visuals of commerce and transport like trains and agriculture. While Stanton was painting the mural, the Virginia coast saw significant changes in offshore wind, and he decided to tuck several turbines into the scene.
One of the mural’s most prominent images is of a woman wearing a welding helmet.
“When I started rendering and drafting a female,” Stanton remembered, “I came upon some really good Black history and found that the first female welders were African Americans during WWII.”
Even until a few years ago, Bird shares, women in welding were rare, but Norfolk has recently seen change in that area, and highlighting that local industry landmark was important to both Stanton and the VMA.
As much as Stanton gave the VMA and Norfolk a visual landmark of local pride, the experience gave him something meaningful, too.
“Doing a mural like that puts a bookmark in that chapter of our lives,” he said.
He and his wife purchased their first home in Norfolk, and they made memories there. Today, Stanton is stationed in San Diego, but he and Norfolk have left their mark on each other.
“Sometimes in the world murals don’t always last forever,” he acknowledged. “They might cover it up one day, but I’ll always know it was there, and that organic rebirth is okay with me.”