For Richmond-based artist Austin “Auz” Miles, the impact of her work is right there in the communities where she paints. It’s little girls walking by one of her murals and seeing themselves in the images, or people telling her that driving by a mural every day puts a smile on their faces.
Recently, Miles worked with Kristal Brown, a Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral student whose Brown Girl Narratives project looked at the experiences of Black women in Richmond. Miles was invited to create a mural on Hull Street in Richmond’s Southside. The mural incorporated portraits of Black women, with quotes and phrases from Brown’s interviews with the women who participated.
Women in the community came to paint with Miles. Miles said, “It’s one of the projects that is the most impactful and enriched in who it’s for. It’s important to me to paint people who look like the communities they are in. That historically is a Black neighborhood and we put it there so people could walk down the street and find themselves in these faces and be able to read their stories and identify with them as well as uplift them, pay homage to them, and empathize with them.”
The bodies are painted in Miles’s signature style with flowing lines and realistic faces. The quotes read: “all shapes and sizes,” “I can,” “trendsetters,” “strength, “Superwoman,” “bold,” and “I am the legacy of my ancestors.” They are the women’s answers when asked to talk about what it was to be a Black woman. Miles said, “It was important to have the words there so this research could be shown in the community and be felt in a very real way.”
Miles is part of a collective called All City Art Club whose mission is to bring murals to the Southside. The club was formed by local artists who noticed that Richmond’s emergence as a mural hub in the past decade wasn’t inclusive of the Southside. Miles said, “These are the people that are primarily of color, Black and Latino, that aren’t getting the murals that are bringing beautification and uplift.”
Miles’s work is also part of a greater commitment to activism. In 2020, Miles collaborated with Nico Cathcart on a mural called “A Time to Rise” as part of the Mending Walls RVA mural project. The mural spoke to equity and community involvement and the artists did readings every day, incorporating writers like Alice Walker and Angela Davis. The subject was “Liberty in protest.” Liberty herself is wearing a bird of paradise flower. Miles said, “We selected the flower because just like Black people in the United States, the flower was taken from its home in Africa.”
There was also a teach-in, a social justice activity that is like a sit-in where people gather to learn why they are protesting, that was led at the mural. Miles said, “It felt revolutionary — that moment itself was revolutionary to me, to be a part of that project to create a safe space.”
In 2021, Duron Chavis, a Richmond food activist, asked Miles to paint a mural on the grounds of the Sankofa Community Orchard, which he founded. The one-acre Southside green space is dedicated to food justice and climate resiliency. Chavis asked Miles to paint, for their Black August Mural Series, a mural of Claudia Jones, a performer in the 1930s who was also one of the earliest Black women in the communist movement.
Chavis said, “I reached out to Auz explicitly looking for a Black woman muralist to participate in the project and she showed up — she put the work down and did her own research on Claudia and came up with an amazing visual representation. We talked a lot about Claudia being one of the earliest advocates for intersectionality as it related to racial justice work — recognizing that she was not only a Black woman, but a worker and also a mother.”
The mural in the orchard was completed in September and has been on display ever since. Chavis said, “It’s super important to highlight the contributions of Black women who do human rights work. I would just say being able to see personas that reflect their cultural reality helps with a deeper analysis around the issues communities face and hopefully provides the inspiration for more people to get involved in this type of work.”
Nia Norris is a Chicago-based solutions and culture journalist who contributes to Next City and Kirkus Reviews. Her work has also been featured in Ms., Romper, and Parents.com.