Kenneth Branham recalls walking through the Goodwin Street building in Amherst roughly a half-century ago and not feeling welcome while children in his family received their required shots for school.
“We felt like we were being rushed in there and rushed out,” Branham, chief of the Monacan Indian Nation in Amherst County, said while reflecting on racism the tribe faced in past years.
Now a mural depicting the tribe’s culture and history adorns the wall of the county government building, much to his delight.
Esther Candari, a local artist, recently completed the artwork she painted from a photograph she took of two Monacan women at the Monacan village at Natural Bridge State Park. Victoria Ferguson, who created the village 20 years ago with her husband, is one of the Monacans Cadari said she photographed and incorporated into the mural.
The image shows two Monacan women kneeling while pouring water from one vessel to another, an action Candari said represents transference and continuation of culture and knowledge.
Candari, who is pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts at Liberty University, said she knows Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers from church and he approached her about the mural. With the blessing of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors and $600 in county money from Rodgers’ public affairs budget to cover costs of supplies, Candari accepted and spent several weeks on a scaffold working on the project.
The daughter of two artists, Candari said she began taking art seriously in college and sees the project as a way to demonstrate positive change.
“What draws me to being a creative artist is the universality of communicating through visual symbols,” Candari said. “Pictures can communicate much quicker and to a broader audience.”
Rodgers related the idea of creating an image relative to the Amherst community, according to Candari. She said she is passionate about cultural diversity and felt it was a story worth telling.
“I was very quickly drawn to the Monacan Nation,” Candari said. “I feel like there was a lack of good visual representation of that community.”
It was her first time doing an outdoor mural, though she has assisted other artists with mural projects. Aside from the intense summer heat and occasional rain, she said she felt it went smoothly and she has received positive feedback from the tribe. “It challenged me to put some of my theoretical knowledge to use,” she said, adding it gave her confidence to tackle and conquer similar projects in the future.
She said she hopes motorists and pedestrians passing by get a visual portal into Monacan culture and its symbolism of passing down heritage to future generations. “To me visual art can have multiple layers of interpretation,” Candari said.
Painting a portrayal of the Monacans was a collaborative effort, according to Candari. Bringing artwork to a spot that generates some negative memories of past experiences for many tribe members was an honor, she said.
“In a deeper sense, I know it’s been very meaningful for the Monacan community,” she said of positive feedback she’s received. “It was a healing moment for them.”
Branham said she was quite impressed with the mural and felt she did a good job.
“It is a good example of something you would see in our villages,” Branham said of the mural’s image. “I’m happy we’re finally being included. We always felt we were the forgotten people in Amherst County.”
Branham said his first reaction when he heard of the mural’s content was surprise.
“We were very happy the way that went about it,” he said of the tribe’s image going onto county-owned property.
Rodgers said he is especially pleased the county can celebrate the Monacan history and culture through the artwork.
“We are very fortunate to receive the benefit of Esther’s talent as she is a great young artist with a long career,” Rodgers said. “I would like to see more murals done in town and am aware of other building owners that would be amenable to have one on their building.”
The mural comes a year after the Monacan tribe and others in Virginia received recognition from the federal government, a measure with multi-layered benefits they had pursued for years. Branham said the tribe is part of the county’s history and he is pleased to see it embraced more in recent years.
“It’s a good way of representing us, I think,” he said of the mural. “Amherst County is changing. They’re learning more about us.”