Artist vows to restore vandalized Ashe mural in Battery Park

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/28/2021, 6 p.m.
“We’re planning to make it bigger and better,” vowed Sir James Thornhill, the lead artist in creating a mural honoring ...
Vandals painted white supremacist insignias on a mural honoring tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr. in Battery Park. When the vandalism was discovered Oct. 21, the city then covered up the graffiti with black paint to hide the racist tags. Photo by Regina H. Boone

“We’re planning to make it bigger and better,” vowed Sir James Thornhill, the lead artist in creating a mural honoring to the late tennis great, humanitarian and Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr. in Battery Park in North Side.

That was his response after vandals damaged the mural last week with white supremacist insignias. The city used black paint to cover over the symbols on two portraits of Mr. Ashe, which damaged the four-year-old mural even more.

“I was hurt,” said Mr. Thornhill, 66, as he viewed how the city had dealt with the vandalism discovered early on Oct. 21. “I understand they didn’t want to anyone to see it. But I wish they had consulted with me first before applying their remedy.”

In response to a query, Tamara Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, stated, “We reached out to Mr. Thornhill right after we were notified by residents. However, we did not hear back from him until the afternoon. We did not want to leave the graffiti up.”

Still, Mr. Thornhill is enthused at the response of fellow artists and others who are pledging time and money to restore and even improve the mural.

“I have heard from so many people who want to help,” said Mr. Thornhill, who still has his home and studio in his birthplace, Jackson Ward.

Mr. Thornhill, who adopted the name of a 17th-century English artist, said he is uncertain when the restoration work will begin. He said the plan is still being developed and would be done in concert with the city parks department, which commissioned the tribute in 2017.

Along with the insignias, vandals also painted over images of Mr. Ashe located at the entries to the park’s tunnel. One of the defaced murals showed Mr. Ashe holding up the trophy he won at Wimbledon in 1975 to become the first Black male player to be victorious at the London tournament. “We aren’t going to let this stop our commitment to spreading peace,” Mr. Thornhill said. “We will be back to ensure that we continue to tell his story.”

Mr. Thornhill led the development of the Arthur Ashe tribute with a group of artists known as the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project. At the time, Hamilton Glass, David Marion, Michon Pittman and Keith M. Ramsey were part of the U.N.I.T.Y. team, which stands for Upholding, Networking and Inspiring Together in celebration of Yesterday, according to the group’s website.

The Ashe mural fills the front and interior of the tunnel under Overbrook Road that links Battery Park’s basketball court with the tennis courts. Mr. Ashe was barred from playing on the courts as a youth because he was Black; he learned the game at segregated Brook Field, where the main Post Office is now located.

Mr. Thornhill recalls that he and fellow artists battled summer heat and mosquitos four years ago to complete the work. He said the project benefitted from volunteers from the community and a major corporation pitched in to help with the painting.