Eric B. Ricks is a chill guy. You’ll typically find him looking sharp, a felt fedora covering his lanky braids. He’ll greet you with a broad smile and a warm hug, even if you’ve only met once. He’s a nationally known muralist taking commissions around the region and beyond in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Portland and Las Vegas.
But only recently has his worked been recognized in Montgomery County, where he grew up after immigrating from Liberia with his family as a teenager, fleeing the civil war there.
“I was around 15 [at the time] and I had already attended two or three different boarding schools. … I really wasn’t a fan of school because my brain didn’t quite work like other kids … I was always an oddball. I looked at the world slightly differently. In all honesty, the war was probably the most fun I ever had back then. It was the greatest adventure.”
His family finally settled in Germantown and Ricks graduated from Quince Orchard High School, did a stint at Montgomery College, but didn’t find his passion — and his life’s purpose — for years. In his 20s he dabbled in DJ-ing, both gigs and the more arcane techno style of music. Through music, he discovered a group of graffiti artists and admired their passion.
Now 48, the Aspen Hill resident recalls his introduction to art. “I came across graffiti artists through DJ-ing and I saw these guys were even more committed [than the DJs] …. For me, graffiti was not running around and tagging your name,” he said. “In the suburbs, graffiti was different from the city, where the kids were influenced by name recognition and tagging their names where ever they could.”
His latest mural, “Beauty is the proper resting place for an ally in consciousness,” was unveiled earlier this fall at Georgia and Price Avenues in downtown Wheaton. The two-story multicolored mandala features butterflies, hummingbirds, hibiscus and vibrant patterns resembling West African cloths and was commissioned by the local Art and Walkability Project for a privately owned building.
“I [got] to bring back home what I have done around the country for the past 15 years,” he said.
From Spray Paint to Butterflies
Ricks found suburban graffiti culture more refined: “There kids were focused on technical ability … and they came from families who valued education. So they explored more of the fine arts. They were more interested pictorial expression … and even with their typography, it took on a different form, it was not just about your name. It was about rendering a letter to be a thing of beauty. Even though it’s just a word, you want to paint the word, like a thing, bringing artistic technical nuance to letter painting.”
Completely self-taught, Ricks discovered that Germantown had large bridges with big walls. “For the first time, instead of just doing graffiti, I decided to commit myself to murals. … Graffiti was a part of it, but not the end-all. It was about doing something much bigger, much broader. And I had the space and the time to try it.”
Meanwhile, to make a living, he owned a glass replacement business. Off hours he painted and re-painted, perfecting his technique by focusing on landscapes, geometric designs, birds, butterflies and other inspirations from the natural world. Butterflies, he noted, are a favorite for their transformative and traveling qualities, particularly the monarch — the king of butterflies. He even made an installation of sculpted metal butterflies cut from the empty spray-paint cans he uses.
The Power of Public Art
Ricks credits Frederick-based muralist William Cochran as an inspiration and mentor. Cochran was the one who convinced him he could do this as a profession. Most muralists at some point find themselves painting narrative subjects related to people and places. While Ricks has done that on occasion (including in D.C., at Ben’s Next Door, next to Ben’s Chili Bowl), he prefers his murals to reflect more universal topics.
“My subject matter [deals with] spirituality — not religion, not politics. Everything is family friendly.”
He recalled his Germantown practice spots and said that while some graffiti and ad hoc mural painting can be destructive, “I started to notice that the area I used to go to paint was a spot where the young kids would hang out, drink and smoke. But, as the quality of the [painting] work started to change, I noticed the area started to change, too. People started to pick up the trash, clip the lawn and deer came back.”
“I realized,” Ricks continued, “‘Wow, this can give the local populace a real sense of pride.’ It’s this simple notion that we all fix our neighborhood by doing what we can, by bringing something positive. And that positivity is infectious.”
As a full-time public artist, he has come to believe in the importance that murals and other public art projects play in knitting together communities. He is pained that not enough people make time and space for art in their lives. He wants people to play more, tap into their creativity, and art does that.
“We’re all looking for authentic connections. We all want to have real moments that make us feel like ‘Wow!’” Ricks said, and public art is one way to do that for people who may not have the ability to incorporate art into their lives in other ways, so public murals serve as an artistic outlet in communities, while also beautifying them.
“I call what I do alchemy, because it takes the lead feelings and turns them into gold feelings. Transformation. That’s what I do.”
For information about Eric B. Ricks, visit https://www.phoenixart.design/about.