Neptune’s gas mask finds new home at Virginia Beach restaurant

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Neptune's gas mask. (Hillary Smith/Southside Daily)

Neptune’s gas mask. (Staff photo by Hillary Smith/Southside Daily)

The owners at Esoteric restaurant saw a void in the local art scene, so over the past few months they’ve enlisted local artists to go wild on the inside walls of their back property.

The 2,500-square-foot building sits behind the restaurant at 501 Virginia Beach Blvd. and will be used to host events once the walls are finished. Kristina Chastain, who co-owns Esoteric with her husband, Tim, reached out to artists on Facebook, inviting them to decorate the building’s walls however they choose.

Nine artists already have left their mark. One of them incorporated the giant gas mask that was briefly placed on the King Neptune statue on the boardwalk at 31st Street last month as part of a public art project, before it was ordered down.

“There’s a place for traditional art here, but there’s currently a real void for edgier art,” Chastain said.

The gas mask originally was intended to be part of a major public art project on King Neptune by Brooklyn-based artist Olek, but it was ordered to come down soon after it’s placement. The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which helped plan the project, said it violated their agreement for the work.

The mask was created by North End Bag Company, Chastain said.

Andrew Breitenberg, who goes by the name SELAH, re-purposed the mask for Esoteric. There, it rests on a white board with the following message:

“This is not a mask. A symbol is an invitation to dialogue. It is an icon, an advocate pointing to beauty, a lone voice crying out: please come with love, and care, and respect toward our mother, earth; utterly unique. With wisdom she calls for help. The mask no more. We see behind it. Will we do something about it?”

Via email, Breitenberg said the piece symbolizes how the Earth is a part of human life and not something to be dominated or squandered.

MOCA’s Executive Director Debi Gray said last month in a press release that the addition of the gas mask to Olek’s work, which was to include a large crocheted covering for the statue, breached her agreement.

“Our ultimate message here was a positive one — to inspire a conversation about ocean conservation,” Gray said in the release. “We are disappointed that Olek was unable to compromise on this and was unwilling to execute the remainder of the project without the mask.”

Breitenberg said artistic freedom is lacking in Virginia Beach.

“Virginia Beach needs MORE ART and MORE FREEDOM of EXPRESSION,” he said by email. “If the city and the tourists are upset by what they see, then of course the role of the artist-as-provocateur is fulfilled. This is not the only role for the artist, but it is one missing from the general scene in Va Beach.”

Esoteric opened in November. Chastain said she planned all along to use the garage-like building behind the restaurant as an event space. She wanted a place for art that might be considered controversial or bizarre.

Breitenberg  said he appreciates Chastain’s effort to show local art in a free environment. Igor Acord, a traditional sign artist, painted a scene addressing digital art vs. hand-crafted pieces.

“This place (Virginia Beach) hasn’t really been known as the most free thinking,” Acord said. “So it seems like it’s loosening up.”

Esoteric’s art room has a few open spaces left. Chastain hopes to fill them during the ViBe District’s First Friday event in August. The space already is open for free viewing during business hours. Next month, it will be available to rent for events like art exhibits, nonprofit gatherings, plant swaps and more.

“That is the beauty of the space; it can be anything it wants to be,” Chastain said. “It’s really geared towards the cultural events side of things.”

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Photos by Hillary Smith/Southside Daily

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