Welcome to Ali Hval: Meet the artist behind the iconic Gadsden mural

January 14, 2021 chris
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This article was featured in The Messenger’s Fall 2020 Etowah Living Magazine. 

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Downtown Gadsden is shining brighter than usual.

If you drove past the corner of First and Broad Streets in the past month, there’s a chance you turned your head. You might have eased on the breaks, coasting by ever-so-slowly, peering at the once mundane building’s reformation with wonder. You may have witnessed a fairy godmother of sorts in action, transforming the location with each sweep of her paintbrush into a striking mural that encompasses the essence of The City of Champions.   

But this beautiful creation won’t disappear once the clock strikes twelve. The Gadsden mural represents the collective efforts of numerous individuals who diligently worked to develop a space that evokes appreciation, excitement and inspiration for the city’s growth and worth.

Together alongside the city, organizations and people like The Gadsden Museum of Art and Director Ray Wetzel, Greater Gadsden Area Tourism, The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, Phillip Williams, Peggy Haygood and Mario Gallardo joined forces to bring the mural to Gadsden. Of course, the woman with the paintbrush played a major role – the magician herself – Ali Hval.

From a childhood filled with scribbling chalk mermaids on sidewalks in the cul-de-sac outside her parent’s home to painting an ark and animals aligned two-by-two for her first mural, art has influenced Hval’s life in a paramount way. Born in Sacramento, California, Hval’s family moved frequently until they settled in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was raised.

Hval graduated summa cum laude with honors from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2015, earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing. She recently obtained her Master of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing (with a minor concentration in ceramics) with honors at The University of Iowa in 2019. Hval currently resides in Iowa City, where she enjoys the city’s openness and people, and the distinct seasons that often result in snow during the winter – a sight Alabamians rarely behold.

Due to the public art opportunities that flourish throughout Iowa, Hval made her mark on the state in a short amount of time. Mason City, Webster City, Cedar Rapids and Czech Village all feature Hval’s work, from vibrant eye-catching murals to colorful picnic tables that encourage outdoor eating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “I enjoy the little discoveries you make along the way and the ideas you get to keep making art,” said Hval. “Also, I really like for people to live with my art. I like the fact that I can make something and somebody else can find it relatable in some way, even if it’s not something I intended, sometimes to the point where they want to buy it and live with it. That’s really special and important to me – not necessarily selling the work, but just having people establish a relationship with it.”

While her creativity blossoms in Iowa, a twist of fate drove her 766 miles back to Gadsden.

Even in her earliest years of sketching and painting, Hval’s work always appeared on a large scale, occupying a vast amount of space. Her personal work is oversized jewelry created from ceramics and fabrics with the purpose of intriguing viewers, encouraging them to pause, examine and reflect.

“I’m interested in this idea of slowing down to look at art,” said Hval. “If people are in a museum, they look at things very quickly. They don’t sit and stare at them the way you think they would. Now, everything is on a screen and you just swipe and swipe, whether it’s dating or going through your Instagram feed or Snapchatting someone. You expect things to be immediate. [I’m constantly thinking] how can I slow down things and make people look a little longer. If it’s larger and a little blingy and you’re looking at it from across the room and walking towards it, it kind of helps draw people in more.”

Towards the end of Hval’s undergraduate career, she began using fabric to create floor and wall paintings. Inspired by an assignment in a concepts in arts course that encouraged the use of alternative materials to paint and canvas, Hval channeled all her artistic dedication and reacted naturally to the task before her. She took the sheets from her bed and cut them into different shapes, gathering different materials for her large, organic floor pieces. Stuffed with poly-fil and beaded, Hval’s bright and bold choices and clever designs encouraged people to explore her collection and walk into the intimate spaces created within the art.

Hval included these pieces in her 2015 joint exhibition Contact with fellow artist Sarah Ann Austin at the Sella-Granata Gallery in Tuscaloosa. Austin, who was graduating with her Master in Fine Arts, occupied one side of the gallery while Hval shared the other. On her opening night, Hval sparked the interest of one local prominent figure: Gadsden State Community College instructor and Walnut Gallery Executive Director Mario Gallardo. Gallardo contacted Hval about hosting a show at the Walnut Gallery and months later, Hval traveled to Gadsden for the first time to debut her solo exhibition Containment.

Gallardo kept in touch with Hval throughout the years, and noticed recently how her artwork began popping up in different cities throughout Iowa – in the form of murals. He invited her to Gadsden once more.

“He knew that I was somebody who had the ability [to paint the mural],” said Hval. “It was a personal contact. I was the right person at the right time, and we just knocked it out.”

Although both the Walnut Gallery and mural featured Hval’s artwork on display, the contrast between the working environments was stark. While the Walnut Gallery’s privacy allowed Hval to work freely without inquisitive eyes, the mural’s public location invited outsiders to witness her creative process as it unfolded. Hval noted that viewers in traditional galleries tend to question the artist’s methods less; they just accept the show for how it appears before them. With murals, locals observe the entire creation from start to finish, imparting more questions and curiosity.

“I  think at first [painting murals] was scary for me,” said Hval. “Whenever I get started painting for that day, I can feel the eyes on me. But after I’m painting, I’m sort of in the zone. I’m eating snacks on the grass, and not really caring if anybody is looking at me. I think at first when it was going up, nobody knew what was going on and nobody recognized anything. But as it came together, everyone was like, ‘oh, I know this!’ [The response in Gadsden] has been good. I hear a lot of screaming from cars that sounds positive, a lot of happy honks and ‘good job, you’re doing great,’ out windows. It doesn’t bother me at all – I enjoy it!”

Gadsden’s  mural appears as a postcard, with each letter housing a representation of the city. Recognizable landmarks like The Pitman Theatre, the Spirit of Citizenship Monument, Memorial Bridge and Noccalula Falls remind viewers of what the city offers, while Gadsden founder John Riley prompts observers to unearth the town’s history. A botanical garden and train complete the name, paying homage to the beauty and industry that filter throughout Gadsden.

“One thing I learned about the Gadsden community in particular is that everybody is really generous,” said Hval. “I’ve had lots of people giving me things [to help]. (GMA Director) Ray Wetzel has been very generous to me, bringing the lift out everyday, making sure it’s charged up and asking me if I needed anything, or just bringing me things as I need them. There’s a lot of generosity in that – even just helping me paint the sides of the mural. Getting it all prepped and being on point with communication – which is the most important thing in any project – I appreciate that immensely. Sometimes you don’t always get that, or it’s staggered, but with him and the museum it’s super consistent.”

For  Hval, murals are never a singular project that she solely possesses. While individuals might feel intimidated in a traditional museum setting, murals make art accessible and provide the freedom for viewers to enjoy art. Murals represent the cooperation of multiple parties who donate their own personal talents to strive towards the manifestation of something unique and extraordinary. Hval stands united with these people for the betterment of their community, offering her expertise as the finishing piece to a beautiful puzzle.

She  expressed her gratitude for those who work alongside her, noting their assistance make her art possible.

“I really like the community aspect of murals and working with other people and meeting new people,” said Hval. “It really does take a whole city to get something going. I think it’s really rare that I’ve done a project and it’s just been me painting a wall. There’s always somebody helping me, whether it’s somebody providing a lift or somebody who can prime the wall. It’s not just a one person thing. I prefer for it to be something where everybody has a voice and everybody is involved. Then, it feels more like something where everybody is coming together to make something, instead of me just invading a town and throwing something on a wall.”

Day after day, week after week, Hval poured her heart into creating a breathtaking piece of art that dazzles downtown Gadsden. Her jovial demeanor and warm personality exude into her work, finding a home in the winding lines, gradients and glowing features that take root in the mural as her signature. Her seamless collaboration with the Gadsden community sparks a sense of appreciation for residents’ hometown, forming a relationship between Hval and the city that locals can witness each day. While the mural welcomes all to Gadsden, it reminds the community of the dedication and talent channeled to bring it forth – a true treasure for all passersby to behold.

“I hope the [Gadsden] mural cleans up a little spot that maybe wasn’t so pretty before, and creates a new gathering point for people,” said Hval. “I think that’s an interesting area. A lot of times murals are painted in alleyways or the sides of buildings that are unsightly to beautify it and make it more approachable to the public. Then, it turns into something else. If anything, it’ll just kind of spark new projects and make things lovely.

“I hope Gadsden will want more murals and more public art. I hope residents will hopefully not only visit the museum, but encourage people to participate more in art around the city, and appreciate having art around the city. I think it’s really important to pinpoint landmarks, make the city more welcoming and unify the downtown.”