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Norfolk’s weird has become Norfolk’s creativity—and Navid Rahman taps into it every single day

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As told to WeTransfer

Reading time6 minDateFeb 16, 2022Published byNavid Rahman
Photography by Nate Ryan

Muralist, professor, illustrator, and community member Navid Rahman shares the creative foundation (and long-lasting friendships) that food service offered, the captivating allure of the 757 area, and how he teaches the acceptance of rejection to budding artists.

I need five new ideas to be swirling around my head at all times. It feels weirdly empty without them—as if there’s a void that I’m compelled to fill somehow. And at this point, there are so many ideas out here influencing my creativity at all times.

Like, your dope thing will make me think of something, and then that will make you think of something, and that will make me think of something. If we’ve done our jobs as creatives, then we just create a chain of ongoing ideas.

And if we’re going to generalize, I’d say that most people assume creativity is one type of thing. It’s cool, or trendy, or specific. Or perhaps it’s drawing something, or painting things, or creating music. But it’s open-ended, and a lot more vague. Creativity doesn’t always manifest itself as something tangible. I can sit down and have a conversation with a couple of folks, and come out of these with 15 different ideas from small talk and nothing else. Nothing made, nothing drawn.

I’d describe myself as an illustrator, although sometimes my role can be varied. I help to manage an event and gallery space called Slow Dive. I teach at the Governor’s School for the Arts—teaching public art, illustration, and drawing. And I’m often leading or helping with other community projects, which are typically murals or public art projects.

I want to be an advocate in the same way that my city has advocated for me. If I can help, I want to.

Photography by Nate Ryan

It’s about finding whatever odds and ends make sense for me—like any artist tends to do, I suppose. I feel like every artist, at one point or another, worked in food service. Working on a line is a great way to meet new people. Then we all grew up together and now we’re doing our own creative things, or have “real jobs” that involve creative work. We’ve kept in touch with one another, which is surprising, but makes sense in Norfolk.

That’s the great thing about Norfolk; it’s relatively big, but it feels as if you’re still in the suburbs. I can’t go a day without walking outside and seeing at least four or five people that I’ve worked with. Everyone sees everyone—by the end of the week, you’ve run into every single person you needed to run into. What events are happening? Who’s planning what? Where did I need to be this weekend? Easy to figure out when the city feels like a tight-knit community.

The Slow Dive Gallery just opened this past year, where I work. It’s not a big spot; just an event hall / artspace that could maybe host 30-50 people. It really gives us a place to congregate with the whole community—the vision that Charles Rasputin and Careyann Weinberg, the founders, have for the space is really compelling. We had a local artist present their work, and 13 of the 19 pieces sold immediately on the first night. And surprisingly, the buyers weren’t previously familiar with their work. They just saw it, loved it, and wanted to support the local artist community. It’s beautiful.

Everyone just comes out to support. Like, it doesn’t matter what’s actually going on—everyone will come out and support everyone. Even if you’re not super into it, to be honest. We all just want to make cool stuff. And we want everyone else to make cool stuff.

Norfolk is weird. I think it’s the weirdness of Norfolk that makes it work. We’ve all got our own brand of being strange. Outlandish ideas aren’t rare, they’re all around us.

Photography by Nate Ryan

It’s odd, thinking about getting older. I’ll be talking to some younger artists here in Norfolk in their 20s, or like post-grad artists coming out of nowhere, and they’re doing incredible work. And it’s so important to look them in the eye and tell them, “You’re killing it. Your work? So strong, keep going. It will only get better from here.” I want to be an advocate in the same way that my city has advocated for me. If I can help, I want to.

There are always ways to help. I’m a teacher, but during COVID I’ve felt as if I’ve done a disservice to the students. We were just on the internet, always. How can you teach kids anything at all, especially art-related, when I can’t even see what they’re doing? My usual studio class turned into a lecture class, where I was just talking and sharing for 45 minutes. As we’ve started back up in person, it’s been so freeing—the students physically being there, teaching them new things, and to actually see them get excited.

The main class I teach is public art for the Governor’s School for the Arts. It’s a bit more difficult for the kids, since they’ve actually got to go through the art process. The students have to propose the mural artwork, get the approval, and hear from specific committees. And it’s a real experience of rejection; like oh man, you’re going to feel great about these ideas and then the client is going to come back and tell you exactly what they don’t like about them.

But I tell my students that you have to claim rejection as an artist. It’s yours to do with what you will. Sure, it’s terrible. I’ve gotten used to it now, and it doesn’t even really faze me. I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I just expect to not get the thing, so there’s never a letdown. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Things are temporary. They don’t last.

But the moment when something you’ve created finally cuts through? Whew.

Norfolk is weird. I think it’s the weirdness of Norfolk that makes it work. We’ve all got our own brand of being strange. Outlandish ideas aren’t rare, they’re all around us. I mean, we’re probably not doing anything that other large cities haven’t done. But we’re suburbia, spread out over the 757, coming together to make something together as a city.

The weirdness is changing. Norfolk weird is Norfolk creativity now. Even in the Hampton Roads area, we stand out; the epicenter is here. We’ve made it our own.

Norfolk is waiting.

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