Austin Petersen

Article written by: Lori Abbotts
Reproduced from 2017 Vol.#11 'On The Edge' Magazine

It all started with a blank wall. Cracked and scribbled with graffiti, the long wall along the side of the road leading to Tutu Park Mall was a bit of an eyesore. “Passing this wall every day with nothing but graffiti, I thought I should do something about this,” said artist Austin Petersen. “So I took out my crate and my black paint and started to paint and see what takes place.”

What took place was the beginning of a decades-old labor of love celebrating the people of the Virgin Islands. With help from friends, former classmates, students, and anyone who was willing to help, a vibrant and colorful showcase of Virgin Islands culture came to life. This long stretch of wall, named Black Utopia Lane, features both the past and the present of the local community. “The middle section reflects the culture of the Virgin Islands – its African roots, foods, customs and traditions. That’s the nucleus of who we are as a people,” explained Petersen, a local art teacher. “From there it branches out like a tree, to address issues that are happening in our community and in the world.”

Every culture has its darker side, too, and Petersen does not shy away from controversial issues. His murals raise discussions about violence, drugs, AIDS, injustice, prejudice and other concerns affecting the community today. “I see it as an outdoor classroom,” he explained. “When you pass by, it opens up a conscious awareness. I want the gift I’ve been blessed with to help channel some sort of pause about what’s happening in our community, make people think. If, as an artist, I can do something in the medium I know best, if I could take that and make use of it as a benefit in a positive way, then I know, I feel, it is a good thing.”

Procuring permission from the Public Works Department in the mid-1980s, Petersen was commissioned to paint and maintain murals on two government walls. Besides Black Utopia Lane, a second mural is not far away, spanning the wall by Tillett Gardens. This wall spotlights portraits of Virgin Islands heroes, with inspirational quotes from famous black leaders to provide positive role models for Virgin Islands youth. It speaks of violence and injustice, but also encourages liberation and empowerment through self-awareness, education and other positive means. Petersen is no stranger to the local art world. Born and raised on St. Thomas, art has always played a major role in his life. He was at one time the chief graphic artist for the Department of Education, and has focused on his work as an art teacher since the early 1980s. He spent several years teaching at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, his alma mater, and is currently the art teacher at the Ulla F. Muller Elementary School. He has painted many other murals throughout St. Thomas over the years, including one at the Nadir bus stop, one by Schneider Hospital, one at Mandela Circle and others. “Art is my life, my blood,” he says.

He may be granted permission for these murals, and has even been honored by the 15th Legislature for them, but for more than 30 years Petersen has relied solely on donations from the community (and his own pocket) to fund his work. “We get donations from a multitude of people of all races, an outpouring of people in the community,” he said. “It makes them feel a part of what’s going on. If you give a quart of paint or ten cents, or drinks of water or even moral support, we’ll take it.”

Petersen also gets students and parents involved when the murals need retouching or revitalization. Parents come out to assist with smaller children, and older students can use time spent on painting towards their community service requirement for high school graduation. It enables them to practice their skills and showcase their artistic abilities while keeping them engaged in something positive.

But, really it’s the community that benefits. “When I reach that mural, it just lifts my spirits,” said Petersen. “And that’s beautiful.”