Our Local Tourist column explores the thrills of D.C.’s many neighborhoods. This time, we zoom in on the Kensington through muralist Nicole Bourgea’s eyes.
It’s 5:30 a.m., and artist and muralist Nicole Bourgea is already up for the day. She’s made her kids breakfast and she’s out the door on a run, replenishing herself spiritually and mentally. Back home, the kids go to school, and she crosses the train tracks, heads through the woods and sets up in her art studio, painting and working until school’s out.
Then, it’s her and the kids in nature before she does dinner, bedtime and work emails.
“To be honest, I really only leave a maximum of five hours for sleep,” she says. “I might die mid-step tomorrow.”
Bourgea credits muralist Shepard Fairey for lighting the path to working in art full-time. He told her and other art students at Providence College that — regardless of whether they’re making money yet or not — if they wanted to be real artists they needed to find studio space. Even if the “studio” was as small as a corner of their apartment, a space dedicated to art would change everything.
So, she did.
“One thing led to another, and I got commissioned,” she says.
Eventually, Bourgea saved up enough money to be able to work on a passion project, one that stemmed from her experience growing up in poverty.
“I wondered, ‘How do I give the gift of art to people, but still pay my bills?’” she says.
So, when she had the chance, she spent a year painting people she met in passing in D.C. — people who weren’t able to commission a portrait for themselves. At the end of that year, she installed the portraits in the same locations where she met the subjects, with signs that read “If this is you, the painting is yours to take.”
The paintings spread to subjects in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Some people saw someone they recognized in a portrait and brought it to them. Others brought paintings into their shops to protect them from rain, always looking for the person the work was inspired by.
“An entire community got involved in gift-giving,” she says. “At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, I really need to figure out a way to do that permanently, to do public art permanently, to give gifts permanently.’”
She entered the mural space.
“As a kid in poverty, I remember seeing public art and it reminded me that things were beautiful and okay,” she says. “A lot of my work is about that idea of wonder and hope — there is a lot more than we know, so we have to keep our eyes and hearts open to that wonder.”
Bourgea lives in Kensington now, coincidentally the site of her favorite mural she’s painted so far. It’s called “Love Over Fear,” and features a young girl skateboarding down a giraffe’s neck. You might have also seen her work at BabyCat Brewery or “A Thousand Forests” on Knowles Avenue, also in Kensington.
You can also see her murals throughout the DMV. There’s “Strong Mama” at Alethia Tanner Park and “Carpe Diem” on Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda. But really, she’s just getting started.
Though Bourgea has explored and painted all over the DMV, Kensington has her heart. Along with the art community she’s built, she finds home in a few different establishments in the city and she gave us the insider’s guide to this underrated town.
Where to hang after work
Bourgea recommends the new brewery in town, BabyCat Brewery, to grab a beer and catch up with people in the neighborhood. Or, stop in to Love People Records to listen to some music and chill out. There’s also a creative space called GIGS, which offers music lessons and has performances in the courtyard outside Bourgea’s studio.
Where to go on a date
Bourgea suggests Frankly…Pizza! for wood-fired pies and a stroll around town. “[Kensington’s] kind of like a Victorian town originally,” she says. “There’s this big, abandoned mansion in the middle of town — I’d take a bottle of wine and sit on the big, wide porch and hang with my love.”
Where to visit on a day trip
Bourgea recommends visiting on a Saturday and starting with the Kensington Farmer’s Market for empanadas, pastries and breakfast. Take your treats for a mini picnic by the fountain at Flinn Park. Kensington is known as a destination for antiques, so she also suggests looking through antique and vintage shops, as well as checking out Kensington Row Bookshop. You can also find artist studios, like Bourgea’s on Howard Avenue, or other makers’ spaces on both sides of Connecticut Avenue.
She also says just popping into different warehouses and shops can lead to fun experiences, like random movie screenings or viewing glassblowing in action.
“You have the opportunity to go on a little treasure hunt around town.”
Flinn Park: 10227 Kensington Pkwy.
Want to discover the best restaurants, bars and shops in every DMV neighborhood? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to neighborhood guides and recommendations. Become a member and support local journalism today.