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Murals bring youth research room to life

Innovation Gateway licensing manager shows off his creative side crafting images of Baby Yoda, Spider-Man, Princess Peach and more.

Brent Fagg in front of a video game themed mural he painted

By Jeff Kelley

A longtime partnership with a VCU researcher has given Brent Fagg, a senior licensing manager at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Innovation Gateway, the opportunity to show off his creative side.

Since November, the 43-year-old has undertaken a project to create colorful, imaginative murals on the walls in the basement of VCU’s West Hospital inside a small research room for at-risk youth.

When the high-tech virtual reality room was being built-out last year, Nicholas D. Thomson, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist and director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health Trauma Center, needed kid-friendly artwork for the walls. Fagg, a self-taught artist who picked up drawing and painting three years ago, mentioned he had a few pieces he could contribute to bring the space to life. 

“I had no idea about Brent’s artistic talent, and when he showed me his style, it was exactly what I was looking for,” Thomson said. “His art is very much in that Banksy, street-art style. I jumped at the opportunity.”

As did Fagg.

“He was like, ‘If you're interested, you can just paint straight on the walls,’” Fagg said. “I’d only done a few murals before that. It's very different than painting on canvas or wood, which I normally do, where you have more control.”

Fagg began the project the day after Thanksgiving. The centerpiece took two weeks to complete: a 14-foot section of wall that resembles a sheet of notebook paper from the left, but as the art flows to the right, becomes filled with a colorful and — to the Nintendo faithful — familiar scene from the Mario world. The mural also includes a Baby Yoda, the astronaut beings from the video game Among Us, and charcoal drawings of Spider-Man and Princess Peach. 

On adjacent walls, Fagg dropped two abstract paintings of his and his wife (a VCU research administrator) Lindsey Dougherty’s two children, covered in what appear to be paint splatters. It’s an effect accomplished not by Jackson Pollock-ing the walls, but through stenciling. All of the artwork was created using meticulously cut stencils, spray paint (charcoal for a few characters) and tape. 

“Lots and lots of tape,” Fagg said. Stencils were cut by hand, usually at home, with one stencil for each layer of every character or object. “Actually, the painting took the least amount of time. It’s all the prep work.”

Mindful of the spray paint fumes, Fagg, a U.S. Navy veteran and nuclear-trained mechanical engineer who served on the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, rigged ducting to pipe air out of the room, down a hall, and out a door of the hospital basement.

Creating a youth-friendly environment

Without the murals, the room’s walls would otherwise be a stagnant beige — and, for a kid, maybe a little intimidating.

Thomson’s research uses virtual reality to better understand conduct disorder in youth, and to identify different pathways of why kids develop the disorder, which often leads to violent and criminal behaviors. Thomson and his team hope to identify effective therapies to treat youth with the disorder. In addition to an award from VCU’s Commercialization Fund, Thomson is backed by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We didn’t want the room to feel like it was in the basement of a hospital, or a sterile environment,” he said. “We wanted it to be a cool place for youth to feel like they are just hanging out and being a part of something as opposed to being tested. That’s critical, because then you can get more authentic responses and youth actually enjoy being part of the research.”

Thomson said the art has also created conversations with the kids, which helps researchers better connect with them.

Roles requiring creativity

In his role at VCU Innovation Gateway, Fagg and his colleagues are responsible for working with VCU researchers to protect intellectual property and commercialize their work. Many team members have engineering backgrounds or life sciences doctorates, and pursue creative outlets ranging from cooking to tango and art. “In our job, it's very helpful if you have a creative mindset,” Fagg said. “We have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things, and very quickly transition our mind and work – so it lends itself to a certain creativity and someone who is open to exploring.”

Over the next few months, Fagg plans to paint murals on the remaining two walls of the room (he’s still noodling on ideas). He’s doing the work pro bono on nights and weekends. “It’s just a lot of fun, and personally fulfilling work,” he said.

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