Riding the wave

From murals to playgrounds to ambulances, alumnus’ art brings joy to others

Arts and Culture

SUMMARY: After graduating from JMU with a degree in business, Troy Summerell ('02) decided to try his hand at art as a career. He launched OnieTonie Designs in January 2014. Now, his colorful florals and larger-than-life sea creatures are popping up everywhere in Virginia Beach.

By Jim Heffernan ('96, '17M)

As a surfer growing up in Virginia Beach, Troy Summerell (’02) would sketch waves in his notebooks in school. When one of his boards broke, he would refurbish it as art, sell it and use the money to buy a new one.

It wasn’t until after he had graduated from JMU with a degree in business and was back home managing a restaurant that he decided to try his hand at art as a career.

“I sat down and I drew some pictures and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve got something here.’”

Summerell’s coastal themes featured colorful florals and larger-than-life sea creatures. But something wasn’t quite right. Then it hit him. If his work was going to have an impact, it had to be positive. “I’ve gotta make all these fish and turtles smile,” he said. “I redrew everything, and I’ve done it that way ever since.”

He named his business, which launched in January 2014, after his late grandmother, who volunteered at a local hospital for more than 30 years. “Her name was Onie. We called her Tonie. So I called my company OnieTonie Designs,” he said. “It’s a unique name. It rhymes and it’s kid-friendly. And honoring her legacy was important to me.”

Next, the company needed some exposure. Summerell opened a gallery, Studio 17, near the oceanfront and painted his first mural on the building.

“It happened to be a time when art districts were becoming popular,” he said. “How do you renovate a downtrodden area? You get artists to come in and beautify the thing.” OnieTonie Designs would set the stage for Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District, a community of artists who turn the city’s roads, sidewalks and buildings into a neighborhood canvas.

As Summerell’s reputation as an artist grew, so did his portfolio. Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters hired him to spruce up the second floor of its Urgent Care building with his smiling fish. Then he did the same for the hospital’s fleet of ambulances.

2019 Summerell OnieTonie Ambulance

OnieTonie Designs also was commissioned for redevelopment projects in the Hampton Roads region, including dilapidated buildings, school cafeterias, rundown basketball courts, and vans that deliver hot showers, toothbrushes, socks and shoes to the local homeless population.

“My art is super simple,” he said. “But it’s colorful and positive and it tends to get a response from people. It’s not over the top. It doesn’t make you think, really, except to try to make you happy.”

onie tonie tshirt

In June, in the wake of a shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead and four others wounded, Summerell joined other local artists in supporting the “Virginia Beach Strong” movement. His designs appeared on T-shirts and banners and in public spaces throughout the city. Proceeds from the T-shirt sales went to victims of the shooting and their families.

“I wanted to do something to help,” he said. “I felt a responsibility to try to create something that people could take solace in, to help the city heal … to be a positive voice.”

Now Summerell’s business is at a crossroads as he tries to transition from a public artist whose work is sometimes exploited, to an entrepreneur.

A marketing major at JMU, Summerell has drawn on some of the lessons he learned in the classroom, including how to write business plans, design websites and raise capital.

“People ask me, ‘How do you know how to do all this?’ I attribute it to JMU 100%. It gives me confidence to be a business marketing major from JMU.”

His goal is to design hospital kits for children battling cancer. For Summerell, it’s a dream that hits close to home. When he was 6, his younger cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. “My plan has always been to wrap the hospital hallways with my positive imagery, and at the same time give socks and gowns, a coloring book—a full packet of things—to the kids as they go through treatment,” he said.

In October, Summerell traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to paint a hospital for Smile Train, an international nonprofit that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates.

If the opportunity arises, Summerell would love to do a mural at JMU. “That would be amazing,” he said. “That’s something on my bucket list.”



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Published: Monday, October 14, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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