Richard Duarte Brown unravels beautifully in fruitful arts residency

While working in Aminah Robinson’s East Side home, the artist returned to an earlier dream in which he received the image of a ball of yarn, finally uncovering its meaning

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Governor Award for the Arts winner Richard Duarte Brown, a mixed-media painter, works inside the studio at the Aminah Robinson house on the Near East Side on Feb. 21, 2022. As the recipient of the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, Brown worked from the home of the late Columbus artist until April.

When Richard Duarte Brown first set foot in the East Side home of late Columbus artist Aminah Robinson in early January to begin a months-long residency, he didn’t immediately rush to work, instead sitting back to absorb the spirit and feel of the space.

“I was only coming in this [side] door, and I wasn’t sure how to acclimate,” Brown said during a late-March interview as he prepared to wrap his final days of work in the home, access to which was granted by the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship awarded to the artist earlier this year. “It was kind of a wait-a-while thing. … And also, the feeling of not knowing where to go, really, and not having an idea.”

Gradually, though, Brown started to move his own work from his home studio into the space, putting his imprint on the house in a manner he believed would have been appreciated by Robinson, who treated the abode like an in-progress canvas, embedding artwork in the kitchen floor, painting on the doors and inviting guests to scribble messages on the kitchen walls, some of which have been preserved. In the early weeks of the residency, Brown steadily lined the basement walls and tables with in-progress scrolls, filled cabinets with handmade knick-knacks and invited student artists to come paint alongside him in the rear studio, embracing the fellowship not as an individual achievement, but as one of communal creation and celebration.

“We had a bunch of kids from Transit Arts come in. It’s almost like we had a chance to do what Aminah would have done — have the kids work with her, in her space,” Brown said, recalling Robinson’s late son, Sydney, who died by suicide in 1994 at age 27, and whose life and likeness continued to exert a pull on Brown as he worked in the home, surfacing in a number of portraits. “When Sydney was alive, he could have been working alongside her in the room, too. So, sometimes it felt like I could bring the idea of family to the space — the human family, plus the diaspora with the African American family and the whole global experience.”

These ideas resonated throughout the paintings that started to emerge in a still-ongoing creative outpouring, some capturing intimate moments — Brown directed me toward one portrait of Sydney surrounded by ragweed, a reference pulled from the Robinson-illustrated book “To Be a Drum” — and others echoing a larger but still deeply entwined community. To that end, the artist described each person as a continuously unraveling ball of yarn, each of us leaving a trail that can become entangled with others who cross our paths, creating beautiful and previously unimagined tapestries.

“Years ago, when I was first working with Transit Arts, we had to come up with an idea for a show, and I told them I had gone to sleep and had literally seen a ball of yarn that just kept unraveling and unraveling. ‘A ball of yarn unraveling? How are we going to tell our funders what that is?’ And I didn’t know how to explain. It was just what I had seen,” said Brown, who abandoned the idea at the time. “And then when I got here, it became obvious. This was the unraveling ball of yarn I was in the middle of. The life we’re given unravels like the yarn and it spreads all over places and it ties us together and it’s woven into crochets. It’s the whole story unfolding, and we weave like a spider, weaving each other into and out of these narratives.”

And so, this connective tissue started to surface within the paintings Brown completed and later displayed in Robinson’s dining room — a rope braided into the hair of one portrait and swirling through the background of another — providing a narrative link for seemingly disconnected works.

Most weeks, Brown said he spent four days at the home: Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, though he often preserved Sundays for himself, accompanied only by the voice of Nikki Giovanni, whose works he played at full volume on his Bluetooth speaker, establishing a feel he described as conducive to creating. “I’ll just try to give you a little bit of the vibe,” Brown said as we moved toward the basement, asking Donte Woods-Spikes to crank the volume so that Giovanni’s voice could worm its way into every crevice of the house.

In those solitary moments, Brown was taken back to age 13, when he first fell in love with the act of creating, skipping school to stow away at home with a sketchbook and a brush. “And I would just paint, and I felt like I was talking to my father, who I didn’t know, and telling the world how it was going to be and talking about eternity and time and how to be sensitive to each other,” Brown said.

These deeper ideas about the type of artist Brown said he still aspires to be are captured most nakedly in a banner painted by Brown and inscribed with the Bible passage Luke 4:18, which reads, in part, “[The Lord] has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners/And recovery of sight for the blind/To set the oppressed free.”

“This is the real me, what it says in Luke 4:18. We’re sent to heal the brokenhearted, to recover sight for the blind, to free all of the captives, and I feel like that’s what I was sent here to do,” said Brown, pausing to wipe away tears while lingering on the banner, temporarily hung on the white-painted brick directly at the bottom of the basement stairs in Robinson’s home. “When I first felt like I loved God and God loved me, it was a chance to learn about the Scriptures. And, realistically, I wasn’t a reader, but when I read this, it filled my heart, and my work was filled with that.”

“I’ve never been doing work that was about challenging the cause. It was always about healing or setting people free,” Brown continued. “That’s the deeper core about who I am, but you felt like it couldn’t be like that, or that it had to be more radical to be in an art show. It was like it had to be angry, or it had to be something else. It was too simple to love people. It’s too simple to love humanity. It’s too simple to care. So, I just found a way to do it on my own and not worry about any of that. … And as I give that love away in my art, each time it feels like it comes back more. And so, that’s what I’ll continue to do. I’ll continue onward until I have nothing left to give.”