At Last, Columbus Artist Richard Duarte Brown Gets His Due

After decades of making brilliant work, the beloved arts educator is finally receiving recognition as a master artist. A new show follows on the heels of his Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Columbus artist Richard Duarte Brown in his studio with a portrait of singer and sculptor Paisha Thomas

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, Richard Duarte Brown holds court in Sarah Hebdo’s art classroom at Whitehall-Yearling High School, where, thanks to annual grants from the Ohio Arts Council, Brown has served as an artist in residence for the past seven years.

Seated next to Hebdo’s desk, Brown works on his paintings and mixed-media creations while helping students with their own pieces. It’s a cramped, colorful, chaotic space. Since the advent of COVID, “Mr. Duarte,” as students call him, has painted individual portraits of Whitehall’s graduating seniors—about 200 per year, some of which are stacked accordion-style on the artist’s desk next to a new piece titled “Nellaf,” the inverse of “Fallen.” The layered, kaleidoscopic assemblage incorporates shells, beads, yarn, a ketchup bottle and more into a shape resembling the continent of Africa. In the upper left corner, a figure appears to scale the piece, grasping onto outcroppings.

While Duarte is known for creating beautiful live paintings at art events in an hour or less, he calls “Nellaf” a “struggle piece” that bewildered him as it took shape. But that struggle led to a breakthrough for Vasanti Adams, a 15-year-old sophomore who moved to Ohio from Florida last year.

When she was younger, Adams’ friends and family members noticed her illustration skills, but as she got older, she felt pressured to turn her artistic talents into a viable career. “As soon as other people’s pressure started weighing down on me, it kind of killed my drive to want to do art,” Adams says. “Then I saw Mr. Duarte’s stuff.”

Watching Brown work on “Nellaf,” Adams was wowed by the colors and the different materials he used. “I could tell that he put so much heart into it,” she says. Now, Adams can’t stop making art. She even made her own sketchbook, staining the pages with coffee and making the cover out of cardboard, fabric and a pillowcase border.

“When that happens to her, it happens back to me. It’s reciprocal,” Brown says.

Adams isn’t the only one in the room influenced by Brown. Unprompted, junior Esme Hernandez, 17, pulls up a chair to tell me how Mr. Duarte rekindled her love of art-making. “I always thought art was supposed to be so, like, professional,” she says. “There was no color, no joy in it. Then I saw his art, and I was like, ‘Oh, I like this. This is different.’”

Last May, Hernandez and some of her classmates accompanied Brown to a reception where he received a Governor’s Award for the Arts. “It was so cool. Seeing him on the stage kind of made me tear up,” she says. “It brings me joy, especially because I see him like a father figure, because I didn’t really have that when I was younger.”

While Hernandez speaks, Brown is moved to tears—not a rare occurrence for the tenderhearted 65-year-old. “He’s like a warm hug,” Hernandez says. “You know when you see somebody, and it’s like, ‘You look like I can trust you’? That type of thing.”

As Hernandez and Adams share their stories, Brown helps junior Tylaiya Warnock with her portrait project. Warnock moved to Whitehall from the North Side a few years ago. “We had a lot of family that got murdered, so my mom just wanted change. She didn’t want to be around any of that,” Warnock says. But she struggled with the move and mostly kept to herself.

“Then, last year, Mr. Duarte started noticing the type of person I was. We didn’t really talk, but he would think I was funny,” Warnock says. “Then I started painting, and Mr. Duarte was like, ‘Whoa, this is really good.’ So he started helping me out and introducing me to different concepts. And that’s when I really started getting into art and realizing that I do have an artistic side. … I speak through art.”

Through his presence and his art, Mr. Duarte redirected the lives of three girls in one Whitehall classroom. And this school is just one piece of Brown’s educational efforts. He’s also an artist in residence at Berne Union High School in Fairfield County, and he has worked with kids in Columbus through programs like Transit Arts, Art in the House, the Short Stop Youth Center and many more over the last 30 years.

“He has changed the lives of so many young people that I can’t even think about how to count them. His impact has been huge,” says Jackie Calderone, the founding director of Transit Arts. “He always knows the right thing to do when someone is struggling.”

“Duarte has the ability to see things in students that I may [not see],” says Hebdo, who has also become an artistic collaborator with Brown. “He breaks through with people I probably wouldn’t have broken through with.”

For years, though, Brown’s work with kids seemed to overshadow his brilliant art. Even as his artwork appeared all over town, he still received the most recognition for his role as an educator. Recently, that has begun to change. Last year, Brown was awarded the Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, which came with $15,000 and access to Robinson’s former home and studio through a program created by the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Columbus Museum of Art.

Currently, Brown’s work is featured in Arts Beacon of Light, a group show at the Riffe Gallery on view through April 7 (including an artist talk with Brown on March 22). And in late May, Streetlight Guild, the nonprofit gallery on the Near East Side, will host Brown’s biggest exhibition yet: Ohio Culture Carriers: Watering the Seeds, which will fill Streetlight’s entire space with work by Duarte, along with archival pieces by his mentor, Smoky Brown, and new work from protégé Malik Carrington.

“Duarte is receiving all of the accolades and the roses and the rewards that a living artist of his caliber should,” says poet, writer and Streetlight Guild founder Scott Woods, who’s also a regular contributor to Columbus Monthly. “He is getting all the things that the Black artists before him didn’t get in their time, with very few exceptions.”

Woods argues Brown’s recent plaudits are just a start; more is due. After dropping hints for years that Brown’s work belongs in the Columbus Museum of Art, Woods recently launched a campaign, “Put Duarte in the Museum,” complete with T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan.

“I need people taking him seriously,” Woods says. “He’s too important not to be where we hold artists up. If the museum is a measure of an artist’s greatness, then he has to be there.”

➽ Richard Duarte Brown grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, without a father, and that absence has defined much of his life. As a middle child among his mother’s 10 kids, young Ricky took it upon himself to solve his family’s problems.

“When my mom would have boyfriends over, I wanted them to see I could draw so they would marry her,” Brown says. “Living like the Brady Bunch was my dream. The whole idea was to get rich and buy happiness and fix our family.”

Early on, Brown learned about Picasso from an encyclopedia. “I was really drawn to that,” he says. “I felt it. I felt art.” He didn’t have any art supplies, so he used what he could find: rice, glue, shoe polish. Sometimes he painted seashells from the boardwalk. No one had to tell Ricky he was an artist. He knew it on a deep, almost spiritual level. Others weren’t so sure. They had lots of reasons why Ricky couldn’t or shouldn’t be an artist. For one, he was too shy. And besides, real artists had to live in New York City.

At 13, Brown came to Ohio to live with an older brother, Darnell Harris, who was attending Columbus College of Art & Design on a scholarship. Harris tried to get his younger brother to attend Mohawk Middle School (later Columbus Africentric), but instead Duarte skipped school, drank MD 20/20 and looked for art opportunities around town. He used alcohol to give him social confidence while frequenting Pace Columbus, the famous New York gallery’s Broad Street location. He hung around CCAD, checked the newspapers for art jobs and attended art shows where he was the only kid in the room. “Here I was with this gusto and this attitude and no training, but I was serious about what I was doing,” Brown says. “People were kind of amused and amazed at the same time.”

He also spent lots of time at libraries. “Though I wasn’t in school, I was hungry to learn,” Brown says. “And I wasn’t looking to go out on the streets. I worked. I lied about my age and worked at the original Wendy’s restaurant.”

As he got older, Brown began to drink less, and in the ’70s he enrolled in the National Guard. “I decided I needed to know how to be a real man,” he says. “I wanted family … and there was nobody teaching me—no grandfather, no father.”

After serving, Brown got his GED and worked odd jobs, including a screen-printing gig that enabled him to work with (and give away) surplus material. In 1981, an experience at church gave him a new world-view and mission. “God found me, or we found each other,” he says. “God became real to me, and I wanted to be this redemptive artist, to redeem the fatherless—to find what was lost and bring it back home and never lose it again.”

In the Whitehall home Brown shares with his wife, Patricia, whom he met at church and married in 1983, a few signs hang prominently on the walls. Beneath a placard that reads “Richard Duarte Brown: Looking For Family” is the word “REST,” with all the books of the Bible written inside the large letters, along with the phrase, “I Rest in His Word.” Near that is another sign: “The Eastside Canon: Smoky Brown & Friends.”

Smoky Brown (no relation) is a folk-art legend in Columbus, and Duarte met him at ACE Gallery, photographer Kojo Kamau’s beloved nonprofit art space that served as an incubator for some of the city’s best-known Black artists, including Aminah Robinson. Smoky became a mentor to Duarte, inspiring him with his self-taught, outsider art. After Smoky died in 2005, his wife, LaVerne Brown, entrusted Duarte with the archive of her husband’s 100-plus artworks, including a bust of Smoky, which sits on Duarte’s drafting table as we speak in his home, prompting Duarte to occasionally pause, chuckle and lose his place.

Related:ACE Gallery Continues to Inspire Columbus Black Artists Decades After its Closing

Duarte is prone to tangents, speaking in rapid-fire thoughts and interrupting himself often as he circles back to recurring themes: love, art, family, kids. Duarte’s two children, April and Ricky, are grown and out of the house, but evidence of young people from his past is everywhere. In one room, stacks of swollen scrapbooks hold remembrances of Columbus kids that have crossed paths with Duarte, who initially felt called to be a youth minister. “I decided to leave the church and go to the Short North and work with kids there, because that’s where God’s kids were. They were out in the street,” he says.

Duarte met Jackie Calderone at the Short Stop Youth Center about 30 years ago, and the two instantly clicked. In the decades since, Calderone and Brown have partnered to provide arts education and opportunities to kids through Transit Arts, a program of Central Community House, as well as other entities with overlapping missions, such as the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education’s Art in the House program. Over the years, Brown also has worked with the King Arts Complex, CAPA, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the Arts and College Preparatory Academy, Ebony Boys and more.

It’s not easy work. Calderone recalls seeing countless kids explode with anger, but Duarte always diffused the situation, intuitively understanding what each kid needed. “It was about becoming quiet, or letting somebody vent if they needed to, because maybe they were hungry. Maybe somebody in their family died that night. If you respond to that person in anger in the moment, you’ve destroyed any possibility for a relationship,” Calderone says. “Because he does it so beautifully, he’s passed on that intelligence to people who work with him.”

Local artist, author and filmmaker Donte Woods-Spikes saw those interactions firsthand when he met Brown while working with kids on the East Side. “I was captivated by his art, because it’s rare, especially in spaces where you have lots of Black children, that they get to see paintings of Black people. And if you do, it’s usually a historical figure—Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey,” Woods-Spikes says. “Duarte makes paintings of the children within that environment and puts them on the wall. … I didn’t know it was possible for us to be painted as figures to be looked at and seen as art.”

Brown saw in Woods-Spikes someone who was serious about helping kids, but also someone who needed some encouragement. It wasn’t long before he had painted Woods-Spikes multiple times, and as Scott Woods says, “When Duarte paints you, you have been charged to go do something good in the world.” It’s a way to “pass the brush,” one of Brown’s oft-repeated phrases.

“People will come to environments where children have very little hope, for one day, and they’ll say, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. You can do whatever you want to do.’ And then you’ll never see them again,” says Woods-Spikes, who nominated Brown for the Governor’s Award. “Duarte will come to you and say that, and then he’ll show you that you can do it. And then once you begin to do it, he’ll walk with you through the whole process.”

In his 30s, Duarte lost his younger brother Tony to AIDS. At the funeral, he reminisced with one of his sisters about getting on a bus and visiting a man in Pleasantville, New Jersey, as a child. The man gave Duarte a $10 bill, asked about his mom and then sent the boy on his way. “I asked my sister, ‘Who was that white man in Pleasantville?’ And my sister said, ‘That was your father. When Mom got drunk, she told me,’” Duarte says. “And that’s how I found out who my actual birth father was when I was 38.”

Rather than let the revelation lead to anger, Brown further resolved to help fill that fatherless void in others—to comfort humanity in the way he was never comforted. “Duarte loves people so much. Love is the secret ingredient in all of his art,” Woods says. “I’ve never seen an artist more intent on trying to change the world with art.”

➽ Brown got a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio Dominican University in his 50s, but the education isn’t what took his art to the next level. For years, he entered pieces into art shows and contests, and when the work got accepted, it felt like validation. “You submit to all these things, but really, it’s out of your calling,” Brown says. “You try to make your art fit in the category, and that takes something out of the art.”

Now, Brown creates from a more primal, authentic place. He doesn’t think when he paints; his mind goes blank. “When I make art, the answers come,” he says.

The materials can also come from anywhere. If it’s within reach, it can be made into art, which is partly why he’s so prolific. “He had to survive making art from trash in the streets, and look at how that’s informed his creations in such an exciting way,” Calderone says. It’s an approach similar to that of another celebrated Columbus artist: Aminah Robinson. “Like Aminah, he knows that anything he can touch can be offered up in the name of beauty,” says Columbus writer Hanif Abdurraqib, whom Brown honored with a painting last year.

“If there was anybody who might represent the spirit and mission of Aminah Robinson, it’s Duarte,” Woods says.

The current Riffe Gallery show, Arts Beacon of Light, features some of Brown’s mixed-media work, including a music box repurposed with a small sculpture of Aminah Robinson, and a colorful, abstract portrait of singer Paisha Thomas that features stenciled patterns Brown made with a flyswatter. The Streetlight Guild show, Ohio Culture Carriers: Watering the Seeds, which opens May 26, will display more of Brown’s work in one location than any other show he’s done. You’ll find pieces downstairs, upstairs, outside, even in the bathroom. In January, Brown’s home was already bursting with work for the show: huge “seed-carrier” gourds, smaller “culture-carrier” tubes (made from toilet paper rolls), decorated water fountains, paintings.

“His art is a lot of things at the same time,” Woods says. “It’s a story. It’s a balm. It’s a record.”

Brown is a teaching artist, but he’s also an artist, full stop. “He’s had to overcome that over the years,” Calderone says. “People weren’t taking his incredible artistry as seriously as they should have.”

To Calderone, Woods and other supporters, it’s now the Columbus Museum of Art’s turn to recognize Brown alongside Robinson, Elijah Pierce and other great artists who also happen to be from Columbus. In response to questions about Brown, the museum emailed a statement from Deidre Hamlar, curator at large and director of the Aminah Robinson Legacy Project, who expressed gratitude for the institution’s “longstanding and ongoing relationship with Richard Duarte Brown. He has been a staple in the museum’s learning department for years. In 2022, Duarte was awarded an Aminah Robinson Artist’s Fellowship, through which the museum acquired a piece of his art, and we are currently developing an exhibition of Aminah Robinson Fellows and Residents that will include Duarte’s work.” Hamlar also referenced a commissioned piece by Brown to honor CMA’s recently retired director, Nannette Maciejunes.

This is not what Woods means when he says, “Put Duarte in the Museum.” He’s advocating for the museum to acquire a significant number of Brown’s pieces (not one, and not a commission) and put them on display (not in the archives). “I don’t want to be debating people 10 years from now about whether or not Duarte is in the museum,” he says.

Brown is humbled and honored by the museum campaign. After all, that was his goal early on. “The dream was first to be in a museum, to be known,” Brown says back in the Whitehall classroom. Then he looks up from his work, grins and nods his head toward the students around his desk. “But this is more fulfilling.”

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.