Sculptor once labeled Richard “Duarte” Brown a “Culture Warrior” – a moniker the longtime Columbus artist has never taken lightly.
“And I understood it and knew that I was using art to record and to hold onto the culture that I was searching for, and that I was wanting to have,” said Duarte, seated in the East Side gallery Streetlight Guild in late May.
It’s an idea that has informed not only Duarte’s own practice, but also his approach to mentorship, in which he has embraced the concept that he can serve as a bridge between Columbus’ pioneering Black artists – Smoky Brown, Aminah Robinson, Pheoris West, among many, many more – and the new generation that has only more recently picked up the brush.
“Ohio Culture Carriers: Watering the Seeds,” a massive new show opening at Streetlight Guild , explores these generational connections, staging works by Brown – a.k.a. – alongside pieces by Duarte and the next generation of Columbus artists, including and Malik Carrington, who stood nearby touching up an in-progress painting of Aminah as we spoke.
“Watching Malik and and other kids come along and paint Aminah or Pheoris, they understand that we touched their hands, their garments, and we carry what they gave us to the next group of people,” Duarte said. “I was telling one of the kids, when we plant seeds, everybody eats.”
For Carrington, Duarte has served as a mentor, a motivator and a source of local history, informing the artist of the changing Columbus landscape – “He tells me about how things used to work, and what buildings have been torn down,” Carrington said – and about the earlier generation of artists whose work has endured this constant upheaval, carried forward in the creative endeavors of those who came after.
“I’m one of the next generation of people who is here to keep this going, keep this family going, this lineage going,” Carrington said.
According to Duarte, Cross similarly draws heavy inspiration from this lineage, including late muralist Walt “Wali” Neil and artist and longtime Ohio State professor Pheoris West, whom Cross met before the elder’s death in January 2021.
“And they covered it from both ends – the streets and the institutions – and they saw to it that you got to know the gift,” Duarte said. “If you hear Joel tell the story about how he looked at their work, and how they made Black people look like kings and queens, and how he then wanted to portray that in his own work, you want that kid’s gift to be seen. … To me, the fight is making sure you pull that gift this person possesses and then place it where it belongs, in front of other people.”
This is true both of Duarte’s proteges and mentors, including Grandpa Smoky, an artist for whom Duarte has become the living steward, first showcasing his expansive archives in a January 2020 show at Streetlight, which he described as a turning point in how he viewed the elder’s work.
“I saw what he was saying, what he was born with, and what he left,” said Duarte, who then directed my attention to one of Brown’s paintings, which the artist had inscribed with the words “stop violence save our kids,” a message as resonant now as when Brown painted the image in 1998. “Smoky’s work was a dialogue, and the dialogue continues. … Everything he ever spoke holds a timeless piece of information for us, and we get to hear what he was saying over and over again.”
Duarte’s own work has similarly captured his own journey and message, his paintings honoring his long-cultivated search for family, his spirituality, and a deep love for humanity that resonates both on canvas and off.
Indeed, Duarte’s artwork and actions have increasingly served as healing balm, of sorts, meant to soothe and uplift humanity in the midst of this challenging, disconcertingly brief time we’re given. “You get a season to live, so you want to make sure you live as much as you can while you’re a vapor, while your flower is alive,” Duarte said. “The [paintings] have always been open-hearted, but I think they used to bleed a little bit more. ... Maybe now there’s more intent to elevate and comfort our existence.”
“Watering the Seeds” is easily the largest exhibit staged at Streetlight to date, taking over two floors with art spilling into every corner, including the first and second floor bathrooms. It’s a vibrant, multifaceted display that incorporates portraiture, collage and even a series of sculpted, operational water fountains, whose flowing waters are meant to more explicitly reflect the way knowledge passes from one generation to the next.
Duarte compared the process of staging the show with making a quilt, the works from the various artists resting side by side and creating new contexts in which the art can be viewed.
“When you make quilts, this sense of memory emerges, and it’s something you can’t plan,” Duarte said. “There’s something that happens in the gathering. You know, the dinner table is where people would talk about their day, and there was this transfer of culture that happened. And I think every art show is a chance to sit down at the table and transfer culture.”