Mixed media painter Richard Duarte Brown can hardly contain his excitement when explaining his new job during a late-August interview at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. "I'm contracted with the state of Ohio to visit Whitehall [City] Schools three days a week for three different teachers … for a full, solid year," he said.
Through the paid opportunity, awarded by the Ohio Arts Council as part of the Teach Arts Ohio pilot program, Brown is working in Rosemore Middle School and Whitehall-Yearling High School. The artist, 59, is most thrilled about the chance to give back to his neighborhood, which he says some consider a "declining" area.
"At this season in my life, my prayer is to see Whitehall be a place that has dreamers and visions," he said. He hopes to inspire students to reach their potential and create a fellowship that some may not have at home.
"I always cared about establishing a sense of family, and art was a way to make family," he said.
Brown also viewed art as a way to save his own family, originally based in Atlantic City, New Jersey. With his single mother rarely home, he was left to take care of his younger siblings. Still, he found time to create art. At 6 years old, he was drawn to the work of Picasso, whom he learned about in encyclopedia books. He thought if he could impress one of his mother's boyfriends with his talent, the man would marry her.
"I was gonna be rich and buy happiness through my art so we could live like 'The Brady Bunch,' Brown said.
His dream didn't come true, and his family actually discouraged him from becoming an artist, fearing he would never make money. "I felt a sense of what I would call homelessness where I couldn't fit in and I really didn't care about anything else," he said.
At 13, Brown moved to Ohio to live with his brother. He attended Mohawk Middle School, but dropped out and lied about his age to get a job at Wendy's. Later, after a stint in the army, he earned his GED and supported himself as a screen printer while looking for arts opportunities.
"I took the screen printing surplus materials … and started taking them to COSI, to CCAD, giving them to organizations," he said. He started doing his own mixed-media workshops, teaching kids through community organizations like the Short Stop Teen Center and Transit Arts. He went on to become a teacher at the Arts & College Preparatory Academy, among other schools.
Recalling the influence his fifth grade teacher Mr. Steele had on his life, Brown said he found a greater purpose to serve as a parental figure for fatherless children in the community, which he has been doing for about thirty years.
"The dream was to create a space where people could come and make things and experience their gifts even if they were not born with fathers or wealth," he said.
"He's family to not only me but so many others," said Katerina Harris, a youth administrator at Transit Arts. "And it's amazing to see people … now in their thirties and forties that knew him when they were my age and younger and still have this connection with him."
"[His art] tells a story of the voices of people that are unheard," said Donte Woods-Spikes, who also works with youth at Transit Arts. "The places where people say don't go because you might get robbed [or] you might get shot. [But] children live in those areas."
Brown's vibrant, colorful art often depicts children and families, both real and imagined. His work has been exhibited in both national and local galleries, and you can find his murals throughout the city in spaces like the North Market or the Family Dollar at the intersection of Broad Street and Wayne Avenue.
He plans to open a studio to showcase both his work and youth art in the new, currently under renovation Transit Arts building, located at 1251 Bryden Rd. The space will host an "Open Studio & Stage" event on Saturday and Sunday, October 8 and 9.
Brown believes he was born to be an artist. His success without a degree - he didn't get his BFA from Ohio Dominican until 2012 - is a testament to his talent. And rather than move out of Whitehall, he is determined to bring about revitalization through the youth.
"I realize that I have to dream for my city," he said.