Curating a show of paintings by the late Smoky Brown allowed the local artist time to consider his own journey

Late in 2019, Richard Duarte Brown received a message from Smoky Brown’s widow, Laverne, informing him that she wanted him to have the artwork left behind by her late husband, who died in 2005.

“She carried his work, and it was a lot of weight on her in terms of shepherding his legacy,” said Duarte Brown (no relation to Smoky Brown, at least not in the biological sense, but more on that later). “In that moment, I felt like a kid who didn’t deserve to hit the lottery hitting the lottery, like a bastard told he’d never receive an inheritance getting an inheritance.”

Laverne gifted Duarte with more than 160 of Smoky’s colorful, outsider-esque paintings, leaving him only the most basic of instructions. “All she told me was, ‘I know you’ll know what to do with them,’” he said.

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As a first step, Duarte Brown selected a couple dozen paintings for an exhibition of Smoky’s work, which will be on display at Streetlight Guild beginning on Thursday, Jan. 9, alongside contributions from other local black artists whose paintings were part of Smoky’s personal collection, including the late Aminah Robinson and Queen Brooks.

Receiving art done by a man who long served as a father figure sent Duarte spinning back through time in a way that caught him pleasantly off-guard. As a result, a recent interview at Streetlight Guild served as a sometimes wandering journey through more than five decades of art making and family building, two acts that have become nearly inseparable for Duarte Brown, who relayed his own story as vividly and colorfully in conversation as he does on canvas.

“Most of my art has been done around the idea of being abandoned, or fitting in, or finding family. I was one of those people who didn’t fit in. … My first piece was called ‘Fending for Yourself,’ and it’s always been that idea of feeling like you’re alone, and trying to find some form of heritage and family.

“My mom didn’t tell me who my actual dad was, so I always had this cloud. Then, when I was 34, she sent me to Pleasantville to get money from this guy, and I asked my sister, ‘Who was that white man in Pleasantville?’ And she said it was my father. And that’s how at 34 I finally found out about my actual father.

"I got to Columbus when I was 13, and I was living with a brother who went to Columbus College of Art and Design. I remember quitting high school and then lying about my age to get a job. Back then, you could just take your birth certificate, type a number in there with a typewriter and change it, and I used it to get a job flipping burgers [at Wendy's] and to start taking night classes [at CCAD].

“The first time I met [Smoky], I saw an old man with a hat, and he took me to ACE Gallery, and I learned he was Smoky Brown, and he was an artist, and I was an artist, and we connected. I’ve been telling people since I was a kid that I was going to go out and do my art, and that it’s what I was born to do. It was always in me to make art. It was how I connected to life.

"I’m from New Jersey, and before I ever got to Columbus I would take doll babies, chicken bones and just make. It was intuitive, natural for me to take things and create. They told me I was shy as a child … but it wasn’t that I was shy. It was like I was waiting for answers, and when I painted, that’s when I got answers. That’s when I felt people.

“People teach you that you need to be modern, and you need to paint non-representational, non-figurative work to be contemporary. But, literally, I see people. People are what I long for. My work is always representational, and maybe it’s too simple for the art world, at times, but I genuinely want a family, and so that’s what I paint.

“Smoky, he kind of provided that. … He was Grandpa Smoky, that’s what he called himself. All of the things he did, he was about relationships and family, and he could see people. His wife said he had a second sight about people, and he was rarely wrong. He could tell if you were a shuck and jiver or if you were genuine. He could see right through you. We hit it off in that vein, and I’d go around to shows with him and everywhere I went I felt like I was family.

“At one point later, when I started to find some success, they had a show called ‘Brothers’ at the King Arts Center. This was back in 1980, and there were 18 artists, every artist that was anybody in the city: Pheoris West, Bill Agnew. I have a list of them all; I've been saving memories all along. But we do that show … and I was about the youngest artist hanging out with all of those guys, and it was like a family, a real sense of uncles and brothers.

“I have these boxes, cigar boxes, that I call ‘talking trees,’ and they’re just boxes painted with people’s faces, and inside of them are the stories I’ve gathered over time, because this is the way I’m making my family, keeping my family. They’re not done careful, like it’s a book. The stories are just typed out, most are laminated, and they might have tape or duct tape on them. I made a box with [poet and Streetlight founder] Scott [Woods’] picture on it, and he wrote a story about gentrification, and I pulled it out, folded it, and made a Scott box, a talking tree, and put it inside. Being fatherless, and not even having a family tree, it was my desire to have some kind of record of my [chosen] family.

“For 60-something years, I’m this fatherless boy, so for Laverne to call me 15 years after Smoky died, telling me that she wanted to give me the rest of his work as an inheritance, I didn’t even know how to respond. … It’s like now in my 60s I get a chance to revisit those points in my life, and the purity, the innocence of us coming together as artists. It’s hearing Aminah and everyone laughing at the shows. It’s Ralph Bell and going to Kentucky. It’s Larry Williamson and Frank Collins and all of these people that were part of that family, and now I get to relive every drop of that.

“I’m able to spend this time with Smoky’s work, and now I can share it with a group of people who had no idea who Smoky was. … I’m just really honored and thankful. In terms of trying to measure this or measure that, that’s not really where I’m at. I just get this unique opportunity for everyone to see the story that we’ve been telling all along. And, oh, my goodness, what a dream.”