The mixed-media artist reflects on three decades spent empowering kids through art

Richard Duarte Brown loves to talk. At one point during our conversation, after sharing a story from his long art career, Brown said, “Did I answer your question? I go right down the rabbit trail all the time.” (He didn’t really, but that’s OK.)

Some refer to Brown as an artist, others as a teacher. But above all he is a storyteller. It’s the connection between his two occupations. As a longtime mixed-media artist, he creates vivid pieces — many of them colorful, detailed portraits that invite the viewer to spend some time with the art. He also teaches at Transit Arts, a youth arts program, as well as at Whitehall City Schools and Berne Union Schools through a partnership with the Ohio Arts Council. After 30-some years spent creating art and mentoring Columbus youth, Brown said his purpose hasn’t changed.

“I think that intrinsically, we're all asking a question with our life: What is it for where we're at? And for me it was simply finding family,” Brown said in an interview at Transit Arts in Olde Towne East. “What we noticed is when people sit around, we will start talking about life, and people will start telling you the deepest things. I never said, 'What did you just say?' It came out of the act of making.”

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The walls of the Transit Arts building are filled with art, some of it Brown’s. A makeshift stage occupies one section, paint-splattered tables another. Upstairs there’s more room for kids to create music, poetry, art and more. It’s easy to imagine kids opening up in a place like this. 

“It's their space,” Brown said. “It seems chaotic because everybody's not drawing lemons, everybody's not going for the same thing. It's just a search to find who you really are. It gives us a chance to touch or feel or be emotional or be human, in a sense. I think that gives us a chance to connect.”

Brown, who goes by Duarte, grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but moved to Columbus at age 13, though his life has taken him in many directions. He dropped out of high school, joined the military, worked as a screen printer, got his GED and took some classes at CCAD and Columbus State before eventually graduating from Ohio Dominican University in 2012. Through it all, he continued to create art and lead art programs across the city with groups including Short Stop Youth Center and Ebony Boys.

Brown talks a lot about the kids that have come through his life. Some struggled in school. One was shot and killed. Some need simple things like hamburgers or rides home. Others need things that are harder to quantify, like strategies and outlets to deal with anger. To many of them, Brown is a surrogate father, and like any proud father he took a moment during the interview to show off old photos of some of his “kids.” He talked about children he used to work with who now have kids of their own who come to Transit Arts. At one point while reminiscing, Brown began to cry. 

“I'm not crying sad tears. You look back and realize, wow. You don't even know. It was just going from one week to the next week to make it and raise my family,” he said. “Everybody was like, ‘Why are you going to be an artist? How you going to make money?’ You just keep going and then you feel like you're not rich yet so you can't really buy happiness.”

Brown dried his eyes and continued. “But what really happened was, we just kept going, and we kept finding a way, and things just kept happening.”