Richard Duarte Brown rediscovers radiance with help from friends

The artist’s new exhibit, ‘Radiant Children,’ is currently on display at the Vanderelli Room as part of ‘Mourning Light’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Artists Claire Bubeck, Richard Duarte Brown and Mindy Staley in the midst of the art exhibit at the Vanderelli Room.

“Radiant Children,” a new exhibit spearheaded by artist Richard Duarte Brown, opened at the Vanderelli Room just last week, but has roots that stretch decades into the past, back to the experiences Brown had learning under Mr. Steele, his fifth grade teacher at Madison Avenue Elementary School in New Jersey.

Brown described Mr. Steele as both the first significant male figure in his life and a pivotal presence whose influence he is still in many ways unpacking. “My mother was a screamer and a fusser, and, this is going to be a little strong, but she’d say, ‘You goddamn kids have ruined my goddamned life.’ And I’m sorry to tell you that, but that’s real. And it wasn’t mean. It was just her dialogue, it was her stress relief. And that’s how we grew up,” Brown said recently at the Vanderelli Room, where “Radiant Children” occupies the east side of the Franklinton gallery as part of the larger “Mourning Light” exhibit, which will remain on display through early June (viewing appointments can be booked online here). “But when I get to fifth grade, here’s this teacher. He’s clean cut. He’s talking to us. He cares about us. And so, in my mind, I wanted him to be my dad. It was like I was waiting for the instructions I didn’t get from another man, or a father, an uncle or a grandpa. … And my fifth grade teacher was the one.”

Beyond basic instruction, Mr. Steele presented Brown a vivid portrait of strength and vulnerability, and in the ways the two are intrinsically linked, with Brown recounting how Mr. Steele slumped over and cried at his desk when it was announced over the school public address system that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed. “We were taught if a boy cries he’s a sissy, and Mr. Steele wasn’t a sissy,” said Brown, who said the moment also opened him up to learning about King’s life and legacy, as well as the greater push for racial justice.

“So I have respect for teachers. They stand in as fathers and mothers, and they stand in as gatekeepers in a way that is silent and sometimes low paid, and in a way that can be abused or blamed,” Brown said. “Being able to go in as a teacher artist and not as a class-grade-giving artist, I’ve had the chance to go in [to schools] and bring to students some of what Mr. Steele dropped into me.”

Detail of "Radiant Children" exhibit

At the Vanderelli Room, the presence of Mr. Steele is both immediately visible (his portrait is part of an included house-shaped diorama that Brown crafted years ago in tribute) as well as unseen, his spirit linking the dozens of portraits, sculptures and paintings that overlap in the gallery space, a joyously overwhelming celebration of shared humanity that demands to be absorbed in stages.

Scattered throughout are works taken from various times in Brown’s career — a 2011 piece he created while enrolled at Ohio Dominican University; the portrait of a graduating high school senior he completed amid the pandemic-marred 2020 school year — as well as contributions from teachers and students whose paths have crossed with Brown’s in his years working as a visiting arts teacher with Whitehall City Schools, TransitArts and Berne Union Schools, including Claire Bubeck and Mindy Staley, among others.

The thread linking these pieces is sometimes literal (red yarn loops through a number of the pieces and falls in a bunch on the ground, a representation of Brown’s view of life as an unspooling ball of yarn) and sometimes metaphorical, bound by shared depictions of joy, growth, healing, loss and perhaps most importantly an underlying message of comforting humanity, a concept Brown has revisited in his art since the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

“The question in my spirit then was, ‘How do I respond to the riots?’ And it was to comfort humanity. And while I didn’t know how that looked, every time a tragedy happened, people came together, rising to comfort one another,” Brown said. “[Seeing it assembled for the first time] is very emotional, and these are not sad tears, but to have someone believe in you and have someone accept you, it’s the ultimate. That’s the real fulfillment, when you can befriend and get friended, and that’s what we really want. We want peace and we want justice … but at the same time we really want friends. We want someone to care about us. We want someone to accept us.”

These lessons are particularly timely entering into a second year of forced social distancing, which has left many feeling isolated from friends and family. Even the way the works are hung — overlapping, touching and at times almost fighting for a shared space — purposely runs counter to this current reality, serving as a reminder of better, more closely bonded days to come.

“Look at everything in here. It’s all of us waiting to connect,” Brown said. “It’s all of us declaring what we received after the blow of death, the blow of loss. Death is something that’s part of our experience, and we’re never ready for it. … But this almost brings you the experience when the sun breaks through the dark window, and the light comes. It’s that radiance.”

Detail of "Radiant Children" exhibit