Columbus artist Richard Duarte Brown is ready to continue the conversation

The recipient of the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship will spend time working and creating in the East Side home of the late Aminah Robinson

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Richard Duarte Brown, a mixed-media artist, poses for a portrait on Monday, May 3, 2021 at Transit Art Studio in Columbus, Ohio.

Richard Duarte Brown has always felt a deep kinship with the younger generation, evidenced in his work with the teenaged artists at Whitehall-Yearling High School, where, in late December, Brown spoke while seated across the table from Aaron Phillips. During my hour-long conversation with Brown, Phillips, a high school junior, completed more than a half-dozen crayon drawings, filling the pages with pink dragons and a veritable rainbow of humans, recurring characters the young artist previously described to Brown as imagined friends. 

“When I started doing art classes, what you’d call the special-needs classes didn’t have a real art program, so we said, ‘Why don’t we try something with him?’” Brown said of the relationship between the two, fostered over the last year-plus. “And we’d bring Aaron over, and he would take a picture and paint, and he’d be finished painting before you could turn around. And I gave him all of these canvases, and he’s so prolific, and all of these people started coming out. They’re his friends and family.”

This idea resonated strongly with Brown, who said in 2020 that his own art started as a means of “finding family,” particularly as he navigated a childhood where he frequently felt abandoned and alone.

“It’s hard not to tear up talking about this, because that’s what it is for me, too. I’m finding family, making family,” said Brown, who in December was announced as the recipient of the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, which runs today (Monday, Jan. 3) through April 3 and includes a $15,000 grant and access to the East Side home and studio of the late Aminah Robinson. 

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While instruction is central to Brown’s current existence — he said he tries to impart on students the importance of sharing their creative gifts “no matter where you’re at on any kind of spectrum of humanity” — it’s clear in conversation that these lessons are often reciprocal. Working with Phillips, for example, Brown said he has been reminded of the sense of freedom that can exist when one first begins to paint, a sensation to which many artists aspire to return as they continue advancing in their careers. 

“Somewhere along the line, with all of the legalities, all of those fears, there’s no room for creativity, and you almost have to push all of that aside to make room to be creative,” Brown said. “When someone’s purity comes across, it can infect you. There’s something infectious about being hopeful and kind. You look for it. We live in a world that has lots of problems and anxieties and concerns, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed, and you can grow cynical and judgmental. If you lose that innocence of life, or that kindness, or the vigor of dreaming, life becomes vain, and you can’t enjoy the simple fruits of our living. When you see someone with that childlike urge to create, it becomes very redeeming.”

As a means of ushering in the January residency, Brown recently collaborated with Phillips on a lithograph initially created by Robinson in 1989 and later gifted to Brown, who colored the black and white piece before passing it along to Phillips. Phillips then filled in the surrounding frame with dozens of his instantly recognizable characters, creating a piece that now spans three generations.

Aaron Phillips (left) and Richard Duarte Brown holding a lithograph initially drawn by the late Aminah Robinson.

For Brown, this collaboration is a way of welcoming Phillips into the Columbus community of artists the same way the city’s elders once did him — “When you knew Aminah, you knew Smoky [Brown], and when you knew Smoky you knew LaVern, his wife, and the people at ACE Gallery, and they all treated you like family,” he said of this bond — as well creating another opportunity to honor the youth, which Brown said extends to Robinson’s late son, Sydney, who died by suicide in 1994 at age 27.

“When I met Sydney with Aminah over at the house, I asked him, ‘How do you feel about your mother being an artist?’ And he just looked at me. And I think if I had a chance to ask him something again, I would ask, ‘Sydney, what do you dream about?’” Brown said. “So, I thought with this residency it would be cool to honor another young person in light of Sydney, and to celebrate who Sydney is. When we tell Aminah’s story, we tell the whole family’s story."

Brown said the fellowship further ties him to Robinson, an artist who inspires in him now the same sense of awe as when he first met her in person in 1991. It also serves as further validation of his chosen path and a rejoinder to those who told him he could never be an artist, a process that has involved gradually stripping away the various internal barriers built up through the years, sometimes out of necessity.

“In the early days, my art all looked like art that was done by white people to get into shows and win, because I thought winning was my voice, my thing,” Brown said. “But what I realized is I wasn’t being me. There’s this fear you have to not fit in, or to be rejected, and this will make you do things to be accepted, and your work will feel like it’s crying or it’s sad. It doesn’t feel like you. … But when you become who you are, it seems like people are drawn to you, even if your art is hurting. If it’s genuinely, authentically you, it’s something people embrace.”

Though he’s long been at home in his own artistic skin, Brown said finding a level of comfort in Robinson’s former house will take some adjustment. “When you see a house, you see the clutter of life,” he said. “But when it’s stripped and clean and clear, it can have a funny, strange feeling, like it’s absent something.” 

In those earliest weeks, as he begins to find his footing, Brown said he intends to spend more time writing and gathering his thoughts, leaving himself open to “any wonderment” that follows. He also hopes to pick up on his first conversation with Sydney, embracing it as a chance to finally ask the question he wished he had years prior.

“And it’s not sad. When you get the chance to right something you did wrong, it’s an honor,” Brown said through tears. “It’s not, ‘How do you feel about your mother being an artist?’ I really don’t care how he felt about that. But I finally get to ask Sydney, ‘What do you dream about?’”