COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — An artist who knew Aminah Robinson has begun a residency at her house on the east side of Columbus. But it’s his brief encounter with the famous artist’s son Sydney that haunts him today.

Richard Duarte Brown — pronounced “Do art!” — met Aminah Robinson in 1991. Robinson received a MacArthur Foundation genius award in 2004 for her art that celebrates Black family and the African diaspora.

“While I was awestruck by Aminah, and just excited to meet a lady who was an artist, and I looked at her as a mother figure because we’re always finding what we need in people …” recalls Duarte, “I looked at her son [Sydney] and said, because he was just sitting on the steps … I said: ‘So what do you think about your mother being an artist?’

“Instead of saying, ‘Sydney, what do you dream about?'”

A tribute to Sydney

Sydney lost his life to depression when he was aged 27, in 1994.

Duarte has gone over that awkward first encounter many times in his mind. In Duarte’s day-to-day life, he memorializes Sydney by making a point to find out how people are doing inside of themselves.

“For a mother to lose her son, to live with that hurt, the rest of her life,” Duarte said, “she lived in this space that her son was no longer in. She could see Sydney on a regular, continual. Just like I see Sydney from the few moments I had with him in time. It’s eternal.”

The artist wants to leave something of Sydney’s spirit in the house. “Hopefully, when this is finished, people will come here and see something that’s left that reminds them of Sydney in this space, or makes them think of Sydney.”

Duarte won the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson fellowship from the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Columbus Museum of Art. It runs Jan. 3-April 3 and includes a $15,000 grant and a residency at Aminah’s in-home studio.

Elijah Pierce, grandfather figure

As a fatherless kid with a difficult relationship with his mom, Duarte found that artists stepped up for him, and became his family. This set in motion an enduring theme: Searching for family.

“I had the chance to wander in Elijah Pierce’s barber shop and hear him say, ‘don’t touch this,’ not realizing what it all meant. Not understanding grandfather, because I didn’t have one. [Elijah Pierce] was like this immediate grandfather figure.”

What’s left undone is left unsung

Working as a visiting artist in schools, and with Transit Arts, Duarte intends to “pass the brush” to the next generation of artists. Smoky Brown, another Columbus artist, was a father figure to Duarte; Brown died in 2005.

But more than that, he encourages the students he meets to stay alive, and to thrive.

“You don’t find all the treasures that you’re looking for in the world in the libraries, museums and banks,” Duarte said. “You find them in the graveyard, never done, never spoken, never dreamed, never lived, and never experienced.”

He hopes that people will understand that falling down is part of life. “If you’ve never failed, you haven’t tried.”

A painting to be finished

Streetlight Guild — an art and performance space on East Main Street run by writer Scott Woods — opened in 2017. Duarte Brown was the inaugural artist. During his residency, Duarte plans to finish the painting at Robinson’s house, and speaks about his vision for the work: