My husband and I live in Jackson Ward. We are walkers, and it brings us immense pleasure to step out our front door and into the heart of the neighborhood, deciding if we want to head toward the Capitol or the Fan, or maybe the river. Walking in Richmond has been my favorite way to learn about the city, in endless twisting routes past the layers of history that live in old iron gates and cobblestone alleyways, in blocks with no fewer than three lively barbershops, past majestic magnolias and noisy construction sites. To know a city through the soles of your feet, from the view of its sidewalks, is a special kind of knowledge. When I walk through Richmond I feel as if I am reading an endless novel that looks backward and stretches forward in time. Though characters (human and inanimate, many beloved and some antagonistic) appear with great constancy in the plotline, the story still changes every day.
My walking life changed, too, a couple of years ago, when we adopted a block-headed goofball of a pitbull named Huey, who is my constant studio companion and the delightful distraction of all my interns. Huey and I might travel by car over the river to our Manchester studio, but our home block in the Ward gets traversed on foot and paw daily with exceptional attentiveness. Huey knows how to stop and smell ALL the roses, and every tree trunk too. At some point during these lazy moseys back and forth, I began looking down. For the last few years I, like Huey, have been contemplating every detail of my brick-paved block, and in 2015 I started drawing portraits of my favorite pieces of the neighborhood sidewalks. This year I’m working on an artist-naturalist kind of project: to capture and render in “scientific” drawing-style my beloved home block of the Clay Street sidewalk, between First and Adams, on both sides of the street. This experiment feels important, and about much more than bricks.
The Hippodrome and Maggie Walker’s house are right around the corner from us: whose feet have passed where mine are now? These are old bricks, their surfaces smoothed with countless steps. Countless lives crossed this very path where I now stand as I wait for Huey to finish his conversation with the neighbor’s hydrangea. The original herringbone pattern of these bricks has been heaved up by tree roots and interrupted by newer brick patches with sharper edges and more uniform faces, often laid down, through some unfathomable inspiration, in a completely different pattern. If the surface of these bricks tells the story of people, the beautifully wonky tapestry of the sidewalk in its entirety tells a story of the neighborhood and even the city. My artistic processes, tedious though they may be, are a way of deeply paying attention. It may take me years to render my sidewalk. It will be something like forty feet of pen on paper. But what conversations might this start? These portraits of humble brick are really meditations on my place here, and my neighbor’s place here. Here, where we all leave invisible traces of our paths on our city.
Inspired by the intricacies of the world around her, visual artist Andrea Donnelly weaves exquisite cloths that feel simultaneously familiar and mysterious. For more, www.andreadonnelly.com.