VisArts Richmond – How Artists Are Using Nature to Grapple with Richmond’s Tragic History

The history of Richmond, Virginia can’t be told without blending rich, beautiful stanzas with tragic, hard-to-swallow truths. But a pair of artists are willing to tell that story in their own unique way. Enter VisArts Richmond.

VisArts Richmond exhibit tells Richmond’s story through natural materials from the James River

Sculptor Lily Cox-Richard and interdisciplinary artist and musician Michael Jevon Demps unveiled their exhibit, walking with, at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. The exhibition was made in response to, and with materials from, the artists’ walks in Richmond. As part of an ongoing project, the artists confront and honor the city through walking, listening and creating.

“The river is a place that buoys us spiritually and energetically but it’s also a place that’s very intense and loaded with complicated histories,” Cox-Richard says in an interview with VisArts. “All of the violent, complicated, exploitative histories of Richmond are also the histories of the James River.”

Both artists are professors at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. The two became friends shortly after Demps moved to Richmond to teach at VCUarts. Walks along the James River quickly became an important source of energy for the artists.

The art displayed in the walking with exhibit was created primarily using organic materials gathered during the artists’ walks in Richmond. The gathered materials include stones, riprap (loose stones added to a shoreline to prevent erosion), river water, gravel and clay that the artists dug and refined. The artists also incorporated candle wax, fabric, paper, photographs, digital video recordings and audio recordings, creating a multi-faceted experience for the viewer.

VisArts Richmond Artists Michael Jevon Demps, left, and Lily Cox in Richmond, VA
Artists Michael Jevon Demps, left, and Lily Cox- Richard discuss their work in a video produced by Departure Point Films. [Courtesy of Visual Arts Center of Richmond]

History, nature and art: a poignant intersection

“There’s a place along the slave trail where the flood wall meets I-95 and the river.” Demps says in a film about the project made by Departure Point Films. “It’s one of those places where these intersections of histories and energies is very visible. You can feel the viscerally in that space.”

That poignant intersection is where Demps and Cox-Richard have created much of their work for the walking with exhibit. They’ve created a series of works called “residuals.” By rubbing the residual dirt and grime from the rocks along the riverbank into bed sheets and other found textiles. The result is eye-catching designs resembling chalk art.

“We think about these kind of residuals, and rubbings, and collecting as a way to pay homage to our ancestors. All while trying to understand what it means to be present now,” Demps says.

VisArts Richmond Artists Michael Jevon Demps, right, and Lily Cox in Richmond, VA
Artists Michael Jevon Demps, left, and Lily Cox- Richard work on their walking with project along the James River in Richmond. [Courtesy of Visual Arts Center of Richmond]

Sculptures that project the future

The walking with exhibit is a rock tumbler that uses water, silt and clay to polish gravel. The artists aim to protect the future of the river.

“The river tumbles rocks and changes their states. A rock tumbler is kind of a projection into the future,” Demps says. “We can approximate what the river is going to do in 30-50 years in about two days.”

Demps and Cox-Richard developed this exhibition as part of an ongoing project called Library of Radical Returns. The project began as a collaboration between the two artists. It is a space where the artists invite the community to engage and explore with them.

In preparation for walking with, Demps and Cox-Richard hosted an event in Richmond where community members helped mold bits of clay while listening to recordings of the river. These pieces of clay were fired and are now being used to cushion rocks spinning in the rock tumblers throughout the exhibition.

“What if there’s a kind of library that didn’t depend on things being returned,” Cox-Richard says of the Library of Radical Returns project. “The radicality in that would be a kind of faith that things go out in the world and compound in energy and that is the return.”

An invitation to wonder, recuperate and participate

Walking with is on display at VisArts Richmond. The exhibit will shift and change based on engagements and events hosted in the space. The artists hope that this dynamic exhibition encourages repeat visits and inspires visitors to think more about what it means to be in Richmond.

“Our intention for the viewer is an experience that elicits a sense of wonder, recharge, recuperation and participation,” Demps says.

The exhibit contends with the presence of slave burial grounds on the banks of the James River. There captive Africans departed ships and marched to holding pens in the middle of the night. In order to hide the cruel sight from white residents.

“You have to engage with them even if you try to move through Richmond and not pay attention,” Demps says.

Cox-Richard adds that, “We’re also posing the question. What does it mean to walk along the river and not acknowledge these histories?

“I would hope that a visitor doesn’t just look at rock tumblers as cool time machines. Instead think about what does it mean to be in Richmond in 2019?… There is a possibility for some recuperation. For energizing, and for holding space and taking care of each other.”

The walking with exhibition runs through February 2, 2020. Follow Lily Cox-Richard‘s and Michael Jevon Demps‘ work on Instagram. It keep tabs on all that VisArts Richmond offers at

VisArts Richmond Walking With Exhibit Richmond, VA
Artist Michael Jevon Demps walks along the James River in Richmond. [Photo courtesy of Visual Arts Center of Richmond]

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