Church Hill has certainly seen its ups and downs through its history. While it has struggled for years with a higher rate of violent crime than the rest of Richmond, today community leaders strive to make it an arts and culture center for the city, an initiative that has only just begun.
As a tribute to this transitional area of Richmond, the Valentine Museum has opened an exhibit called “Made in Church Hill.”
Described as “a collaborative exhibition,” the collection involves several cultural and educational institutions in the area, and shows “the history and current challenges facing Church Hill from the perspective of its residents.”
The collaboration comes from members of VCUarts departments of art history and photography and film, University of Richmond students and high school students from Church Hill Academy.
For VCUarts students, the opportunity was offered in fall 2014 through a service learning course called “Social Practice in the Museum,” co-taught by professors Traci Garland and Michael Lease.
For U of R students, the class “Archiving Richmond,” was offered and co-taught by professors Patricia Herrera and Laura Browder, with help from Lynda Kachurek, head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boatwright Library.
For Church Hill Academy students, the project was an after-school initiative they could choose to take part in through a variety of ways, with help from the Church Hill Activities and Tutoring group (CHAT).
The exhibit, which had its opening and reception Jan. 22, is in the brand new Stettinius Community Galleries at the Valentine Museum.
It features portraits of Church Hill community members, with takeaway labels that feature their name and an excerpt of an interview they took part in on the front, and a drawing activity on the back. Visitors can collect all the takeaway labels and bind them into a book at a station in the back of the gallery.
Most of the interviews took place at Fourth Baptist Church, the first black church in Church Hill, formed by 23 slaves in 1859. The exhibit also has two audio stations with recordings of some of the interviews, collected by sound artist Vaughn Garland.
The goal of the exhibit was to tell Church Hill’s story, and the stories of its residents, but each person involved got something different out of it.
For VCU art history student Jessica Evans, it was both an exploration of her craft and a chance to collaborate with others.
“It was a really interesting experience,” Evans said. “It was service-learning, so we did a lot of work with CHA students, getting to know them and trying to teach them stuff and learning from their experiences for the exhibition.”
Evans and her colleagues spent time with the students at Church Hill Academy to teach them how to use cameras and give useful photography tips, and their photos are now featured in the exhibit. They also assisted in conducting interviews and writing contextual essays for the pamphlet given out in the exhibit.
U of R students were also involved in the interview process, and conducted “history harvests” at the East District Family Resource Center and the East End Fellowship, where they talked to Church Hill residents and gathered their stories.
For Church Hill Academy student Dezhane Lurk, the project allowed her to share the identity of the neighborhood she’s from.
“(We wanted to) express more of Church Hill,” Lurk said. “For people to be aware of Church Hill and how it’s not a violent place, it’s actually a family-oriented community.”
Finally, for Church Hill community members, it was a chance to share their history and celebrate their neighborhood. Skip Long, principal of Church Hill Academy, spoke at the reception of the exhibit opening, and expressed the important effect the exhibit will have.
“What’s exciting is many of the folks from U of R, from VCU, coming in and hearing the stories of many of my neighbors,” Long said. “And it’s so affirming because it’s almost unlikely people finding out that Church Hill isn’t what you see on the news. Church Hill isn’t what you’re reading, and once you come in you begin to experience what an incredible community (it is).”