10 Questions With Artist-Thomas Van Auken-Giving Southside Soul

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of interviews with artists/creatives friends who live in our area of Southside for some time. Welcome! I’m finally getting to that plan. My hope is to create a better awareness of the area through the knowledge that great people – people you likely already know – are increasingly […]

Plaza Drive In

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of interviews with artists/creatives friends who live in our area of Southside for some time. Welcome! I’m finally getting to that plan. My hope is to create a better awareness of the area through the knowledge that great people – people you likely already know – are increasingly making South Richmond their home. It’s easy to forget about the area since our landmarks are fading. I get blank stares until I reference Skateland, Plaza Drive In or Plaza Bowl. It’s easy to drive down Hull Street Road, Janke Road, Broad Rock, or East Belt Boulevard and put blinders on. But off these main roads are numerous, cute 40s-60s era bungalow neighborhoods that house a very large and diverse population. Unfortunately, the City’s south western gateway communities still feel the affects of the City’s annexation of Chesterfield County in 1970 and have slowly been overlooked by other snazzier and richer areas with better representation.

More often though, I find artist friends moving south, generally to get more for their money. Areas like The Fan, Byrd Park or Church Hill that were once student/artist neighborhoods are way to expensive and up and coming areas like Downtown are getting close. So while we’re more reliant on our cars now, we gained driveways to put them in, along with big yards, living space to do with as we wish, and the best mortgage rates in town. The area’s changing for the better thanks to the great people I know who are moving into the area, like my neighbor and well-known Richmond painter, Tommy Van Auken.

Painting of Tommy's Home

I’m excited to start this series with Tommy because Southside has become an inspiration on his paintings. He imparts such soul into the fading and generic structures that we pass by every day, bringing out their most beautiful side. He also generously agreed to allow me to feature images of his gorgeous paintings on our Homepage. You can see these works in person at his upcoming exhibition of nighttime paintings, Recent Works, at the Eric Schindler Gallery in Church Hill (where he’s represented.) The Opening Reception is Friday, February 11, 2011 from 7:00pm-9:00pm and the exhibition continues until March 11, 2011.

So on to the Interview…10 Questions with Tommy Van Auken

Salvage Barn

1. Where in Southside RVA do you live and how would you describe the area?
Off of Hull Street, not far from Plaza Bowl and Skateland. For all the talk about diversity in the world, my street really does have it. We have at least one of every kind, except maybe rich people. I have good neighbors.

2. Why did you decide to move to Southside and how long have you lived here? Do you own or rent?
Frankly, I moved here because it was affordable. In the spirit of full disclosure, technically I rent, but from my mother. One of the “benefits” of piecing together a living as an artist is that it’s pretty hard to get a bank loan. I get the responsibilities of owning without the equity.

3. I’m really excited to see your upcoming exhibition at Eric Schindler Gallery this month; not only because I love your work but because Southside seems to have become the subject of your latest body of work. What’s fascinating about the area to you? What are you hoping to capture/express?

Beauty, or even interest, is where ever a person looks for it. I like looking around at people living thier lives, the regular places we all go. I know there are places nearby that are a little run down, but it wasn’t too many years ago that people thought The Fan as a dump. I like what remains of the Googie architecture, and the optimism it was built to express.

4. While your home in South Richmond has become an influence on your work, have you found any other opportunities in Southside for creativity?
I don’t know if it’s what you mean by an oppurtunity, but I did a couple of programs with Art180 at Henderson Middle School, which is the school for my neighborhood. It made me feel more involved in the place I live, and was very rewarding.

5. Many artists seem to live south of the river. Do you think the area offers anything unique that other areas don’t?
For anyone else who has been priced out of their neighborhood, see my answer to Question 2. Artists need affordable space to live and work in. Some of us also require the best and most authentic tacos late at night, and I can walk to the best ones in town at the Taco Rey, or Mi Casita.

Taco Rey, Hull Street Road

6. What’s the best thing about living south of the river?
Best Mexican/El Salvadorian food, best access to the river and flood wall, best thrift stores, and best Duckpin Bowling.

7. What do you like least about living in Southside and do you have any recommendations for improvements?
I would like our bus system to be able to serve the area more effectively.

8. Do you think that South Richmond, in particular the 9th District, is represented well in the media or by the city?
I can’t say that I pay a lot of attention to the media or local politics.

9. What’s something you’d like to see happen in South Richmond/near your home?
I haven’t asked myself that question since I started seeing Dirt Woman cruising down Hull Street in his mobility scooter.

10.Anything else to add?
Everyone, no matter where you are: take a walk.

Backyard Garden

This is a good story. This guy is a friend of my neighbor, and had brought his tractor over to till my neighbor’s future garden. I asked him how much to till mine, and he just waved and said, “don’t worry about it”. Next thing I knew, there was a tractor in my back yard, tilling a plot twice the size that would have attempted with a rented walk-behind tiller. That’s never going to happen in The Fan.

Artist statement:

As an artist, I see my job as being very much like a scientist’s, except that I deal with the subjective. I try to understand certain elements of my human experience.

Recently, I’ve been focusing on subjects outside of the controlled environment of my studio. I’ve been especially interested in the area I live in, an older suburb, as I see it on walks that I take at night. It is a place that most people would consider mundane, and not at all picturesque. The places where we spend most of our time tend to be the places we actually look at the least.

I work from direct observation and memory. I do not use photographs because they tend to offer the temptation of a simple objective solution that may not relate to my experience. By the same token, I do not see the darkness outside at night as “nothing”, or a limitation. A person has to rely on their imagination in the dark.

–Thomas Van Auken

Editors Note: Many thanks to Tommy for taking the time to share his thoughts on Southside and on his work. Best wishes on a fantastic and successful exhibition!!

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