1 of 2
Some of the panels commissioned by Justin French back in 2010 are finally shown at this year's RVA Street Art Festival. (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
2 of 2
Friday's crowd at the RVA Street Art Festival as seen in a panorama shot, with the "French Collection" panels in the background. (Justin Vaughan)
Where does art come from? The simplistic answer: from the inspiration and experience of the maker.
Yes, and, there are other stories. The official art term is “provenance.”
Richmond magazine's senior art director, Justin Vaughan, is assisting with the Richmond Street Art Festival by installing walls for displaying paintings and to paint upon. He also retrieved work sequestered five years ago in Shockoe Slip after the FBI seized the offices of a developer who's now serving a 16-year federal sentence for orchestrating a tax credit scheme.
This art came out of a dark place into the light.
The French Collection: Thought missing for five years, these luan panels designed for a 2010 graffiti exhibit will get displayed at the RVA Street Art Festival. (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
Act One: An Affinity for Grafitti
In 2010, neither the Richmond Mural Project nor the RVA Street Art Festival had occurred. The notion of the Richmond’s brick and concrete walls receiving fanciful adornment similar to the tattoos the artists wore inked into their skin didn’t yet seem possible. Yet at the time, a dynamic young property re-developer prepared to make a street- or wall-art-and-graffiti gallery in a part of Richmond that few people knew anything of at the time, Scott’s Addition.
He then owned some 22 buildings in the gritty industrial and warehouse district that formed part of the 100 structures in his portfolio. He erected a billboard to announce his dominion to anyone passing by on Boulevard North. Preservationists liked him because he found adaptive re-uses for old buildings. City officials favored his returning underutilized or abandoned places onto the tax roles. The social class enjoyed the lavish parties he threw at Westbourne, the former mansion of editor and historian Douglas Southall Freeman. He papered the town with contributions to nonprofits and creative undertakings. He did all this before before “infamous” became inseparable from the name Justin French.
French owned the corner building of Allison and Broad, and Rick Lyons came in to create The Republic (now the location of The Pig & Pearl). Christian Detres, who grew up in New York City's Brooklyn borough and Richmond, returned here while in a stint of writing travel pieces for Vice. Here, he became the brand manager for RVA Magazine. Lyons, who went on to open the current restaurants Lunch and Supper, told Detres of the four-bedroom apartment above Republic.
“People who’d lived there before had complained about the restaurant noise, but, Rick knew me and that I wouldn’t complain,” Detres recalls. With a popular bar beneath him, Detres often visited, and in the course of events, found himself drinking and conversing with French.
“Having a conversation with him was a 20-minute eye roll. Every third word was bragging,” Detres says. French tended, too, to have around him attractive young women and beefy men in suits. Why a developer of old Richmond buildings needed these hangers-on wasn’t really clear. But, as journalist Chris Dovi later wrote, French collected people just as he did buildings. Detres became French’s media coordinator – or at least the French website said so. “But it didn’t come to anything,” Detres says. “He never paid me. Whatever I told him, he did the opposite.”
But when it came to the topic of art, French seemed sincere. He inquired about buying a percentage of RVA Magazine. And he had this idea of putting on an exhibition of all the local and regional graffiti talent.
He tasked Detres with curating the exhibition and preparing the work.
French, for tax credit reasons, didn’t want paintings on the actual walls of the Scott’s Addition buildings, so he ordered up 4-by-8-foot panels designed with 1-inch edges to hang as paintings for the duration of the exhibition.
Act II: What I Did Last Summer
Detres recalls the summer of 2010 as one of the best of his life – until suddenly it wasn’t.
For the completion of the proposed exhibition, French turned over to Detres an industrial building at Belleville and Moore. French paid for $12,000 worth of spray paint and materials. Detres and some friends built the 4-by-8 framed luan canvases.
He put out a call for artists. They made their way to Scott’s Addition for the opportunity to paint what they wanted for long as they wanted.
“The idea was to have this factory,” Detres says, “If you were a graffiti writer, a muralist, you could paint with one of your own. We worked a good six months.” About 140 pieces were produced. “I considered it an honor to be a representative of this culture.”
The work wouldn’t necessarily be for sale, though if a buyer wanted the work, French who considered them his commissions, agreed to give the artists 50 percent on any sales, Detres says.
His day started when he woke up in his apartment above The Republic and then rode his bike to Scott’s Addition, where he opened the loading dock door of the warehouse. Artists arrived. Music played. And for lunch, they’d amble to the nearby Dairy Bar. “It was fantastic,” he recalls. “Then back for the afternoon, get some beers, and people painted on and on into the evening.” Detres walked through Scott’s Addition and made site tours of what work might go where. "It was the best summer of my life," he says.
French paid for an alley behind the building to get paved as a smooth blacktop. Here, on an 180-foot expanse, he expected to hang part of the exhibition. Afterward, the space might be used as as a graffiti wall, but at night illuminated by dramatic lights.
Detres’ inspiration came from a stretch of tunnel that the “B” train took through Booklyn. There, the graffiti artists used the pillars as frames and created sequential art like a giant comic book that riders viewed in passing. “It was like a four- or five-second cartoon all in graffiti,” Detres says. “When I was 6 or 7 years old, I’d run to the window to see this flicker by. So, my dream for this alley was that when you were out driving through this kind of industrial wasteland, you’d suddenly come across this awesome testament to urban creativity. It would end up on a tour.”
Act III: The Artful Dodger
What Detres didn’t know about and what a few Richmonders with associations to French were then starting to learn, was French’s liquidity troubles. Big loans he’d received from banks and the historic tax credit projects he’d undertaken weren’t adding up.
Justin Vaughan, one of the project artists, had that mixed fortune of owning a pickup truck, which Detres borrowed to transport the work to storage adjoining French’s Shockoe Slip offices. “They were getting staged for presentation,” Detres says. “We were waiting for the screws and handles to carry and hang them.” The exhibition seemed imminent as conveyed in this Style Weekly article.
Then things instead started going awry. French’s behavior became erratic. “He called up to my apartment and my girlfriend then and me would be there watching TV and he’d ask me to come down and have drinks with some strippers from Paper Moon,” Detres says. “She’d roll her eyes.” And although the involvement of artists appeared such a boon, Detres felt a coolness of some he knew toward his perceived association with French. Some French employees started distancing themselves from him.
Then came Aug. 5, 2010, when the FBI seized French’s offices, computers and everything, and padlocked the place. Detres, still listed on French’s website as his media coordinator, found himself in the direct line of fire from a barrage of phone calls from every news outlet in Richmond.
Act IV: Friends In The Dark
“I didn’t know if the FBI would come barging in on my door,” Detres says.
They didn’t. Now, though, Detres felt responsible for the art locked up in Shockoe. He felt that artists should have the opportunity to get their work.
Detres rescued some remaining work in Scott’s Addition and attempted to get some of the panels returned to their makers. “Sometimes the artists didn’t want them because of the association, other times they just didn’t have room for them,” Detres says.
Another Richmond property owner purchased the Shockoe offices that still contained random articles of the French days – some office furnishings, a luxurious couch, and, the amassed collection of street art paintings.
Detres contacted the new owner to ask about his plans and whether control of the work could revert to him. The pieces themselves were probably then not worth more than $100 to $200. Detres tried to come at the issue from the public relations standpoint. “It’d make a good story about his giving this work back to the artists.” But the owner’s lawyer advised against relinquishing the pieces for reasons Detres never understood.
“I just wanted them to have a life; I would’ve been bummed if they started getting sent to other places without the artists knowing anything," Detres said. "At least let it be somewhere.”
Detres became a Richmond arts and events promoter. He ultimately returned to New York where he is now a a media consultant and a producer with Andrew Feirberg Productions. The French collection slumbered in the dark. Then, in February 2015, a light went on.
Act V: Persuader for the Lost Art
Richmond magazine’s creative director, Steve Hedberg, and photographer Jay Paul were in Shockoe for a shoot. Through a window, Hedberg spotted what he thought was the missing trove and he messaged Vaughan with an image.
“I didn’t know they existed,” Vaughan says. “I’ve not thought about it since that time, until Steve showed me a photo from an office down in the Slip next to Fountain Bookstore, through a window of panels in an upstairs space.”
Vaughan called the building’s owner, who told him that the federal officials who’d taken the building said he could keep anything he found.
Vaughan, who felt a principle was involved, didn’t relent. Several months followed of attempts to negotiate to allow him and a crew to remove the work from the premises. This led to a date in July 2015 to get the work, on the condition that Vaughan give him a $200 cashier’s check made out to the Richmond Animal League. The owner then called off the arrangement due to miscommunication. Still, Vaughan continued to pursue the paintings, calling the owner weekly. The upcoming date for the RVA Street Art Festival brought a renewed urgency. The owner finally agreed, and Vaughan made the agreed-upon donation as a form of art bail.
Act VI: The Provenance
On March 29, Vaughan took the afternoon off and got a trailer that he parked in the alley to await the owner – who did not arrive, but rather, a relative who, says Vaughan, was “pleasant and fine.”
Justin Vaughan after a long period of negotiation retrieves the thought-lost French Collection. (photo by Justin Vaughan)
There were altogether some 50 remaining panels. Vaughan took them home to be photographed and contacted as many artists as he could to ask if they wanted them. The answers varied. “A lot of people don’t want their panels back,” Vaughan says. “This is from five years ago and they don’t care or they’ve gotten better than what those panels represent. We’ll display some and paint over some.” For the record, two of these panels were painted by Vaughan.
Some of the artists had contributed work to the subsequent street art festivals. Vaughan spoke with John Mills of Release the Hounds about installing the pre-made art and also constructing free-for-all walls for the aspiring, and children, to paint upon. This’ll be near where bands will play.
Thirty of the panels are being used in this year's festival; 10 of those represent work by artists from the original "French collection," including Marshall Higgins, Brad Bacon, Justin Vaughan, John Sellers, Timothy Sean Johnston and Bryan Conner. The others will be painted over by festival-goers and professional artists.
Vaughan says, “The only real value of these paintings is for the people that made them. These things have never seen the light of day and I wanted the ones we painted at least to get seen. And it gives a temporary space for people to paint. After the festival, they’ll have to come down.”
There’s always a cost to art and often the maker pays. Though the French version of a street art event didn’t occur, the failure brought attention to how such an occasion could happen in Richmond. Go out this weekend to enjoy the views around the old Southern States buildings. And remember: every picture tells a story, don’t it?