In a city like Richmond, every little bit of the town has remnants of history, even the public transit drivers, dealing with issues such as civil rights.
VCU graduate Michael Lease helped to share that information with the Richmond community. Along with Benjamin Thorp and Laura Browder of the University of Richmond, and curator and VCU graduate student Vaughn Garland, Lease helped develop a multimedia exhibit titled “Driving Richmond,” which tells the stories of 15 Greater Richmond Transit Company bus drivers.
The exhibit premiered at the RVA Street Art Festival last month. Because of its success, it will be shown again next September at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in Charlottesville and again in Richmond, at the Valentine History Center, in January 2015. The exhibit is also available to view online.
The exhibit focuses on 15 of the 300 drivers who work for GRTC. The group conducted interviews coupled with audio recordings of their stories. The project was then installed in the former bus barn that housed GRTC’s buses from the 1850s until 2010.
“The bus barn holds the relics of years of use,” Lease said. “It is a space that conveys its purpose pretty forcefully. Filling that space, not only with image and text, but with the drivers’ voices, spoke to the space’s history.”
When tackling an issue as deep and complex as history, Lease said it is important to consider all the possible routes and outcomes in order to get your audience to see what you want them to see.
“I thought about the complexities of the issues being grappled with in the aural histories, as well as the tensions and vulnerabilities,” Lease said. “The urgent question was how to get these voices into the public sphere and reignite a public discourse around issues of civil rights today.”
The idea was put together after Garland learned of the deep-rooted community attachment the GRTC drivers had. He called on Browder, who in turn contacted Lease and Thorp, all of whom are known for their media work. Browder conducted the interviews while Thorp recorded them, and Lease photographed the bus drivers.
Garland received his Master’s degree in painting and printmaking from VCU in 2003. He is now working towards his Ph.D. in Media, Art and Text at VCU.
Lease graduated from VCU with an M.F.A. in Photography and Film in 2005 and is the head of Exhibitions and Design at Anderson Gallery. He sometimes teaches classes in photography and film.
When Browder asked him to take the photos for the exhibit, Lease said he was more than ready to take on this opportunity.
“At the start, I was concerned that the operators would be portrayed in a way that sets them apart from what they do on a daily basis,” he said. “It was important to photograph them as formally as possible, yet have them wear the uniforms that everyone in the city automatically recognizes.”
Though the artists said they knew they wanted this piece to get to the heart of the Richmond population, the emotional response received from the public was unexpected, Garland said.
“I had seen Laura’s work and Michael’s work in the past and had known the power of each, but I really had no idea how a work like this could reach someone’s emotions so quickly,” Garland said. “I saw people leave the exhibition crying and emotionally touched.”
Bruce Korusek is one of the GRTC bus drivers featured in the exhibit. The Richmond native grew up riding the city buses and his family never owned a car. Korusek became a bus driver in 1970 for the Virginia Transit Company, which later turned into the Greater Richmond Transit Company in 1982. Korusek left GRTC to work for the Virginia Overland Transportation Company, where he stayed until 2004 and served as a transportation supervisor, a dispatcher and a general manager. After the company folded, he returned to GRTC as a transportation supervisor until his retirement in 2011.
“I grew up riding the bus and knew at an early age that I wanted to be a bus operator,” he said.
Korusek said he was approached by Browder about the project and he was immediately interested.
“I wanted to get involved because I wanted to not only share my story, but to enlighten the public about what it’s like being a city bus operator,” Korusek said. “Unless you are a regular customer, you really don’t know what the job really entails.”
GRTC passengers are now starting to recognize the drivers from the project, Thorp said.
“I’ve heard of people recognizing current drivers that were part of the project and coming up to them to tell them they’d read or heard their stories,” he said. “An opening has been created that allows communication to exist where there previously wasn’t one. That may seem small at first, but this type of community building is huge, and it’s still building, still happening.”
The exhibit can be viewed online at www.drivingrichmond.net.