Lewis Ginter’s New Vibe: Kyle Epps’ Artistry in Full Bloom

by | Jun 7, 2024 | ART, OUTDOORS, PAINTING & SCULPTURE, STREET ART

It’s been long-known that the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is Richmond’s horticultural Eden. You might even know Lewis Ginter was a notoriously generous philanthropist who established the eponymous park and The Jefferson Hotel. But if you go to the park this Summer, you might run into a slight, preoccupied artist with short dreads adorned in metal rings sketching a flower or two. He’s part of the park. Go talk to him. His name is Kyle.

The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has named Kyle Epps its Artist in Residence for the Summer of 2024. This recently established program kicked off post-COVID and continues to thrive. It seeks to enjoin the singular perspective of a chosen creative to amplify its features in formats across various media. It seeks to tell the story of the park through focused lenses, but also to let the park infuse the stories we bring into it. 

I like to think of the whole endeavor as like hiring a fae to host a glen for the Summer. And then throw sick parties there. While they’re at it, philosophize on the nature of life and death – we expect a thorough report told via visual art. Because all of this is dope, and I am curious AF, I had to meet this guy with my dream job. 

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Photo courtesy of Kyle Epps and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Christian Detres: Kyle Epps, who are you? 

Kyle Epps: I’m a father. I’m an artist and I’m a friend. Just a creative person

CD: You’re now the current resident artist at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, right? 

KE: Yes. 

CD: How long do they have you there? 

KE: April to September. It’s a three phase, three part exhibition. Actually four parts. The fourth part has already happened during Garden Fest. All of the dates of the specific events and openings can be found at the Lewis Ginter website.

CD: What is the Resident Artist responsible for?

KE: I think every Resident Artist has their own way of approaching the job. For me, it has been about reconnecting with what Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is and sharing those insights. My current work is about connection. It’s really stepping outside of myself, and expressing or sharing multiple perspectives or views of that experience. I’m studying the garden’s history, living its present, and anticipating its future via the Curators’ stated plans. I’m embodying and visualizing the gardens’ relationship with Richmond.

CD: That’s beautiful, you are the resident creative spirit.

KE: That is a very poetic way of putting that. 

CD: I think it’s pretty accurate. That’s not a concept most people would grasp when they consider the term “resident artist.” I am not sure most people understand what that position even means. Between you and the leadership at Lewis Ginter, you’ve devised a series of events, openings, and exhibitions, that artistically reveal aspects of the garden’s nature, its history, its presence, its meaning and its potential. You once described it to me as a circular exploration, a cycle of themes that correspond to life in general. Could you elaborate?

KE: We started at the end of the cycle with the Decay theme at Garden Fest. From there we’ll explore the product of decay, soil. Then Rooting, the consumption of decay and transfiguration into the living again.  The cycle continues with Adaptation in the seed, then Growing, a physical expansion of the self – a period full of grace and energy. There’s the deep greenery of the Flourishing phase, ripening with potential. Blooming comes with the full realization of one’s actualization beheld. We eventually Recede, which makes room for others to flourish, and share the experience. We fall back into decay to feed the next cycle, also an expression of ourselves, but not as an individual – as energy held by other individuals.  

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Photo courtesy of Kyle Epps and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

CD: So how would you describe the relationship you have here right now, with the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, on this particular project?

KE: It’s pretty symbiotic. I have ideas. I speak to them. We discuss possibilities and I listen to them as well on what their needs are. A lot of my work comes from what’s going on here. When I came here, the first month was simply me talking to different employees, volunteers, to see how they experience the garden. I was attempting to absorb their influence from the present, and ideas for the future of the garden. I’m hearing all about their plans and then incorporating them into my exhibit. 

CD: So it’s collaborative in its philosophy, in its nature?

KE: Every bit of it. I’m taking in what I’m getting around from the community here and then letting that flow out through the creation. 

CD: Are there any particular people here that have been instrumental to you through the process? 

KE: I was going to say Grace and Lewis Ginter just to be funny, but they’ve been very influential. The executive staff in general has been very open about their experiences. Especially from those that have been here for a long time. Beth Monroe, the Marketing Director. She’s moved on to a different position but she’s been here for a long time, almost 30 years. She was a great resource for institutional knowledge. 

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Photo courtesy of Kyle Epps and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

CD: What themes have you picked up on in that collaboration? Not so much about fact finding, but, vibe finding. What have you glommed onto aesthetically and philosophically?

KE: There’s so many ways to answer that question. There are a lot of ways to view the story behind Lewis Ginter, how this garden came about. There are these narratives of a few people attempting to do a lot of good for a lot of good reasons. Everything that has led to this place artistically has been about good intention. Intentionality. Which is a beautiful thing. There’s a history of choices, money left in wills,  – good intentions – that led to this place coming here and thriving. It’s propped up by a lot of volunteers. Generosity is what I’ve taken most from it. It’s a place to feel that. I think that’s what you feel here is living in the shadow of good intention. That is what makes people end up staying here and wandering the fields. 

You come through here and, no matter what, you see the work that goes into this place. You see the effort. You notice that that effort has happened over time, a long time. The volunteers and staff have put a lot of themselves and a lot of patience into making it what it is. There’s a deep history of tending and giving with only the shared experience of its beauty as the payoff.

I connect with the idea of the cycles of life and nature personally via my health history too. A while back, my heart stopped. Just, skkrrt. Stopped. Obviously, they were able to get it going again, but this was a traumatically motivating experience for me. My Doctor said I was fine other than a severe potassium deficiency. I needed to start researching how to fuel my body properly. So I found parsley, which is high in potassium. Ate a lot of that. I started really paying attention to my diet, and in the course of that, learned a lot about plants and soil. I improved myself and my habits. I began to really appreciate on an artistic level the fatalistic beauty in the birth, life, death, rebirth infinite playlist.  

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Photo courtesy of Kyle Epps and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

CD: So you have a more holistic approach to your botanical study?

KE: Yeah, that is the root of it. We can say mystical and spiritual, but to be very practical, I like to say I “seek to live well”. What I mean by that is as much as you can control it, to not hurt, and to not be in pain. Treat your body right. As I discovered and understood what feeling well and doing well was like, I didn’t realize that my body had ached all the time. I didn’t know so much. 

So that’s where it really comes from. The art is to share my experience. To share something about it to the masses. 

CD: I think most people who haven’t been here don’t understand what Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden even is. It’s not just a collection of trees and flowers and bushes lining brick lanes with benches and fountains. This is a collective project that has been curated by Richmond’s greenest thumbs for decades.

KE: I will not deny that there is the “just strolling” experience of it. It can be monotonous if you are just looking at the “now” of it. I’ve met the walkers – the people that come through here regularly, routinely. They’ve explored the garden and felt something real and introspective. They come back. They get a membership and simply walk the paths. The regulars get to see the place in transition and growth. They get the perspective of continuity of life cycles, blooming, fruiting, diminishing, and rebirth. 

CD: Let’s talk about you a little bit. Just your background, your history. I know you’re from Richmond but name check your neighborhoods. Where are you repping?

KE: I was born and raised in Highland Springs. That’s me. Henrico High School graduate. I’m an 80s baby. I studied science. I got a scholarship to study tetra hydrocannabinolic acid…

CD: Didn’t we all? 🙂

KE: I’m gonna say that so for those who know, that’s just a joke. I ended up studying economics, and history, and just because of being curious, I studied art. I got to finish my degree with art. I studied soil science for a while. I didn’t get a degree in that but, I’m here for a lot of things. 

CD: Let’s start with your core disciplines… You came out of high school and went into college with more scientific pursuits, right? 

KE: I got a bachelor’s in Arts. I may have some minors… So it’s a lot of certificates, a lot of working with people, a lot of apprenticeships and study type stuff. I was a big advocate of that even before I went into college. That’s just what worked for me. 

CD: You also have background and also music as well. And you tell us about that a little bit.

KE: My family are all musicians. Gospel singers in their church and such. They introduced music to me as a little kid and saw tremendous personal growth via that focus. I learned to play a lot of instruments, and later to produce my own music. I rap, play piano, guitar, all the brass, and a few others too – drums. Music represented another level of growing. 

Painting became my primary expression as I evolved. I continued on to the realism and classical portraiture-style work I mentioned. Mainly because I had an interest in abstraction and cubism but my attempts at it were still not making sense to me. I hadn’t figured out how to use that language yet but I would eventually come back to it. I’ve always been attached to narrative illustrative work. I’ve been making social commentary and presenting blackness, or some sort of American culture, as beautiful throughout it all – musically or visually.. 

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Photo by Christian Detres

CD: You came out on the other end of that education pipe a visual artist tho. And a certified soil tester? And a rapper? You just did the Sound Design for Firehouse Theater’s last stage production, Roman a Clef too. I appreciate the diversification of skills because you can pull creatively from your understanding the chemistry of growing things, and recognize the harmonies in sound and life. Marrying that with a massive range of crafting capability is very impressive. You have classical portraiture in your oeuvre as well as striking cubist pieces and pure abstractions. And that’s just the visual art. Tell me about your realism phase. 

KE: This was me attempting to define myself and be something. I wanted to test my skill. The realist series of paintings I did sold really well, and I hope those buyers made a good investment. If I keep making a great career I guess they’ll do well. I’m happy for them, but it didn’t feel good for me to keep doing them at the time. 

I sat back after doing the series and reflected that I felt like I did them to prove something to myself. To show that I could be something. Like hey, I’m a black man. I can paint really well. I am great. I was like “why do I keep trying to prove that I’m great? Why can’t I just be an artist?” Yeah, it is another attempt by me to be a better artist, or better represent what I am capable of. What I can do that’s unique. 

So I started asking myself, if I can do these different styles of works, how can I meld them into a cohesive expression? How can I use my understanding and sensitivity to frequency that I’ve started to pick up from sound design? What can I take from my historical studies? After I’ve taken in all of these experiences and how I’ve internalized the lessons from each, it gets to a point where I have to release, let go, and let it flow. It’s an interesting progression. I think artists, or creative people in general, probably get it. I want to provoke a sense of wonder in the divine. Getting into this new body of work that we’re talking about here, this is another attempt to be a better artist in my unique way. 

Art has been on my track, but it’s never been something I considered making a living off of. I was told not to take that approach when I was very young. So I took every other approach. I had all sorts of jobs. And it’s not that I was bad at them. It was that I was way too much of an artist in those roles. I was very overly creative. Just do the job. Well, you know, “what about this way? What about this or that?” It was always  “stop thinking of ideas” and do the simple thing. Being an artist, or basically presenting myself in this type of way, has been easier for the world to accept me and work with me. 

My styles have always been a way of expressing myself to the world or sharing some views that I thought were being missed. I started off sharing some arcane spirituality. Some were figural depicting general spiritual themes but others used Mathematics, layering philosophical constructs in visual images. So mixing that type of geometry. You can say mixing sacred geometry. I think that’s what it’s called. Yeah. Well, I started there. So those early paintings were figures of divine configuration mapped over natural figurations. The color schemes were done to provoke meditation. My work evolved into focusing more on color layering and composition – just different and other complex ways of approaching it. 

CD: I noticed in the more spiritual pieces you’ve made, is that the subject is the supplicant, not the deity. In the Bushman painting, the perspective is from a very low angle. The “camera” is set by the subject’s knee and pointed upward so we see him in meditation, obviously penitent, but also heroic. It’s a composition reserved for conquerors and heroes, not the framing of the humble. I felt it elevated the dreamer, the meditator, and the prayerful into a beacon instead of a wanting vessel. The focus of those pieces seem to be almost humanistic and other the like, by evoking versus invoking the spiritual.

KE: That was just one of the strong ‘stills’ that I had  in my head. They looked very cinematic. 

CD: They have peace on their face, concentration in their limbs, the meditative state radiating. 

It challenges what prayerfulness is. Sometimes we’re in that state delving into the infinite within as opposed to the infinite without. 

KE: You’re probably right. A lot of people have said something similar. That was very clear. You should be a writer. I wanted to do spiritual work that hadn’t been done before. So that’s just me. I want to get people to think, to reflect. I want people to look inward as well as outward and observe. The one thing that’s definitely been consistent throughout my work is the intention to bring about reflection. Expand the borders a little bit, stretch the rubber band. 

You can find more information on Kyle Epps HERE

Main image by Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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