Johannah Willsey: Bridging Richmond makers and the community as a whole

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Johannah Willsey is happiest when she’s making things–whether that’s a new piece of art or bridging connections between Richmond artists.

The local mosaic artist, one half of Scott’s Addition-based Phoenix Handcraft, started a Facebook group called RVA Makers several years ago.

In the years since, it’s connected over 1,300 artists, craftspeople, and creatives in the Richmond area, and expanded to include monthly meetups. The group has done so well in its mission of connecting people, in fact, that the group is now in the process of obtaining their nonprofit status.

Willsey in her studio. Photo by Trevor Dickerson.

Willsey in her studio. Photo by Trevor Dickerson.

It was perhaps through the formation of these connections that Willsey saw a stark disconnect–a disparity if you will–between the incomes of city residents.

Willsey grew up in Rochester, New York, where she oft heard stories of friends who lived in the inner city, but never experienced it firsthand until she moved to Richmond’s Montrose Heights neighborhood.

“Living in the East End of Richmond brought the disparities in income in Richmond home to me in a way that had never been really clear to me,” she says of her move.

Last summer, she created a general mosaic map of the City of Richmond. But after attending an event at the Library of Virginia, she was compelled to take her project a step further.

“A little while after I finished [the original mosaic maps], I was made aware of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) at an event at the Library of Virginia.” The nonprofit organization works to ensure equal access to housing and aims to stamp out instances of housing discrimination when they occur.

Willsey's Housing Opportunity mosaic map, featured on the Go Bike! topper. Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond Mayor's Office.

Willsey’s Housing Opportunity mosaic map, featured on the Go Bike! topper. Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond Mayor’s Office.

Willsey took it upon herself to create another mosaic map–this time for the “Go Bike!” bike rack toppers project–that showed the disparity in income across the city, which made her a little uncomfortable at first, but she felt it was important to shed light on the state of the community.

“I was nervous that people would take [the project] as [being] critical of Richmond, and I don’t mean it that way. The disparity is true in most cities.”

The colors on the map denoting neighborhood incomes paint a stark contrast across town, with colors cascading from the suburbs into the city proper.

“The first time I drove down River Road west of Parham, I was blown away,” Willsey said. “I said, ‘I think those are the biggest houses I’ve seen in my life.’ And it got me thinking about Church Hill, Mosby Court, and Fairfield Court.”

The Educational Opportunity mosaic map bike topper. Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond Mayor's Office.

The Educational Opportunity mosaic map bike topper. Photo courtesy of the City of Richmond Mayor’s Office.

“It’s not that I never knew about those things, it’s just that being a parent and buying a house (in a different area of town) brought it home to me in a way that I never experienced before.

“This project gave me a voice to say something about it.”

Keep an eye out around town for Willsey’s two mosaic map bike toppers, showing the education and housing opportunities across the city.

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