Richmond’s Creative and Curious Chicken Plots
Richmond joins a growing number of cities seeing an increase in backyard chicken keeping. How do residents weave these feathery friends into their urban lives? A new exhibit at the Valentine museum examines the past and present of backyard chickens. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
(Ambient: rooster crowing)
At the home of artist Alyssa Salomon, a showy rooster with white and sandy colored feathers struts through the yard.
Alyssa Salomon: Are you going to make your noises?
Near the coop, she picks up one of the girls.
Salomon: This is a Polish, white Polish, a crested Polish so extra puffy.
On this warm winter Sunday, nearly 30 birds are soaking up the sun, foraging on a hill and shaking up the earth in a dirt bath. The diverse flock includes breeds like Cochin, Red Star, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Rock, and one that looks like a crow called a Sumartra.
Caring for these birds led photographer and print maker Salomon to start thinking about how city dwellers were adapting their lives to include chickens. She made up cards that read, “Can I Photograph Your Chicken?” and started circulating them. Soon enough, she was exploring urban homesteads across Greater Richmond.
Salomon: And what I found was that people were way more clever than I was and found ways to bring their chickens into their beautiful yards without great costs and were actually having fun making it all fit together.
Salomon spent several years photographing chickens in their urban environments. She then teamed up with the Valentine to curate the museum’s new exhibit, A Chicken in Every Plot.
Salomon: Our hope was that there should be a kind of surprise and recognition; that you go“I know that neighborhood” or “Oh, that looks like...” and so it becomes about what you see and not what you already know.
One photograph shows a small yard in Battery Park that’s the owners have transformed for multiple uses: they’re growing food with vegetable gardens and a fig tree, there’s outdoor seating and a fireplace, and their cat mingles with several chickens.
Salomon: They’ve found a way to not only use a kind of contemporary geometry to integrate all of these ideas about living in their space, feeding themselves, exploring food growing, but they’re got all of these woods chips so that the chickens can live successfully with all of these other aspects of their life.
Salomon’s captured chicken plots in Willow Lawn, Highland Park, Church Hill and one in the middle of downtown Richmond.
Salomon: I was able to photograph the First Chickens, Virginia’s First Chickens.
These are the chickens that live in the kitchen garden at the Governor’s mansion.
Salomon: That property has many attributes to it, it’s an oasis in the middle of the city. People have lived there for more than a century and in the back there is a kitchen garden and a chicken coop and the McAuliffes made a promise to their family, if elected, if moving into the governor’s mansion they could have chickens.
To complement Salomon’s photos, the Valentine’s Curator of Archives, Meg Hughes, combed through the museum’s collections looking for images and objects that told a story about Richmond’s relationship with chickens over time.
Meg Hughes: The more you see the then and now, the more it looks the same. The chickens look the same, the tools look the same, the backyards have these similar elements and so it may be fifty years between the images but the chickens remain the same.
And what about the human-chicken relationship, has it changed? One hundred years ago, did Richmonders name their chickens? A series of small black and white photos taken in Manchester provides a clue.
Hughes: The photograph page is titled “Old Man and Dan, 1913” and shows a gentleman in an overcoat and bowler hat clutching one of his chickens proudly.
The exhibit also examines objects influenced by chickens and the egg. Some are practical, some whimsical, some both. Breeds of all shapes and sizes adorn cards and posters, and roosters still top the weathervane. There are glass, ceramic and porcelain deviled egg platters, some designed for picnics, others for formal parties. And at least one chicken owner in Richmond shipped her eggs over state lines in a multilevel metal crate.
Hughes: This was an egg crate that was exchanged between a Richmond woman, Annie Gold, and her mother who lived in New York and so imagine packing up three dozen eggs to ship to a family member out of state.
(Music: Here’s a tune I recorded about 35 years ago…)
Chickens have also influenced pop culture and how we communicate. They’ve inspired musicians across genres. A few of Salomon’s favorites are Memphis Minnie’s “If You See My Rooster,” Hasil Adkins’ “Chicken Walk” and this one by Louis Jordan.
(Music: The name of this tune is “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” )
Hughes and Salomon: Why did the chicken cross the road… Fly the coop...Rooster in the hen house...
Hughes and Salomon share some cliches and euphemisms inspired by chicken behavior; they appear on a large panel in the exhibit.
Hughes and Salomon: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?... Chicken in every pot… Feeling cooped up… Like a chicken with its head cut off… No spring chicken… Good egg, bad egg.
Salomon: There are a lot and they’re very prominent in music and they become these great euphemisms for saying things that you wouldn’t say directly or you wouldn’t bother saying without the poetry of the cliché. And one of the things that struck us is now these phrases like “peep out of you,” mean what they mean, and have almost been separated from their origins. And by putting them back in this context, it helps you. You know “no spring chicken.” Oh right, a spring chicken is a young bird that was born, that we almost think about the literal meaning or the euphemism and forget that these actually came from real chicken behaviors.
(Ambient: rooster crowing)
A Chicken in Every Plot is part of the Valentine’s new focus on partnering with community members to explore issues relevant to Richmonders and merge art and history. Hughes and Salomon say the exhibit gives viewers the chance to think about local food production, health and sustainability and how we engage with our outdoor spaces.
Salomon: If you made a Venn diagram of all these big issues that are a part of contemporary life; safety, home, family, beauty, maker, creativity, self-actualization and you put those all together and where they overlap you would find the shape of a chicken.
(Music: Slim Gaillard, “Chicken Rhythm”)
Salomon knows she’s only captured a fraction of Richmond’s backyard chickens. Exhibit visitors are invited to connect with her to share their own creative and curious plots. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.