Shannon Castleman was showing us around the long-vacant church building at 35th and P streets that is the once and future home of Oakwood Arts, talking about the history of the place she started and the mission of her organization when she casually mentioned the “bird that probably saved our life.”

Wait. What?

After Oakwood Arts took over the building in the spring of 2017, Castleman was occasionally visited by a bird that would sit on the back of a pew for a while. Castleman never knew how the bird got in or out, but it came and went as it pleased. The following spring, she noticed considerable bird activity overhead, and it became obvious there was a nest hidden in the ceiling.

One morning, she arrived to find a tile sagging at one corner of the ceiling. Later in the day a small bird tumbled from the ceiling into a pew. (Eventually, a no-kill wildlife control organization removed the nest and the bird survived.) The next day, Elder Moses Cuffee, a preacher and grandfather-like figure to the staff of Oakwood Arts, climbed up to fix and the sagging spot. He discovered that above the visible ceiling, a plaster ceiling had collapsed onto the tin ceiling that was resting on the dropped ceiling – meaning it was just a matter of time before the whole thing came tumbling down. Eventually, it did, though, by then the arts center had vacated the space and no one was injured.

“So that little bird and Moses might have saved our lives,” Castleman said.

The church building more than a century old was too important to let go – it was, in fact, part of the inspiration for the East End arts center in the first place – so the organization has embarked on a mission to renovate it with plans to move back in and make it the heart of its operations.

Meanwhile, the still-fledgling nonprofit organization is conducting programs at locations around the community and raising money to do its work and fix its home. A summer benefit auction, SOLSTICE, will be held June 22 at Candela Books + Gallery, 214 W. Broad, 7-10 p.m. The event will focus on showcasing works from artists of color and women artists, as well as emerging young artists in the Richmond community. For information about the event and tickets, visit https://oakwoodarts.org or email info@oakwoodarts.org

The idea for Oakwood Arts came to Castleman, an artist, photographer and educator, after she returned to Richmond following a decade of teaching overseas. After the 2016 presidential election, she felt a calling “to do more for my community,” which is the city’s gentrifying East End.

“Honestly the idea for Oakwood Arts as a place came to me when I drove by that abandoned church,” she said. “I live just beyond the Oakwood neighborhood. I was watching the neighborhood change so rapidly though not always in ways that seem beneficial to many of the residents who have been living in the Oakwood community for generations.

“When I saw that building was available, I thought a community arts center in the heart of the East End could bring people together and could also expose kids and teens to creative arts and could teach valuable technical skills that could lead to careers in creative industries. I was also driven by a desire to do something to help address the lack of diversity in the creative economy, to bring more diverse voices to all media.”

At the time, Castleman was teaching professional practice in photography at Virginia Commonwealth University and noticed how little professional experience some of her students had on their resumes. So, she invited students to serve as teachers and mentors for her new organization as Oakwood Arts became this wonderfully grassroots operation with multiple missions.

Castleman is quick to say she couldn’t do any of this alone and has put together an “incredible” staff including programs director Liana Elguero, whom she described as “truly the heart of our organization.” She makes the point that

“We don’t focus on what’s the story you want to tell,” she said, “but here’s the skill we want to teach you and here’s someone who has this job.”

A sense of place – the East End, in particular—is also an important facet of what Oakwood Arts is trying to achieve, and the church building will be its centerpiece.

The Thomas Branch Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1906 in the then-developing Oakwood neighborhood, on the east edge of the city’s streetcar line. It had been vacant maybe a decade when Castleman spied it on her return to Richmond. Oakwood Arts was able to use the church as a public space for only about four months in early 2018 before the ceiling gave way.

Castleman has secured a loan to acquire the sanctuary building and two related structures on the property—an old cottage and a Sunday school building.

This is a good sign to Castleman – much like the day she noticed the abandoned church building in the first place and even the day the little bird fell from the ceiling.

“I am a believer,” Castleman said, “in listening to the signs the universe throws out at you.”

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