Garden Rendering


Planting in Hard Places

April 18, 2017


Duron Chavis, Community Engagement Coordinator for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, has no trouble communicating his life-long passion for Urban Gardening but even he has to shout over the roar of Interstate 95 traffic as he shares with about 25 volunteers from Altria the history of how that very highway was constructed where thousands of homes had been. Only the community's fight to preserve the historic Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church had also saved a small triangle of land where the Community Garden would soon, after just a bit more "sweat equity," be located. It is a history that for too long has not been told at all, let alone shouted, but a small group of citizens is working to change that narrative.For twelve weeks leading up to this morning the inaugural cohort of the Lewis Ginter Urban Gardeners had met to learn and sustainable urban horticulture, garden design  community engagement and make plans for this first project.

Six Mount Zion Garden Image


On April 14, ground was finally being broken and volunteer coordination skills deployed as nine fruit trees, 25 inkberry bushes and 20 grape vines were planted and 12 raised beds and an accessible winding path were constructed. It was a beautiful morning as the combined efforts of Renew Richmond, Altria volunteers, and Lewis Ginter Urban Gardeners brought what had just been a dream and plan on paper into reality. This project, referenced in Michael Paul Williams’ RT-D article March 24, is in part a commemoration of the neighborhood that was torn apart by the construction of Interstate 95 in the early 60s.  Bricks from the foundations of homes were uncovered during the garden’s installation.Going forward there will be a need for additional volunteers. 

  • The installation and ongoing care of the vegetables to feed the homeless and community members that participate in the Six Mount Zion Feeding programs
  • The creation of a native pollinator garden
  • Programming to engage the community in the space 


Finally, we have planned a memorial labyrinth where community members and visitors can come to walk or rest on a bench and enjoy a touch of natural beauty in a corner of the city that has far too little and take a moment to reflect on the story these bricks and this ground have told. Usually, a reflection garden is located in quiet, peaceful spots and I am afraid ours will always be interrupted with the roar of the traffic going by, reminding us that the past in this place has not been a peaceful one. Sometimes we have to shout to tell the story, but sometime we speak loudest when simply sow some seeds and struggle together to dig out broken bricks that once had been homes to make space for new trees.  In the breaking of ground and in the texture of each scarred and crumbling brick, we will remember. 


 It is important to not be afraid to plant in hard places.

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The Mirror

February 16, 2016

Christmas is over, and winter is finally settling in after it seemed it would just skip us this year. I am standing in front of a mirror longer than I am tall and staring into it as I unpack my paints and wipe it down with windex in preparation for painting it with liturgical mandala art for a “journey through the Epiphany season.” By now I am really good to saying no to helping out at churches. I would have said no to helping in the nursery. Serving food. Making flyers. Almost anything. But they asked me to do art. Real art.  

The Mirror Image 1


The first day I simply said yes. Since childhood I had scoffed at the idea of being part of any church that bothers with liturgical seasons. 

The first leaving I fancied myself a bit Martin Luther and a bit Joan of Arc, wielding verses and emotions like a double blade of The Truth. Really, it was just easier to speak in theology than out of the brokenness.  Home was irreversibly woven with monotone seasonal readings, wooden pews, candles, robes and ancient hymns to an unseeing god who was powerless to set me free. I walked away on my own feet and never went home again, not really. 

The Mirror Image 1


The second day I drew a perfect cross in the center and stars spaced neatly all around it. 

The second leaving the church where I found salvation split open over differences in a doctrine of demons and swallowed up so much good. In those days I still secretly thought the striking down of infidels might be a good thing. I also voted for Oliver North that year. There are some things I would undo if I could.

The Mirror Image 1


The third day I paint a boat traveling a sea to where Christ will cast demons into swine and set captive souls free and a tree and a dove and a raging river. It is not the calm baptismal waters in the stained glass over looking the dark sanctuary. The tree is twisted like a puzzle. I loose myself in the twisting branches and allow my heart to imagine, for a moment, that all this is indeed leading somewhere. They could not know, of course, when they asked me to paint this mirror how fraught and fragile my feelings on Epiphany remain. The season of emerging light and yet it is the day my best friend's young brother died. On the anniversary of his death I paint a bird on the mirror. The obvious liturgical symbol of the Holy Spirit and baptism -- but it is for him. A single bird flying upward always is, always will be for him in my art.  Souring upward. I also paint a butterfly. Being reborn.

The third leaving I was sent in applause - a missionary off to save a city. I often return to that church where I found calling, love and the first real healing and sit on a bench across the street in the park and wish I could have stayed in that season. Except by the time we left it was vanished already and the people clapping were mostly strangers. 

The Mirror Image 1


The fourth day I painted over the mirror entirely in vibrant swirling blue washable tempera leaving only those stars showing through. The plan was that each week a section of the blue would be wiped away during service revealing the white mandala line work painted mirror underneath which corresponded to the liturgy. In my tests with the technique it worked beautifully.

The fourth leaving was with shame and cardboard boxes overflowing. Eight years of love and life poured out recklessly and then discarded. Futile looking for good fruit from a poisoned tree had left us bitter and broken. Years thrown into a breathtaking bonfire of lies. I do not know how one comes back from this. 



The first Sunday the removing of the paint from the design during service also removed the lines beneath almost entirely. 

The fifth leaving was over nothing really. The places that used to fit us no longer could.

The Mirror Image 1


I returned and repainted the white lines for the boat and rolling sea waves but they were no longer as clean and the blue paint was bleeding and running through them. I remember learning in my childhood that when a great wave breaks -- dive deep under it far from the crashing and if -- when it becomes clear you can no longer swim to shore on your own power -- you are caught in a current beyond all you have in you.... let it carry you. Let the sea carry you until help comes. 

The sixth leaving was over something so unimportant. I knew this was a people who stood on mountains and walked in the midst of miracles. I knew they would see I was drowning and change the story. There are some things I would undo if I could.


The second Sunday I wrote detailed instructions on how to remove the blue paint without destroying the line work. I knew I would never be able to repaint that tree, recapture the trance of the anniversary of the death and all those branches leading to the light at once. I skipped church.

The seventh leaving was inevitable. We tried to go back to that place where there had been spirit and light and the dreams were born. We knew all along what we were searching for was long gone.

The Mirror Image 1


I return and in the dark empty sanctuary carefully wipe the bird section clean. I did not repaint the ruined tree.

The eighth leaving we gave joining another chance. We let down our guard in a place that seemed so safe, so secure, so much exactly the oppostite of all we were running from. Until it wasn't. 

The Mirror Image 1


I do not return this week. The city shuts down, shrouded in deepest snow.

The ninth leaving is in not going at all. 

The Mirror Image 1


Someone comes in after the snow and wipes the fourth section perfectly. Only a single wing of the butterfly was scrubbed off a bit. I knew this took great patience and care. Instead of church I go to the beach and stand at the end of a jetty barefoot on sharp rocks and watch rushing, rolling winter waves. 

The tenth leaving I truly wish I could have stayed. The night over the water is beginning to fill with stars I had never noticed before.



I return and repaint the tree and at last wipe the final section, the cross, clean and touch up everything, including the tree. It was not the same, but it could not be. Recreated, not restored. Re-imagined, not resurrected. The painting that had been underneath was changed by the paint on top, by the drip of water and the many hands scrubbing off and by imperfect remembering. Something new was made and when I stepped back to consider it – decided it might even be better. 

The eleventh leaving a few were told about the drowning brokenness. I smile when they say how they will call us if we just leave -- remembering the taste of a belief in a place so sincere. That shore seems so far away now. Maybe even just a dream I once had. I finally understand that the help I was told to wait for is never coming. Trusting the current carried me across oceans, but there is a time for siege, for battle, and for surrender.



Transfiguration Sunday. I was invited to participate in the liturgy by carrying the large candle from the altar and lighting candles held by the congregation circling the church as the church brings the liturgical seasons of Advent and Epiphany to their conclusion. All the painting and repainting of leaving and returning and regretting and anger and blaming, and it was always only my own face looking back from that mirror. Always my own fears and brokenness through which the light could not pass, always an aching for someone, anyone to see through to what was never made visible. The mirror also reflects the circle of light behind me. The congregation passing and holding their candles until they are all lit. On its surface float the individual lights of hundreds of candles lit from one light. The night is filling with stars over rolling waves -- a faint liturgy like a tidal lullaby rises as I glimpse the faintest outline of a distant solid shore.

Perhaps it was there all this time. In the imperfect arch of the ancient hymns I remember a God who was always saving me even as I desperately dove into the darkness beneath the waves that crashed and swallowed but somehow never drowned or shattered.


Sometimes the miracle is simply being held together through dark places.

In the smeared, peeling and broken, imperfect yet beautiful lines of that mirror -- irrefutable evidence reflects back at me that even so, despite it all, through it all – the darkness did not overcome it – and I yet carry light.



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The Wall

June 10, 2014

You are the Hero of your own story
Joseph Campbell

The wall was huge. I wondered if this was my payback for skipping out on the last painting blitz with Arts in the Alley to go on the church Beach Retreat last October. I know I was supposed to go, it was a moment everything inside began to churn and change. The job we desperately needed came, the church we were just beginning to love went. But seriously. Huge wall, and far from ideal. Bubbling, peeling paint that had ben painted and repainted without proper priming. Rough spots of cracking in the cinderblocks and asphalt base. It edged an open area of the parking deck that formed a sort of neglected courtyard over which rose five levels of patient rooms for transplant patients and guest rooms for families needing a place to stay while their precious children, husbands, parents underwent weeks,months of treatment at MCV. This terrible, peeling wall had been their only view. It was time. First we scraped and scrubbed the obvious loose, peeling paint, and the more we took off the worse it seemed to get. Finally, down to the bare, scratched, ugly but smooth surface and we could have kept going all day. Pulling off the paint, scraping, digging, trying for perfect, but the sun was climbing high and this is a two day project so we just called it. It would never be done. But it was enough. My right index finger is still scrapped raw with the effort. Under the bright colors, there would remain layers, layers of neglect, mistakes. Broken bricks, one upon another. But we primed, we painted, we marked out the grid and trusted the design. And something beautiful emerged.

I think God gave me this wall for a reason.
Making art out of things written off. Redemption to least likely spaces. We haven't been to church since Easter and I spent Pentecost weekend covered in plaster scrapings, and paint and parking garage grime and yet felt old embers stir as I created something in community bigger than myself for the first time in what felt like forever. An eyesore became art with many hands, some highly skilled some swearing they hadn't painted since preschool. That early morning, standing there, wishing I had remembered to drink coffee, looking at that huge wall with so much to do and so little time I knew it would work. I who feel overwhelmed by laundry and still need to organize five years of family photos. I who feel ill-quipped and unqualified 99% of the time. Standing there in front of that 50 ft wall was standing on the shore of that October ocean. Waves coming in, going out. Exactly where I was born to be. Creating something bigger than myself, for people I might never meet, simply so when they look down in the midst of their own overwhelming feelings of lostness and inadequacy for the journey ahead their view might be just a little brighter. So one person might see the words "You are the Hero of your own story" and remember how incredibly brave they are.  Might think of Healing. Remember Hope was still possible. Realize Help was indeed available.  I could not possibly do it alone, so I knew it would be done. And it would be beautiful.
Preaching the Gospel to myself. Words on a wall. Nine feet tall. Fifty feet wide.  Not so subtle, God.  In the end the wall resembled the ocean even if that wasn't the intent of my design.  
Yes, this wall I hit has indeed been scraped down to the stone and flesh and bone and it is time to paint again. All day long, the people leaving their rooms called down to us. "It's beautiful. Thank you." Thank you that someone had noticed the horrible, peeling cinderblock wall and seen the possibilities and potential a little paint and vision and hard work and hope could bring.  Someone always sees. Not so subtle, God. Not so subtle.
So. Thank you.
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An Open Letter To The Summer School Teacher

August 11, 2015

Summer school ends at one. Right as the blistering afternoon sun is climbing to its peak. Who thought this was a good idea? Too early for afternoon activities and too late to catch the cooler morning. But the letter said due to test scores this was mandatory, so here we were. Walking into the school at the end of the first day my stomach was in knots. The whole school year had been a battle. Over placements, therapy, services, diagnosis, IDEA, LRE and a few more acronyms with which I had recently become all too familiar. So I was ready for it. Nerves worn thin, exhausted, frustrated, but still ready for another round, because it's what moms do. The sting was still fresh from the last meeting during the waning days of the regular school year where the people who worked with my son for the entire year let me know how incredibly far he had come only to remain completely behind. The final assessment became an enumeration of all he couldn't yet do. Where he fell short, no matter how hard we had all tried. It was never enough. It might never be enough.

So I inhaled. "How was the first day?"

What I wasn't ready for was, "He was wonderful and brings so much joy to the class!" I wasn't ready to find it had taken a while for him to open up and participate and talk. Talk?  His goals still say to work up to several word phrases and greater intelligibility. Yet he was telling actual stories on day one. Maybe what hadn't happened in three years had happened on one humid late June morning. Maybe, just maybe, my real child had shown up for school.

"Between paradigms" was how the occupational therapist phrased it. They were the experts who knew and wanted me to accept that he might never quite thrive in a regular class. Yet he didn't belong in the class for disabilities either. But you, summer school teacher who has known him for a week say to me, "Did you know your son is gifted in math." I am sorry, I know at that point you went into great detail about your strategy and the modifications you were using but I only heard the first part. The sound of some of that fear for his future that had closed in around my mind like a wall one discouraging brick at a time cracking and crumbling made it hard to recall the details. There was something about highlighter, choices and whiteboards. I'm sure it was excellent. Maybe I can get that in an email later.

The next meeting, the one where you spoke up and told everyone that "he is a storyteller" and giving him the space and opportunity and permission to draw those stories out on his own terms will give him a desire to write not just to but beyond the standard. We just met, so you didn't know his father and I are both storytellers. We are people who know words are life and this struggle to find his words has made me wonder in dark moments if his feet will ever find firm footing. You didn't know that by labeling him by his strength instead of reinforcing deficiency you gave reassurance to my faith that, yes, he would take his place in that family tradition of creativity, teaching, building and exploring. "Storyteller" - I will take that label. You didn't know. You just saw the reports and saw him, and decided the reports must be wrong.  

During the last week you displayed the children's' paintings. Impressionistic homages to Monet. "His is the most abstract. It didn't quite follow the instructions but he did his own thing and is actually my favorite. Definitely frame-worthy!"  You could not have known how much I love Monet. Not just for the art as we experience it now, in greeting card sanctioned conventionality -- but for the way the artist fought despair and self doubt to paint the light between things as it had never been done and painted his greatest works through darkening eyes and died fearing he’d failed. Will we ever remember that seeing the standardized way isn’t always seeing more, or better? I was worried my son would disrupt class or not follow instructions. I was really only expecting he would retain some skills and hoping his uniqueness would be tolerated and no one would question whether he really belonged. I never expected you to see him through an entirely different frame. Not less. Not different. Fully capable and fully worthy.

You showed me things about my child even I had never seen. (Gifted in math? Really?) You showed my child he could just be a student and not "that kid" who was either picked on or pitied and you let me exhale and just be a proud mom and not “that mom." You could have just shown up, clocked in your hours and gone on to enjoy your summer. But instead, you showed me what a teacher could be. The other teachers have been good teachers, even great teachers, but in their concern to address my child's needs they missed my child. They trained a laser focus on the things he could not do so he could begin to do those things marginally better but you looked instead for the places of capability and passion and showed him (and reminded me) that operating within those will bring greater success in every area.  

Rita Pierson has said, "Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be." Perhaps your job was to be his teacher for a few short weeks of a long, hot summer, but he needed more and you became more - you became his champion. 

My child is not the only one fighting to find their words and the courage it takes to simply tell our stories. My child is not the only one needing a reminder of the choice always before us:  to walk forward in one's giftedness and strengths or fixate on one's weakness and fears. You reminded me to keep fighting, but also to re-focus and celebrate that light which shines and dances and soars as it defies and disrupts paradigms. The world needs such light.
Frame-worthy indeed. So, thank you, summer school teacher.
This is for every teacher who sees the child first and not the challenge. Who goes beyond what is simply called for to call out giftedness. You are amazing. 


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Even Now Faith

April 13, 2014

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

Earlier this year I had a rare chance at a women's retreat to wake early and walk out beside the ocean. The air was cold, and sand like grains of ice, but not knowing when the opportunity would come again, I went out anyway. When the cold at last became unbearable I almost turned around, but then, wanted to feel the water and was surprised to find the water was bathtub warm. As long as I stayed in the water I was fine. I walked over an hour in complete comfort. Warmed by the water. Watching all the other beach walkers shiver and stay far up on the sand. I saved a rock from that retreat with "Now Faith" written on it. "Now Faith is the evidence of things unseen." I vowed standing there on that cold shore to leave the regrets of the past and the fears of the future behind and live in Now Faith.  

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

The journey to that moment had not been easy. We had been through a spiritual implosion of epic proportions and trust was not running especially deep. But even as we left one church.... then another.... then another.... waiting to feel we were home there was a sense of urgency to the quest.  To find home within a local body would (surely) bring some measure of peace. Of spiritual rest. A sense of home. That was a basic unshakable truth.  Despite sex scandals, money laundering, drug dealing, mental health crisis (aka "sabbaticals") extortion and threats whatever else I thought about being a Christ follower being a committed member of a local body was foundational. So, we perservered in our quest - found a church home and finally felt we could let down our guard, begin to trust the church again. This time, perhaps, would be different. 

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You've never failed and You won't start now

Ironic, that something so mundane as a minor power grab would be the tipping point. But it is. And all I know is that I'm done. Done. Many may well be reached with a Proven 6 Point corporate inspired Plan. But we were lost. We are leaving this race where Christians run together, trip each other, jockey for position, and talk about wounds behind each other's backs. We are just done. I think I am finally ready to see what this whole wilderness thing may hold. It is after all where Jesus went to meet God. Where the prophets hung out. Where waters flow from rocks and ladders fall from heaven.  Where men build alters and are given new names. So thank you. It wasn't the best act I've seen. I've been privy to some true artists of chicanery. Truly amazing manufactured miracles. But thank you for one last show.

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

If you need me, I will be walking in the deep waters. They look bitter cold. But they are, in fact warm and alive with Grace. Finally, unconcerned about opinion and plans, consultant crafted core values. Perhaps if I am far enough from shore the voices will fade and I will hear the Voice that was speaking all this time. The Voice I heard as a girl beside the ocean. Calling me out where I was afraid to go. Because it meant going alone. Defying the myriad voices telling me where I was supposed to go instead. Well I've tried. 20 years of compromising conviction to be a cog in the church machine. Only to watch the castles I poured life, talent and time into wash out to sea. Again. And again. And again. Yet even as cynicism rolls in like a poison tide, there is no touching the Holy of Holies. Church buildings don't contain God. I don't need a benediction and won't seek permission to enter. The curtain was torn and we are a Holy Priesthood. Sons and Daughters. With visions and dreams we carry despite waves, fires, storms and desert winds. Right up to my Beloved, my Savior, my Redeemer, my King and say here I am. If you call me I will answer. If you send me I will go.

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

I'm done with trying to make an institutional vessel hold your wild fire. I'm done. But You. In you it's always only just beginning. YOU, Lord, I love. Its always just been You. You and YES, also your Body. All the broken scattered pieces of Your Body. Strewn and scattered like an unseen bomb went off in the outer court of nonconformists leaving a remnant people torn and bleeding and worth nothing to Church the institution. But somehow more like yours. the Body of Christ. Broken. Shattered. Bloody. Crushed. So you beckon us all to come, Welcome in your gaze. You get us. How little things change. Broken. Body and Blood poured out. But you rose and we rise with you. More than a remnant people. A resurrection people. 

I will call upon Your Name
Keep my eyes above the waves
My soul will rest in Your embrace
I am Yours and You are mine

Despite it all. Because of it all. Still walking. Just on a different journey. No longer looking for gold in the crowded camps along the river shore where long-entrenched claim holders fight, steal, lie and betry over a single fleck of grace, strategy or revelation. Perhaps instead, this journey will eventually lead us to stake a claim in a place without obvious potential. Among a people who have long forgotten God's promises. Even Now. Faith. Across the wilderness and wilder waters. Somehow still, despite it all, we hear your Call.  And we will follow You.

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)

Some beautiful writers to whom I owe many debts of gratitude:

Rachel Held Evans

Sarah Bessey

Micah J. Murray


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  • Photo Gallery


    Painting for the parents of a dear friend. This was from their favorite photo of my friend and her sister as children. 


    The pure joy of children and the ocean.


 I'm a designer, wife and mother of two.  I post my work and on the places where creativity and life’s clutter intersect. Looking for inspiration and finding balance.  Join me on the journey.

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TwitterRachel4My name is Rachel. Good to meet you. I like caramel coffee, the way patterns of light or color or ideas fit together, and mornings at the ocean. Dislikes include: political ads, conspicuous wealth and mornings in general. Together, my husband Buddy and I are daily challenged and blessed as we raise two children and run one business: By His Designs.

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