Chickens never asked to be famous.
They were happy in their anonymity, quietly — if illicitly — scratching around the camellias and swing sets in local backyards. Then, three years ago, they were thrust into the spotlight after ardent lobbying to make them legal in Richmond resulted in a change to city ordinances. It›s now legal to keep as many as four hens with an annual permit.
How do chickens fit into city life? That’s the question photographer Alyssa C. Salomon seeks to answer in a new exhibit at the Valentine.
She began to document her Richmond friends’ experiments in urban chicken-keeping in 2012. She became fascinated by the intersection of pastoral ideals and urban practicalities. “They were bringing chickens in because they had this vision of what their backyard should look like,” Salomon says, “and then what do you do with that chicken who has its own free will of being a chicken?”
Hens are not placid grazers, after all, but agents of chaos. They rip and dig, squawk and fuss, and eliminate with wild abandon. “They gunked up my gears with their dust bathing,” complained one Woodland Heights resident, whose chickens, pictured in the exhibit, enjoyed perching on parked bicycles. Salomon says backyard chicken-keeping then “became about problem-solving, and about accommodation.”
Her photographs illustrate the broad range of approaches, from Fulton to the Far West End. A rustic henhouse in a charming Windsor Farms garden holds a flock of bantams. A manicured yard near Willow Lawn confines the birds to a side run, well away from the pool. There’s even a tidy coop at the Executive Mansion, unseen by people passing Capitol Square.
Salomon deliberately left out the faces of the chicken owners because, she says, showing them would invite the audience to project their ideas and judgments onto them. “It becomes about the person ... as opposed to peeling back the levels and seeing what you’re really seeing,” she says.
What Salomon sees is much more than eggs and feathers. She imagines a Venn diagram of a host of modern obsessions, including family, food origins, nature and home. Where all those topics intersect, “the shape would be a chicken.”
The strength of the Valentine’s exhibit is that it also extends this examination into the past. Curator Meg Hughes says that the museum’s Stettinius Community Galleries are intended to trace topics “from the beginning of the settlement of the city all the way to the present.” Past exhibitions have looked at cycling and at Church Hill.
Hughes and her team spent two long years (“long in a good way,” she says) combing the Valentine’s vast collection for chicken-related artifacts. Amid some 600,000 objects, they found an embroidered egg cozy shaped like a rooster’s head, a metal carton invented for the safe transport of eggs — and one startling omission. The Valentine, that quintessentially Richmond institution, possessed only one deviled-egg tray.
“We were really surprised,” Hughes says, “because we have dozens of sets of china.” The solution: Salomon photographed an array of trays from various eras, creating an eye-catching graphic display.
One of Salomon’s favorite finds is the collection of cigarette cards with small, exquisite illustrations of various chicken breeds — some of which, like silkies and cochins, remain popular today. Another, recent addition is a sculpture by Chris Chase that precisely renders a chicken keeping Church Hill backyard in wood, complete with feral cats and recycling bins.
A selection of photographs from the Valentine’s collection adds intimacy, and an element of mystery, to the exhibit. A series of snapshots of a man in a bowler hat and overcoat holding a black rooster is labeled simply “Old Man and Dan 1913.” Another photo shows two women sitting outside, surrounded by a flock of white hens. One woman, laughing, lifts a bird up to feed it.
Taken as a whole, the exhibit is about “our evolving relationship with the natural world, in an urban environment,” Hughes says. Past and present, chickens always have lived in cities — sometimes hidden, but persisting. S
“A Chicken in Every Plot” runs through Sept. 5 at the Valentine. Find information at thevalentine.org.