There’s only one legal camping option in the city of Richmond and if that fact isn’t dazzling enough, how about this one: It’s an island in the James River in the middle of downtown.
Sharp’s Island to be precise, and yes, it’s listed on Airbnb and Hip Camp. Where the Piedmont meets the coastal plane, Sharp’s Island is best admired from the end of Mayo Bridge looking back toward downtown. As for how to get there once you’ve rented it, you can canoe over from the trail under the bridge, use your johnboat to motor up from Ancarrow’s Landing or make the island the goal of a rafting or kayaking adventure.
When the Chicago woman who was willed the 1-acre island by her father put it up for sale nearly three years ago, Andy Thompson heard about it and had it under contract the next day. Nine other families joined him in funding the purchase, all of them enthusiastic about having access to an island smack in the middle of Richmond’s downtown.
Motivated by a love of public art, Thompson’s next inspiration was to find an artist to create a piece of art to live on the island permanently. He knew artist Keith Ramsey from Crossroads Coffee and, after checking out his work online, approached him about creating a piece out of found objects. Ramsey said yes to the commission immediately and began imagining what he might create using the found objects Thompson had collected, as well as the abundance of things Ramsey has been collecting in his own workshop and yard for years.
Saw blades, chains, drill presses, wrenches, nut and bolts, rebar and a whole lot more went into the creation of “Edwards the Fisherman,” a towering sculpture of a seated man pulling in a fish on his line that was inspired by Black artist Melvin Edwards. Railroad spikes form Edwards’ nose while a tin cone became his floppy hat, shading his eyes as he hooks a big one.
The statue represents a new kind of endeavor for Ramsey.
“He’s the biggest sculpture I’ve ever done, easily 6½ feet tall sitting down, and one of only five pieces of figurative sculpture I’ve done,” Ramsey says, gesturing over his own head. He saw Sharp’s Island as a place of relaxation, the type of place where a hundred years ago, Manchester’s working class might have headed after finishing their shifts at nearby factories so they could do a little fishing for shad or stripers. “It’s an homage to the American worker, those who put in the real work,” he says.
Fittingly, when he took his generator, tools and welding equipment to the island to install the sculpture, he frequently had an audience of construction workers on their breaks watching the sparks fly from the shore.
Thompson sees the sculpture as an unexpected treat for those navigating the river. “I remember Keith telling me to look around Manchester at how industrial it was and how ‘Edwards’ ties together with that,” he says. “That he’s rusty already is part of that.”
“Edwards” nearly met his end in November when the James River crested at 18.33 feet, a level not seen since 2003. When Thompson got out there to check the damage, he found the A-frame cabin they’d built had washed away and the outhouse marooned at the bottom of the island. Most upsetting was that “Edwards the Fisherman” had broken off from where it was attached to the granite bedrock. But fortunately, the river gods left it marooned on the island.
Ramsey went to work. “The storm water laid him down and he’d been caught up in the trees,” he recalls. “We got him back up and put him down in the ground better for the next time. The best part was, he was still there.”
Also added to the island are two wooden platforms for tents, one of which will be for a custom tent supplied by Thompson’s crew and only taken down for storms. The simple outhouse is now adorned by a sign that washed up after a storm, reading, appropriately enough, “Takeout #2,” which will undoubtedly amuse the Scouting troops and school groups who rent Sharp’s Island.
Because the island has been used for decades by fishermen and paddlers seeking rest, Thompson acknowledges that he’s OK with that, as long as people treat it with respect. Mainly, he’s taken with the thought that visitors will have the pleasure of discovering “Edwards” at the tip of the island and wondering what this magical place is.
“People come here to camp and fish and during the summer, play in the water and meanwhile there’s geese nesting here, sitting on their nests,” he says. “There’s a natural pageant taking place in the middle of Richmond, with three massive cranes in view. That’s so cool.”