Some kids draw superheroes. Some draw robots.
Acie Brown draws Robert E. Lee.
And Arthur Ashe, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, and all the bronze men who people Monument Avenue. Acie, 12, studies Richmond landmarks and geography with an urban planner’s ardor.
At age 2, Acie began re-creating Monument Avenue with blocks and toys. As he grew older, his structures grew more sophisticated. He made the Maury Monument with a Playmobil figure, a Wiffle Ball and Lincoln Logs. A friend bought some old trophies at a garage sale and disassembled them, giving Acie the gilded figures he needed to crown his creations.
By age 7, Acie had learned much of the city map. He readily corrects his mother when she forgets which avenue comes first, Allison or Allen. He writes out long series of directions for her in the style of Google Maps. “I’ll use him as a GPS,” she says, “because he’s got the whole city memorized.”
Acie has a winning smile and bright blue eyes. It’s difficult for him to sit still — he careens around his Lakeside home and then leaps into his mother’s lap. “Don’t be a cat. Don’t be a cat,” she gently reminds him. “Be a person.”
People who meet Acie can tell he’s different. He’s on the autism spectrum, but he isn’t a savant, a person with extraordinary cognitive abilities. His mother, who has several years of experience working with autistic children, resists applying labels to her son. “He is who he is,” Carol Brown says: a personable, smart, and loving boy who struggles with communication and impulse control. And he is, Brown says eloquently in an email, “neither a burden nor a magical, simple person, but a nuanced human, as complex and beloved as any son is.”
Brown says she doesn’t attribute Acie’s interest in Richmond solely to his being on the spectrum. “I don’t think he’s obsessed. He’s just like these guys with their Legos,” she says, meaning Acie’s brothers, Gilby, 7, and Ransom, 9.
Nor is her son’s love of Richmond a passing fascination, Brown says, but an essential part of who he is. His relationship with the city has evolved with his age: “Building with blocks, building with paper ... wanting to do photography with it, wanting to take the girl he likes to see them.”
Acie’s sketchbook is filled with detailed drawings of Richmond landmarks large and small, such as the Coliseum, the A.P. Hill Monument and a lovingly executed McDonald’s. There are the statues, too, drawn with backdrops of bright blue skies and apple trees. Sometimes he draws them freehand, and sometimes with the help of a light board.
“Why do you like how Richmond is built?” Brown asks her son.
“With intersections and gas stations and car washes and restaurants,” he replies.
“Why do you like the monuments the best?”
“Cause they’re made from wood.”
“They are not made from wood,” Brown corrects playfully.
“They’re my favorite,” Acie says. “They’re made from Legos.”
What’s his favorite monument? “So many, lots!” he answers.
When the planned Institute for Contemporary Art comes up in conversation, he knows the area where the structure will rise. “West Broad Street near Capitol Square and City Hall,” he says.
“I don’t know anything about it,” his mother confesses.
Brown doesn’t share her son’s artistic bent, she says: “I can do things with cake and sugar, but not with paper and pen.” She works at Dixie Donuts — look for the slender woman with pink hair, tattoos and a musical voice. Among her Carytown neighbors, she’s found many people who encourage her son’s interests.
Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, helped her find a stack of Richmond coffee table books for Acie’s 12th birthday in February. When Doug Orleski, creator of the RVA Coffee Stain comic strip, left one of his free “art abandonments” in Carytown, Brown raced to grab the print for Acie: “The Butts of Monument Avenue.” Toy store World of Mirth once used its window display to feature Acie’s Robert E. Lee rendered in jumbo Legos. And in 2012, Acie exhibited his monument photographs at Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream on Forest Hill Avenue.
Acie, a sixth-grader at Moody Middle School, is in a collaborative class, his English and drama teacher Joan Hodges says. That means with the help of an aide, he does the same work the other kids do.
“They give him an audience,” Hodges says. “They don’t dismiss him.” More than that, she says, “they protect Acie. They put up with all of his hijinks.” They say terrible things to one another, as kids will, but never to Acie.
Often, Hodges says, “his fantasy and his reality kind of merge together, so he can bring the things he loves into his work.” Acie was thrilled to visit Agecroft Hall as part of the class’s study of a book called “Shakespeare’s Secret.” When Hodges asked her pupils to research England, Acie created and presented a PowerPoint about the Tudor mansion, including why and how it was brought to Richmond. When he was done, the class gave him high-fives. S