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The Odd World of Mr. Stanfield

Preview: Upstairs at Chop Suey Books, history tries to escape its rigid box of facts.


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A stuffed caiman lizard specimen sporting prosthetic fore-pods leans against the wires of a birdcage. A candy jar is filled with hundreds of dead South American bees instead of jelly beans. The wallpapered wall holds mounted male and female Luna moths looking a little worse for the wear. The label on the back of their frame reads, “Failed electric regeneration #4.”

The Kenton J. Stanfield memorial library, re-created upstairs at Chop Suey Books, comes across as a circus of oddities right down to the water-stained, skull-and-bones wallpaper. How is it that we’re just now hearing about a Richmonder who disappeared into thin air in 1937, leaving behind specimens and artifacts collected over decades of globetrotting travels?

Answers and more questions abound during interpretive tours offered at the library through April 5 by “researchers” Phil Ford and Alane Cameron Miles. Curated by artists Noah Scalin and Thea Duskin, the installation focuses on Stanfield’s life as a scholar and intrepid world traveler, an expert in gemology and writer of some renown.

“We were interested in creating an environment where one can truly feel like they’ve entered another time and place,” Scalin says. “We want people to think differently about the assumptions they’ve made about the world they live in. It should be disorienting.”

According to the story that’s spun, after his unexplained disappearance in March 1937, Stanfield’s home was preserved intact until its destruction in the 1980s. The house’s contents were saved only because the sons of a former student of Stanfield stepped in to purchase the property. This person in turn provided the contents to Duskin and Scalin.

Research proved challenging to Ford and Miles because Stanfield left behind no handwritten letters, only a postcard with an Aleister Crowley quote on it: “Indubitably, magic is one of the subtlest and most difficult of the sciences and arts. There is more opportunity for errors of comprehension, judgment and practice than in any other branch of physics.” 

One of the oddest features is a labyrinth of candles and sand set up on the library’s floor. Modeled after the labyrinth in France’s Chartres Cathedral, it’s considered the most complex of contemplative labyrinths. Since tours began, many of the candles have been knocked out of place, but Ford guesses that Stanfield wouldn’t have minded.

“The 1920s was the age of discovery,” Ford says. “It was a time when people our age thought so much was possible. We see that happen here when people come in and open themselves to discovering what’s in this library. They learn what they want to discover and it’s different with everyone.”

So, what if there had been a Richmond explorer, inventor and collector that no one had heard of until now?

“There’s so much well-known Richmond history that gets rehashed over and over,” Scalin says. “And while it’s important not to neglect those aspects of our past, I think it can sometimes put us into a rigid box. Stories like Stanfield’s allow us to see Richmond as a much more multifaceted place.” S

“The Study of Kenton J. Stanfield” is on display through April 5 at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. Interpretive tours every 20 minutes March 28 and 29 and April 4 and 5 from 2-4 p.m.


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