RICHMOND — Bill Martin pushed open a wooden door and stepped into a cavernous space filled with faces. Blank eyes stared from shelves on every wall, carvings of hands and feet hanging between busts of people who died long ago. To one side, an enormous white figure of Robert E. Lee lay supine under sculpted drapery.

This was the workshop of sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine. Though he missed the Civil War while studying art in Europe, Valentine returned home to the ruins of Richmond in 1865 and shaped the way generations would view that era of American history.

Today, the artist’s studio is closed to visitors at the Richmond museum that bears his family name — the Valentine. But museum director Martin and others see the workshop as the center of what could be a public reckoning with the racist mythology that Valentine’s sculptures helped bring to life.

Working in virtuous white plaster, then recasting for the ages in stone or bronze, Valentine created heroic images of fallen Confederate leaders that defined the Lost Cause. Nearly a century after the artist died in 1930 at the age of 91, his creations are drawing as much attention as when they were first unveiled before multitudes — but for different reasons.

The Lee statue that recently came down from Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was a Valentine. The figure of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that protesters hauled from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in June was a Valentine — and its copy came down from a square in New Orleans in 2017.

Now the Valentine museum has petitioned the city of Richmond to let it display the Davis statue from Monument Avenue — not in its former glory, but tipped over, dented and covered with paint from protesters.

“Actually bringing that statue back to the spot where it was created has a unique power to it,” Martin said. “When you think about the creation of the Lost Cause myth — it was built around this particular spot in this garden at the Valentine.”

The power of that myth is what protesters confronted in Richmond and other Southern cities all summer, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis triggered national demonstrations for racial justice.

Protesters in Richmond tore down a statue of the Confederacy president Jefferson Davis on June 10. (Dylan Garner/Richmond Times-Dispatch via Storyful)

Under that version of history, the prewar South was a land of magnolias and chivalry where women were belles, men were noble cavaliers and Black people were happy to be enslaved. It was no coincidence that the Lost Cause took root in the post-war years of Reconstruction, undercutting social advances and shackling Black Americans to bad jobs and poor schooling for another century.

Valentine “literally did some of the work to make these ideas tangible,” said Josh Epperson, a consultant based in Richmond working with the museum to rethink its mission. Epperson, who is Black, has hosted brainstorming sessions over the past few months with diverse community members, including social activists and business leaders.

Not all were thrilled about the idea of giving the toppled Davis monument a new home, arguing that even in its diminished state, it glorifies the old ideologies. The reaction showed “just how much raw feeling and raw pain there is still attached to those objects,” Epperson said.

But he found that all the community members “were really interested in folks dealing directly with who benefited from these narratives of the Lost Cause, which includes, obviously, the Valentine family.”

The name was already prominent before the sculptor became well known. Edward’s brother, Mann S. Valentine II, earned a fortune through a product called Valentine’s Meat Juice — which was exactly as it sounds and proved excellent at nourishing wounded soldiers during the war and restoring weak constitutions after.

Mann Valentine founded the museum in 1898, stocking it Smithsonian-style with collections of odd fossils, rocks and Indian artifacts. Over time, it became dedicated to the history of the city.

Edward Valentine had his studio in a nearby carriage house, which after his death was relocated to the grounds of the museum. When he returned from years of studying under noted sculptors in Europe, Valentine began executing works for what was left of Richmond society.

He created likenesses of presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, including the Jefferson that still stands in the lobby of Richmond’s Jefferson Hotel. Lee visited his studio in 1870 to have his face measured; in 1873, Davis returned for the same reason to the capital he had fled eight years before.

Curators at the museum are digging deeper into Valentine’s character, combing through his journals to learn more about his personal views. But there are at least two clues in his work. One is that Valentine never created likenesses of President Abraham Lincoln, even though that might have been a hot-selling product.

And the other is that some of Valentine’s most popular images were depictions of Black people that seem openly exploitative. A young boy who unloaded coal for Valentine’s studio was immortalized as “The Nation’s Ward,” a bust with exaggerated features that Martin said fit into the demeaning tradition of “pickaninny” caricatures. Another subject was Henry Page, who had been enslaved by the Valentine family and was depicted as the kindly, smiling “Uncle Henry” — akin to an Uncle Tom figure.

When Page died in 1886 at 101, his obituary appeared in the local newspaper, and his pallbearers included White members of the Valentine family as well as Black men. What that says about the complicated relationships of the day, Martin said, is something the museum hopes to learn more about.

“Part of what we want to do with the studio interpretation is really humanize Henry Page. He was a man,” said Christina Vida, the museum’s curator of general collections.

Another goal is to explore the social consequences of such damaging symbols.

“I think public art contributes to private thought, and private thought influences public policy,” Vida said. That means connecting the dots to persistent inequities in housing, health care, education and criminal justice, she added.

How erasing Black people from local and national history for over 300 years led to the removal of confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia. (The Washington Post)

The museum plans to renovate the studio, rethink the exhibit and reopen it sometime in 2022. It’s raising money along the way. And the work will go forward whether the Valentine obtains the ruined Davis statue.

The city is still taking applications from interested parties all over the country who want to house Davis or any of the 10 or so Confederate monuments that were removed over the summer.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty of Edward Valentine art out in the world. One of the most famous is the recumbent statue of Lee near the Confederate general’s tomb at Washington and Lee University in Lexington — which is embroiled in a debate about whether to change the institution’s name.

Not all his works are politically charged. Valentine created the statue of naturalist John James Audubon that stands in New Orleans and a deeply spooky representation of “Grief” atop a grave in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

But his reputation is forever linked to the figures of Confederate leaders that galvanized the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — some of which played out on the streets around the museum.

One night during the first weekend in June, Martin hunkered down alone inside the Valentine as police moved aggressively against protesters outside. He heard voices near a window, peeked out and saw about a dozen young demonstrators crouched in the darkness on the museum’s grounds, hiding from police.

Martin beckoned them inside, where they treated one another with milk washes for eyes stung by chemical agents. Eventually, Martin ventured out and spoke with a police officer, who told him vans were leaving with scores of protesters in custody. Once the coast was clear, the demonstrators who were holed up in the Valentine ran away safely.

The next morning, Martin and other museum staffers picked up rubber bullets, spray paint cans and protest signs from the streets outside. They added them to their collection of Richmond history, along with Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death mask and Lee’s boots.

“What this place proves is that people and institutions can change,” Martin said. “We haven’t changed enough. We have lots of change ahead of us. But we have this particular opportunity in this particular moment, and these stories need to be told.”