Posted Feb 12, 2017 at 11:52 AMUpdated Feb 12, 2017 at 11:52 AM
By Allison Ward
The Columbus Dispatch
If asked about role models or inspirations, many African-American artists in the Columbus area might quickly mention mixed-media specialist Aminah Robinson or photographer Kojo Kamau — or both.
As two of the most prolific and recognizable artists the city has produced in recent times, they helped put visual arts in Columbus on the map nationally and internationally, mentoring others along the way.
In the past 21 months, however, the central Ohio arts community has lost those creative pillars: Robinson died in May 2015; Kamau, just in December.
The legacy of both, though, lives on — most visibly through the African-American artists left to strengthen the impressive foundation laid by Robinson and Kamau.
“We’ll never have another Aminah or Kojo, but we’ve got a good thing going here,” artist April Sunami said recently.
Here, Life & Arts profiles Sunami and three other African-American artists — just a small sampling of those whose talents are matched by their passion for enhancing the visual-arts scene in central Ohio.
36, MIXED-MEDIA ARTIST
Growing up in Cincinnati, Sunami used to fake illnesses so she could stay home from school to make art.
She drew, painted, made collages, crafted pottery and tried every other type of creative pursuit she could get her hands on.
In 1998, she began studying her passion at Ohio State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art history. She later earned a master’s, also in art history, from Ohio University in Athens.
“As long as I can remember, art has been a constant in my life,” the Near East Side resident said. “Art is me, and art is my governing passion.”
Whether she’s creating a piece for a themed exhibit, by commission for a law office, or as a political statement, Sunami typically begins with a woman’s face and hair.
When she first started exploring the female form, she used African queens and deities and her favorite actresses and models for reference. Now, she often relies on friends and acquaintances.
After painting the face in oils on canvas, she adds a background in acrylic. Then comes the fun part: the three-dimensional elements.
Using a technique inspired by Robinson, Sunami incorporates a variety of materials: glass, seashells, bullets, sheet music (“borrowed” from her husband), an earring with a missing mate and so on.
She wants her work, which she creates in a Clintonville studio near the elementary school that her two children attend, to speak to people.
“They’re not necessarily narrative but portraits — snapshots — of women,” she said. “But something I’ve been very adamant from the beginning is, I don’t paint passive figures. They are meant to be strong, spiritual, active.”
Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, said Sunami’s art — with its use of “found objects” — often reminds her of Robinson’s yet also distinguishes itself: “April’s work is always addressing a lot of issues around women, about being a mother and being a woman today,” she said.
With her talents, Sunami hopes to inspire younger African-American artists (she works part time with low-income youths through the Art in the House program, run by the nonprofit Ohio Alliance for Art Education) and to help them achieve their creative goals.
“I’m in love with art history, but I’ve always felt frustrated with my ancestral history being excluded,” Sunami said. “This is my way of putting it in a place of privilege and honor.”
35, PAINTER AND ILLUSTRATOR
When he was 19, Moss said, he had to choose between attending the Columbus College of Art & Design and keeping his newly rented apartment.
Although he opted for ongoing shelter, he found a way to further his interest in art through his job on the loading docks at the Columbus Museum of Art.
There, he regularly encountered Robinson when she set up her shows at the venue. She would critique his sketchbook, he said, and offer words of wisdom.
The best piece of advice Robinson gave him: “Don’t worry about chasing galleries. Do your own thing.”
To that end, Moss has spent the past 15 years “hustling” — working on a graphic novel, painting dog and celebrity portraits, and producing larger pieces of fine art.
Drawing and painting became an outlet at a young age as he sought to escape poverty while growing up with his parents and five siblings on the South Side.
He was able to cultivate his talents by attending free art classes at the nearby Schiller Community Center, finding a mentor in a CCAD graduate.
“I realized that it (art) was a way to get out of my environment in a positive way.”
Moss took in his youngest sister when he was in his mid-20s, starting a T-shirt design business to earn extra money to care for her. He also worked at the museum so he could be near art and artists.
For the past 18 months, he has made a living as a full-time artist and art educator, teaching drawing and painting at the museum for a few hours a week and at his home studio in the Discovery District.
Moss said he has not sought gallery representation. He sells paintings and prints via social media and does commissioned portraits and other work for clients.
His artwork these days typically reflects real life.
“If a celebrity dies, I can do a painting overnight and have it up on the internet by the time anyone wakes up,” he said. “I’m responding to what’s going on.”
Moss’ work is very personal, Maciejunes said, yet embodies a global voice.
“He’s not only an extraordinarily talented artist; he also gives back to the community,” she said.
Moss strives to make the African-American arts community more visible — “From a public perspective, it’s invisible,” he says — by mentoring younger artists, including several he works with weekly.
“I tell them that it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece or profound,” he said. “It’s OK to make art to make art.”
Richard “Duarte” Brown
59, MIXED-MEDIA PAINTER
Brown can’t help choking up about his current gig: He’s the resident artist at Whitehall-Yearling High School and Rosemore Middle School.
As he paints murals in front of art students and helps lead art classes several days a week, he knows that he’s helping to shape the next generation of artists.
“I didn’t see this coming at all,” said Brown, who in August was awarded the yearlong residency by the Ohio Arts Council as part of its Artist in Residence program. “The way I grew up, I have empathy for people who have obstacles. Art is a way to make a difference.”
Especially sweet for him is being able to explain the power of art to children in his own backyard: He and his wife have lived in Whitehall — where they raised two children — for 33 years.
Brown’s positive and influential spirit exudes from his art but also his work with youngsters, said Todd Camp, assistant arts administrator for the Columbus Cultural Arts Center
“He’s one of those rare people in the community who is so invested in what he does, and he does it with sincerity,” Camp said.
Brown said he knew he wanted to be an artist at the age of 6. At 13, he moved to Columbus — with big aspirations — from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to live with his brother, who was attending the Columbus College of Art & Design.
“I thought I was the next big thing,” he said with a laugh.
Brown spent his adolescence surrounded by artists at CCAD and elsewhere.
“I met Aminah when she was still Brenda,” Brown said, referring to Robinson’s given name. “Kojo, he’d take me and introduce me as an up-and-coming artist.”
Because he had to fend for himself as a boy, Brown said, many of his mixed-media paintings depict his relationships, especially with young people. He often paints the students he mentors.
Recently, he painted Whitehall sophomore Chris Ceasar — a 16-year-old track star and budding illustrator — jumping hurdles.
The bright palette in which Brown works contrasts starkly with the darker colors he gravitated toward as a youngster — a change, he said, that can be attributed to his more positive outlook since his move to Columbus.
Five years ago, he earned a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio Dominican University.
Besides working with Whitehall students, Brown teaches at Transit Arts, an organization that helps children explore the arts. He also paints in front of the congregation during worship services at Committed to the Word Church on the South Side and has a closet full of clothes on which he has painted.
“I take my studio wherever I go,” said Brown, wearing a black T-shirt with a colorful lion painted on the back.
Brown’s work, Camp said, “is a bit raw, true and (offers) an authentic view of the world.”
In October, Brown’s work will be showcased in perhaps his most extensive exhibit to date, at the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington. He plans to take along his young apprentices and their work.
“Now that I’m in the ‘grandfather’ stage, I want to affirm their gifts,” Brown said. “And art is a good way to do that — a fun way to do that, a natural way.”
Shaheed’s material of choice for art is limestone, for two reasons: It is readily available in the Midwest, and he likes the sound it makes when it cracks beneath his chisels.
“When you carve different stones, it generates a rhythm — music,” he said. “It’s like you’re dancing with the stone, and you and the stone become one.”
Although he has been creating art for most of his life — “As a kid when everyone else was playing football, baseball, I was drawing pictures on the side of the field” — he didn’t discover his passion for sculpting until about 30 years ago, after he came across the work of famed sculptor Henry Moore and simply fell in love.
Love is also what brought the California native to central Ohio more than two decades ago. He had met his future wife, Deborah, while working on an art show in Cleveland. (She later moved to Columbus, and he followed suit; the couple have a 19-year-old daughter.)
Around that same time, he gave up painting (mostly) to focus on sculpting.
Shaheed’s work — much of it large-scale — can be found in Columbus and throughout the world.
He helped another artist with a piece commissioned in Negril, Jamaica — a gift to the city from an heiress of Coca-Cola. He created an abstract work in a “sculpture yard” in the west African nation of Burkina Faso.
Among Shaheed’s sculptures throughout central Ohio are “Helping Hands,” depicting three people carrying children, outside OhioHealth Grand Medical Center; “Boy Reading Book,” outside the Linden branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library; and “Jazz Duet,” across Long Street from the Lincoln Theatre. He also created “The Family” for the King Arts Complex.
Shaheed has traveled well beyond Columbus to exhibit his work. Since taking part in “Shapes of Jazz in Stone and Bronze,” a 2002 exhibit in St. Louis, musical themes have factored prominently in his art.
“It’s a challenge to actually interpret music in three-dimensional forms,” he said. “It takes insight and discipline and a lot of listening to music.”
Complicating that task is the unforgiving nature of the carving material.
Stone — his bronze work is casted from a stone version — can be tough on the body. When sculpting, he wears protective gear (insulated clothing, goggles, earplugs, respirator, gloves) while operating jack hammers, compressors and chisels. He works out of a studio on his Near East Side property.
As he ages, he said, he plans to work more in clay, which is more forgiving physically. He is also painting more frequently.
Recently, he said, he began meeting weekly with several area artists — all 65 or older — to discuss ways to draw more attention to the visual-arts scene in Columbus.
“We want to talk about what to do,” Shaheed said. “If we plan on attracting younger artists, we feel like (the community) needs to hear what we have to say.”
Ward, Allison. "African-Americans Nourish Columbus Arts Community." The Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Dispatch, 12 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.