“Face It” is my motto. Face the fear of homelessness. Face the heartbreak of senseless violence and the reality of social injustice. Face love, truths, childhood memories. I paint the fond memories of growing up in the projects. No, I am not ashamed. I paint the murdered body of the teenage boy wrapped in his mother’s weak arms. Not my child, but the pain is the same. Face it. It could be me.
When I was 9, I spilled my mother’s red dye #2 fingernail polish on my brand new pink dress. My mother appeared in the doorway shaking her head. She used a curse word under her breath. Then she said, loud and clear: ”And you call yourself an artist!”
I never got punished for that spill. As a matter of fact, it marked one of the greatest days of my life. My mother had let me know that she knew I was an artist.
Face it! - the prose AND the poetry
I was raised in southeast Washington, DC, graduating from Frank W. Ballou High School in 1973. In high school I was asked time and again to create works of art for teachers and classmates and to enter contests, which I did--and won. School is where I realized that I really did have talent and where I was encouraged to use my talent to express myself. I also used it as my comfort cushion. When you realize your love for something, it’s a wonderful thing, and, with the encouragement from my friends and my parents, art became my passion.
It was this passion which took me and my 7-year-old daughter to Paris, France, where we be-bopped around the wonderful city for five months. It was in Paris that I got the notion to go to art school when a friend said, of me and my work, “Toni, you are good. You could be better. You should go to art school.” So that’s what I did.
I chose photography as my major at the San Francisco Art Institute for several reasons. I had studied photography at the University of the District of Columbia and had been told I was pretty good at it. I had the eye, and photography runs in my family, so I followed suit. (I also felt that, financially, photography would be more acceptable to the family.) I graduated with honors from SFAI, earning a Bachelors of Fine Art in Photography in 1983.
For my thesis I documented “Mothers in Prison” because I am a mother. After completing all the paperwork necessary for permission to bring my camera into the San Francisco and the San Bruno County Jails, I was able to photograph and listen to the stories of the woman prisoners. For my thesis, I converted my photographs into silkscreens with text. I call it my Andy Warhol period.
After graduation I stayed in San Francisco and drove a taxi while continuing to photograph and paint and raise my daughter. I worked the night shift and saw more than my heart wanted to see as I documented the homeless. That was in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s 2019, and I still document the homeless. Shame on America.
I also saw that the youngsters in my neighborhood seemed to me to be in pain. It was a time of death and drugs, hopelessness and confusion. Crack cocaine was doing a lot of harm in the Black community. I felt it was my duty to do what I could for the youngsters. So, with the help of some supporters, I started the Hayes Valley Art Learning Center where we taught art, videography, photography and cable casting. We even had our own cable show under the name Real Rock Production. In recognition of my work with the youngsters, I received a For Those Who Care award from San Francisco television station KRON, Channel 4.
In 1991 I opened the Ethnic Trip Cultural Art Collection, a gallery and performance space. I was sole owner (along with my landlord) and curated shows by local, national and international artists.
In the late 90’s, I was busy with a three-year residency teaching photography at McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, when one of my students was murdered. It could not have hurt more had it been my own daughter. It hit me so hard that I felt I had to get out. In 1999, I closed the gallery and moved to Marseille, France.
Back in France, I lived the life of a starving artist. It was an adventure, and it was not easy, but I have many good memories. And I was able to use the freedom of a new environment to write my first novel, Ghetto Girls Rule in Marseille. It was published in June 2018 by FriesenPress, Canada.
I returned to Washington, DC, in 2005. In 2006, I suffered a brain aneurysm, and things went dramatically downhill, but with good doctors, proper medication, therapy, family and friends, I am breathing. In documenting this period of my life in my art, I drew myself with my head in my lap or at my feet or falling off my shoulders. I went back to teaching as a resident artist for youngsters living in shelters. I also taught the art of sewing to young dancers at the Washington Ballet--the best classes ever. But something was wrong. My mind was not happy. I had to take a mental break and pay attention to my body.
In 2013 I joined the Art Enables Studio and Gallery, an entrepreneurial program for artists with disabilities. Today, I am both resident artist and Studio Assistant. In November 2018 I had the pleasure of putting together an exhibit at Art Enables dedicated to promoting homelessness awareness. In addition to my own work, the show included work by homeless artists from in and around DC.
To see more of my work, please visit the Art Enables website www.art-enables.org.
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