An Artist Grows in an Unlikely Place

By Toni Ann Ocloo

As a young black woman, I discovered my strength as an artist in a home of old white people. I came to Brookdale Senior Center with my sketchbook to share an intimate part of myself — my art — with strangers. In return, they shared themselves with me. I never imagined this exchange would happen here, not in what I once considered to be my Southern hell. The dissonance I perceived between white and black seemingly evaporated in the moment. People were just people. However this revelation did not come in an instance. Rather, it began its maturation from that moment six years ago when I laid on the floor, crying. Wailing as though I lost my whole world.

Mom, how could you? We’re not just moving. We’re going to the South!” 

Leaving Shelton, CT for Charlotte, NC? Goodbye to my friends. My school. My community. And for what? To move to the region known for slavery and Jim Crow. 

My innocent mind assumed I was leaving my liberal state on a long stairway to Earth’s hell; that my Northern wonderland was in some way immaculate and now shaken from my grasp.  

Seventh grade arrived. I found myself in my first art class, taught by a black man called Mr. Wilson. He was a first in my entire school career in the U.S. I never had a black teacher since third grade, when I moved from Ghana to Shelton. Mr. Wilson became a mentor. Art became my way of engaging and accepting my present. Mr. Wilson emphasized the value of observing real things and people. Naturally, I began to draw what I saw, preferably people. I watched vigilantly as my classmates moved, talked, and behaved. I found myself watching strangers in every place, almost as a way of capturing where I was. In art class, I began to slowly appreciate the small parts of what was becoming my new home. The nameless silhouettes of faces began to transform into people. 

Last year, I decided to paint portraits of the elderly, choosing a place where I was their sheer opposite — black and young. On my first official day of drawing, I sat at a round table across from a group of residents engaging in a playful game of cards. Even from afar, their positive energy soothed my nervousness. 

To determine who was most inviting, my eyes lingered past the faces, watching movements and gestures as cards were passed from hand to hand and as faces grimaced or smiled at certain moves. Soon, my eyes cast on one particular individual. With an exuberant personality, she appeared to be the leader of the group. Her reactions ranged from a cute, childish pout to a braggy smirk. My pencil soon felt the surface of the paper, and my mind was absorbed by her personality. As I continued to draw, she would sneak a peek at me and start blushing, like a child too shy to ask for something. As I continued to draw, my mind wondered about her. My roboticism ceased. I wanted to know who she was, I wanted to know where she had been, and what she had experienced. Every line of her face prompted a new question. What was she like when she was young? What did she see? Absorbed by thoughts, I finished. I didn’t get to question her, but I did engage in long conversations about the past with future subjects. 

Time passed like a moving train. Each person found their way into a metaphysical library of images. Their faces stuck with me, each individual feature defined and indisputable; human faces and bodies became storytellers. 

At Brookdale, I witnessed my concealed ability to experience art’s transformative powers. Nothing supernatural or otherworldly. But I felt that I had obtained another lens through which to view life. Art had become a way for me to not only understand others but myself and my new home.  

Toni Ann Ocloo, a graduate of Charlotte Country Day School, will be a freshman in the Honors College of UNC Chapel Hill in the fall.