As a kid, Antwoine Washington spent hours drawing pictures for friends and family. But the images and messages he got from mainstream culture told him that art wasn’t a viable career path. After a life-changing incident, he’s on a mission to tell a different story. During a recent visit to Washington’s studio in Richmond Heights, he worked on a portrait of a young girl.
Washington creates the perfect pink for a daughter’s birthday dress. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]
“You’re looking at a painting of my daughter,” he said, swirling several colors on his palette to create a special shade of pink.
He carefully added this new blend onto the girl’s birthday party dress. Washington has spent much of the past decade illustrating stories about Black family life, using a variety of styles, from photorealism, to flat, colorful abstractions.
“I think the whole premise around this piece is going to be about young people making wishes and dreaming outside of their birthdays,” he said. “I mean, you make that wish on your birthday, but do you actually really follow through with it? And do you even know how to do that?”
Johnny Coleman [J Seyfried]
Oberlin artist and educator Johnny Coleman is impressed with Washington.
“I think he’s a phenomenal painter and that’s only going to continue to get stronger and stronger,” Coleman said.
Washington’s received numerous commissions and awards in just the past five years, including a 2019 Verge Fellowship for emerging talent from the Cleveland Arts Prize. Growing up in Pontiac, Michigan, Washington had an early dream of being an artist. He said he was always drawing and doodling, often based on images he saw on TV.
“Saturday morning cartoons, that was some of my early influences,” he said. “But, as far as artists, as a kid, I’ll have to go to, like Ernie Barnes and the “Good Times” paintings.”
The celebratory paintings of African American life by artist and occasional actor Ernie Barnes were featured in the opening and closing credits of the 1970s sitcom “Good Times.”
“My grandmother used to watch that all the time,” he said. “That’s where I was first really introduced to, like, ‘Oh, Black artist painting. I would like to do that.’”
But, Washington’s artistic aspirations didn’t seem to be much more than a dream for many years.
“I knew that artists could make money, of course, but I didn’t know how,” he said. “I didn’t have that person around me to actually help guide that or even say, ‘Hey, you have a talent, you have a talent in art. Don’t you know that you can make money from this and you can make a living doing this?’ That never really ever came across my mind or even was even encouraged in my neighborhood where I was from. When you did art, you were kind of looked at as the weirdo.”
Antwoine was always working his crayons as a kid. [Antwoine Washington]
Washington said his mother recognized his talent and was always putting crayons and paper in front of him. Ultimately, the family sent him to Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he earned a B.A. in studio art. Southern was also the place where he met future wife, Carlise, and the two of them ended up moving to her hometown of Cleveland.
“My whole journey moving forward was to come here and try to find work, and knowing that me and my wife were going to get married,” he said.
She worked as a nurse. He got a job at the post office and then started a cleaning business. Once they had a newborn, he cleaned offices during the day, came home and spent time with their daughter and then stayed up until three in the morning drawing and painting. But, self-doubt started creeping in. Did he make a mistake quitting the steady post office job? He said he started having panic attacks.
Staying up late, stress and have a newborn all contributed, he said.
One day in 2018, he woke up and couldn’t feel anything on his right side. Washington was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a brain infarction – he’d had a stroke.
“This vein was hard, like cement hard,” he said, pointing to a blood vessel in his upper arm.
Because he was young, rehabilitation pretty much restored him physically, though he said there’s still a constant tingling sensation in his arm and leg. But, that health scare had another permanent effect.
“I damn sure know that life is short and I could have died, you know? So, I was like, ‘Yo, I got to be fearless in this,’” he said. “I’ve got to live life like any moment it can be over. And so, I just started just painting what I felt, saying what I felt and going after what I wanted.
Transformer Station in Cleveland [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]
The latest example of that is on display at the Transformer Station gallery on Cleveland’s Near West Side. Washington is part of the exhibition, “New Histories, New Futures,” that he shares with New York artist Kambui Olujimi and Oberlin’s Johnny Coleman.
“When I look at Antwoine, I see a brother who’s young enough to be my son, who is actively engaged in the lives of his children,” Coleman said. “And it affects me on a personal level.”
Washington created four paintings that celebrate Black fathers who love, protect and provide for their families. One of the standout images in the series features a bearded man embracing his wife, daughter and son. It’s called “Black Family: The Myth of the Missing Black Father.”
“Black Family: The Myth of the Missing Black Father” [Antwoine Washington]
“What inspired this one actually was the whole notion and myth that Black fathers aren’t present in their children’s lives,” Washington said. “It was a lie to me because, growing up, I saw different. In my neighborhood, even though we were poor, fathers were always around. Even though I had my father alive and in my life, I had many other fathers, coaches and different people within the community that acted as father figures.”
“He’s a narrative artist,” Coleman said. “But the nature of the story, the quality of the story and his relationship to it, he’s not trying to construct the narrative that he heard about. He’s sharing his life. And it deeply resonates with me.”
Because Washington’s life was almost cut short and because the potential of art was downplayed when he was a child, the 40-year-old said he feels like he’s on a mission.
“[There’s] a lot of opportunity out here in the arts for people that look like me,” he said. “And we just don’t have access to it, because no one is exposing us to it or even telling us about it. And so, I’m like, let me create something or let me get in front of these young people and let them know this opportunity here.”
Michael Russell and Antwoine Washington founded the Museum of Creative Human Art [Antwoine Washington]
Washington and his childhood friend, Michael Russell, also created an art project, “The Museum of Creative Human Art.” They don’t have a permanent gallery right now, and it’s more of a pop-up experienece. But, the larger agenda is to offer art classes and character education for underserved young people. And to demonstrate some life options over and above TV and Tik Tok.
“You don’t have to run, jump, dribble the basketball, or catch a football, or rap, sing and dance all the time,” Washington said. “This is another way that you can express yourself.”
The Washington family as rendered in this detail from “Black Family: The Provider” on view at Transformer Station.