Tag Archives: art

TSU Student and Graffiti Artist’s Passion Is Transforming A North Nashville Neighborhood’s Walls

Courtesy of National Public Radio

jay_jenkins_art_in_house
Jenkins lives with his grandma, Lovie Jenkins, who has turned her house into a gallery of Jenkins’s work. CREDIT JAY JENKINS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a North Nashville yard, artists have transformed concrete walls into canvases by painting a dozen large-scale murals. It’s at 817 18th Avenue North, in what owner A.J. Sankari says used to be a wheel and rubber factory. The man behind it is Jay Jenkins, an art student from TSU.

On one wall, you see a painting of a woman who is reading from a big book, while formulas and equations float through the cosmos above her. On another, a kid lifts up his shirt, revealing a bull’s eye on his chest.

Jenkins grew up in the neighborhood. He works part-time at Home Depot, collecting carts from the parking lot. But he says he’s usually preoccupied with one thing: art.

“I mean art is a lifestyle so it’s the only thing on my mind,” Jenkins says. “When I’m driving, I’m thinking about art. When I’m in class, I’m thinking about art. When I’m pushing carts, I’m thinking about art. Besides my family, it’s the only thing I think about.”

not_an_object
Graffiti artist Arjae signs his Norf Wall Fest mural. CREDIT ERICA CICCARONE

Jenkins is lean and tall with short dreadlocks and a big smile. Even when he says he’s stressed out, he appears relaxed and self-assured. He’s popular among his professors and classmates at TSU, but his biggest fan is his grandma, Lovie Jenkins.

She has Jenkins’s paintings hanging in every room of her house, and even hangs up paintings that bother her. In one six-foot tall painting, a guy has caution tape wrapped around his face that’s covered in words you usually don’t want your grandma to see. But she still displayed it right outside the kitchen.

Jenkins says he didn’t think about art until high school, when he saw a friend drawing graffiti in a notebook. “I asked him can he teach me how to do that, and eventually he did show me and took me out painting. I was drawing before that, but once I started doing graffiti, it became a passion.”

His paintings are big, complex, influenced by jazz and surrealism.

Growing up, Jenkins watched North Nashville sidewalks crack and buildings fall into disrepair, while other parts of the city got bigger and better. But he also knows his neighborhood has something that others don’t: four historical black colleges.

He felt driven to harness the talent coming out of these schools, so he convinced Sankari to let him transform the walls in his lot into canvases for Norf Wall Fest. That’s Norf with an “F” because he says, “Everybody from North Nashville says ‘norf’ with an ‘F’ at the end of it.”

He turned to his mentor Thaxton Waters, who runs a gallery on Jefferson Street called Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery. It’s filled with antique furniture and paintings by local Black artists.

“When he came to me with this idea, I was like man, this is beautiful because anytime we have the opportunity to heighten the aesthetic value of our neighborhood, we have to jump on that,” Waters says. “What was just him spitting out ideas is growing and has morphed into a whole ‘nother Frankenstein, so I love it.”

Waters helped Jenkins select seasoned graffiti artists who could handle the huge concrete canvases. They looked for work that addressed race, class, and community, issues central to the neighborhood.

In one mural by an artist who goes by Arjae, a nude Black woman sits among clouds at sunset, her back to the viewer, with the words “Not an object” written below her.

All this comes on the heels of *Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s recent report that highlights how people of color have been excluded from the arts. But this is not news to Jenkins’s mentor, Waters, who views his gallery and the surrounding North Nashville artistic neighborhood as a way around arts institutions.

“When I went through all the institutions and went through the art history books, I just didn’t see things that reflected me. That sends a message to the viewer: Why am I not important?” Waters says.

This feeling — to be visible, to make a mark, to assert that you exist — that’s why graffiti started, and it’s what drives Jenkins.

“I’ve got these worlds in my head that I get to show people,” Jenkins says. “I’m not really good at explaining things. My grandma says I’m quiet. I don’t really talk much, so I talk through my art.”

 

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

About Tennessee State University

With more than 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.

 

From Death Row to Artist…Former Inmate Displays Artwork At Avon Williams Campus Library Feb. 28-April 11

Ndume Olatushani turned to painting as a way to escape the tedium and depression of serving a death sentence. Now a free man living in Nashville, his paintings will be on display at TSU's Avon Williams Campus Library Feb. 28 through April 11.
Ndume Olatushani turned to painting as a way to escape the tedium and depression of serving a death sentence. Now a free man living in Nashville, his paintings will be on display at TSU’s Avon Williams Campus Library Feb. 28 through April 11. (courtesy photo)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Freedom was only a dream for Ndume Olatushani, a man who spent 28 years behind bars in maximum-security prisons. Wrongly convicted of murder, he spent 20 of those years on death row.

To escape the tedium and depression of life behind bars Olatushani began painting, by turning to canvas to “live outside of prison” as a way of freeing his mind and spirit.

The paintings, on display at the Tennessee State University’s Avon Williams Campus Library Feb. 28 through April 11, demonstrate the products of his incarceration and the will to change his life after hitting rock bottom.

“I was truly a broken man and the lowest I’ve ever been,” said Olatushani, recounting how he began painting following his mother’s death two years into his prison sentence. His mother Moosie, who never wavered in her belief of her son’s innocence, was killed in a car accident that also claimed the life of his 8-year-old niece.

“After my mom’s death, I decided I couldn’t be hurt anymore,” he added. “I started drawing and eventually taught myself to paint. Through my artwork I lived outside of prison and didn’t paint my surroundings, but instead the people from outside the prison walls I would like to meet.”

Born Erskine Johnson in St. Louis, Olatushani’s troubles began Oct. 26, 1983 while celebrating his mother’s birthday with about 30 relatives. While the family was celebrating, nearly 300 miles away in Memphis, a grocer named Joe Belenchi was murdered while working in the supermarket he owned.

Day Dreaming, oil on linen
Day Dreaming, oil on linen

Within several months following the murder, Johnson, who legally changed his name to Ndume (Swahili for masculinity) Olatushani (unifier), was tracked down, charged, convicted and sentenced for the crime—even though he never before set foot in the state of Tennessee. In 1985, at the age of 27, he was sentenced to death.

For nearly three decades, Olatushani spent his time moving from different levels of incarceration, including from Level C – where he spent 23 hours-a-day in forced solitude, with hands and feet shackled during the remaining hour – to Level A, which allowed up to three hours a week for visitations, outdoor time with other convicts in a 12-by-12 cage, and the opportunity to have odd jobs.

In 1991 he started corresponding with a young college student, Anne-Marie Moyes, who had dedicated herself to social justice issues. She began working with Death Penalty Focus, a California-based nonprofit similar to Tennesseans for Alternatives for the Death Penalty. The two met after months of corresponding, and she was so convinced of his innocence, Moyes enrolled in Vanderbilt Law School where she was awarded the law school’s Founder’s Medal – the highest honor bestowed on a single graduate out of every graduating class. The two would spend nearly two decades filing appeals.

Black Man Rises Up Boldly, oil on linen
Black Man Rises Up Boldly, oil on linen

In the meantime, a large international firm in New York decided for the first time to take on a death penalty case and filed appeal after appeal on his behalf. Finally in Dec. 2011, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Olatushani’s murder conviction due to faulty witness testimony and demanded a new trial. On June 6, 2012, Olatushani walked out of prison after accepting an Alford Plea to avoid potentially serving several more years in the Shelby County Jail awaiting a new trial and taking his chances with another jury. This deal required that he plead guilty to second-degree murder, while, at the same time, allowed him to maintain his innocence. In exchange, he was sentenced to time served and was released.

Today, at age 54, Olatushani is a free man living in Nashville with his now wife, Anne-Marie, and their adopted child. Now just two years shy of being released and starting a new life, he is still painting, growing a small vegetable garden and learning about all the advances that did not exist when he was first incarcerated.

“The only real struggle is trying to get used to all these technological advances that have been made,” he said, listing on his fingers all the inventions that didn’t exist when he went to jail in 1983: computers, cell phones, the Internet.

Olatushani’s art exhibit will be on display at the Avon Williams Campus Library Feb. 28 through April 11 and is free and open to the public. The library is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday noon until 8:30 p.m.

For more information call 615.963.7188.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Department of Media Relations
Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

 

 

About Tennessee State University

With nearly 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.