by Sharon H. Chang
AMANUEL GEBREYESUS smiles kindly when I step into the boiler room at Orca K-8 School in Lakewood. It’s a school day and work day. The sign by the door reads, “Amanuel Gebreyesus, Custodian,” but the floor inside is blanketed with stunning portraits of famous African American men. The paintings are propped against walls and machinery. An easel and some other drawing supplies sit in a corner. Amanuel glances at me, grinning modestly and somewhat shyly, as my eyes grow wide with surprise.
Amanuel, 56, is an incredibly talented artist and Eritrean refugee who has worked in Seattle Public Schools as a custodian for fifteen years. Raised in Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, he has been making art since he was five years old. Though, he points out, “At that time I wasn’t paint I just draw.” He started painting much later–after gaining asylum in the United States.
The gifted artist was born the same year the Eritrean War of Independence began–a war that would span three decades–and his entire childhood is littered with memories of conflict and violence. “When I was born it start from far,” he describes of the war. “It keep coming closer, closer, closer. Then close to the capital city.” When the war came to Asmara in the mid-1980s, Amanuel fled his birthland at twenty-four years old.
He migrated to Washington D.C. where he was sponsored by a cousin. But he only stayed a year. “I didn’t like it, I didn’t stay long” Amanuel confesses. The summers were too hot, he explains, reminding me that though Americans tend to stereotype all of Africa as a hot place (and Africans as thus acclimated to heat) there are actually many parts of the continent where it is quite cool.
Amanuel moved to Oakland, California, where he worked in a bakery, cleaning and baking. Then the recession hit. The bakery was sold and closed. It was hard for him to find another job so, upon the recommendation of a friend, he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1994. He has lived here ever since, first on Beacon Hill, now in Kent with his Eritrean wife (whom he met in Seattle) and his three Eritrean American children who range from three to fifteen years old.
“I been here for thirty-two years,” Amanuel counts gratefully the time he has lived in the United States. Having fled a long war, his appreciation of the life he has been able to build in the U.S. is unmistakably apparent. For Amanuel it’s simple, he reflects. “You work, you go home . . . That’s what I need. Raise my kids. Feed my kids. Have a house.”
Amanuel also began painting when he came to the United States, creating portraits in oil and sometimes acrylic. He has taken a few classes but is mostly self-taught. Very serious and disciplined, he practices painting and drawing daily, also researching and watching videos of portrait artists he highly respects. “I’m watching every night,” he emphasizes. “I go home, I have to watch.”
At home, he paints and draws in his garage where he has made a studio. He portraits primarily well-known Black men, such as former President Barack Obama and the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from pictures he sees in magazines or other places.
Some of Amanuel’s paintings are showing at Orca School where students and staff are big fans. Sometimes Amanuel brings an easel to work and draws on his breaks. Orca students come watch him in the boiler room or he will go sketch and demonstrate in the lunchroom while the children eat.
When Amanuel draws at Orca School it may be for just minutes but during that short practice he is still quite disciplined. For example he is absolutely resolute in at least one thing. “I don’t use eraser,” he underscores firmly, boasting a little. If he were drawing a portrait and had to erase ten times, Amanuel elaborates bluntly, he would not feel he is skilled. “If you professional you don’t have to use eraser.”
The perfectionist in him is unapologetic and I am reminded precisely how long he has been purposefully practicing and honing his art. To the point, he then tells me proudly it took him years to develop the skill of drawing eraser-less. “Show you?” he asks, wondering if I’d like to see him demonstrate. I nod very enthusiastically.
Amanuel pulls out his easel, unfolding its thin arms and legs, and sets it upon the concrete floor of the boiler room. He sets into sketching.
The boiler room is warm and noisy with the steady hum of machinery. There are no windows but it is well-lit with fluorescent lighting. The voices of children and occasionally teachers echo in the stairwell as they pass by the door on their way to class or the cafeteria. Amanuel’s sure hand moves a pencil deftly and quickly.
He copies, from one of his oil portraits sitting on the floor, the regal face of Tupac. He finishes in five minutes and turns his drawing toward me to view. It’s awesome. “Amazing!” I exclaim. “No eraser!” Really, I think to myself, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the dedication and perseverance of this person before me.
Yet Amanuel holds that high bar for himself, which I can clearly see is how he got to be such a good artist. He is not impressed like I am. Looking across the boiler room floor, he is suddenly critical of one of his paintings because the “canvas is cheap.” Of another painting he is dissatisfied, he says, because “it was just for practice.” His eyes move back to the easel. Of the portrait he has just sketched for me in mere minutes he says “it’s okay.”
I nod again, as if I understand, but actually I’m just a little awestruck.
I ask how many paintings he has created in his lifetime. “A lot! A lot! A lot!” he exclaims. He is prolific. However he does not own many of his paintings anymore because he likes to give them away. “Most of the time give to friends,” he tells me.
Speaking of time, Amanuel needs to get back to his workday and custodial duties. Art will need to wait until another break or after school. As our conversation comes to end, I ask him if he ever does keep his art and maybe exhibit it? He smiles modestly once more. “I like to give to friends,” he repeats.
Then there is a slight pause. Amanuel admits he does dream of showing his art in a museum one day. He loves visiting museums. “Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Frye, Tacoma Art Museum,” he lists off a few favorites. He really liked Kehinde Wylie’s recent SAM exhibit. “Very detail,” he observes to me appreciatively, “You have to take long time to be patient.”
I thank him and as I walk out the boiler room door, taking one last look at his beautiful and carefully-painted portraits, I think Amanuel has exactly that kind of dedication, attention to detail, and patience. The kind of determination and talent that just might land him in SAM himself some day. Who knows. Because now–I would not be surprised at all.
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.
Featured image by Sharon H. Chang