I have always felt that art is subjective. Being a visual artist myself, the things that I sketch, paint or stencil, all have a specific meaning to me, but it may translate differently to another set of eyes. Each piece of art takes time, and even more effort depending on the project’s complexity. Ever since I was a child, my favorite painting was always The Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Ironically, The Banjo Lesson followed me throughout my entire life, from the good, the bad, the ups, the downs; and through catastrophes and triumphs.

From the time I can remember, Henry O. Tanner’s classic painting sat above the fireplace at my home in New Orleans, Louisiana. Our den held plenty of holiday gatherings, arguments, sports debates and family get-togethers; The Banjo Lesson witnessed it all, serving as the centerpiece in a room full of life. When you see something every day, one day you cease to notice it all. From time to time, I would marvel at it’s beauty, but little did I know the type of impact it would have on my life, both directly and indirectly.

During the beginning stages of my artistic endeavors, instead of creating my own drawings, I would sketch paintings that intrigued me. My first drawing was that of Darkwing Duck (which I constructed with a pen under our upstairs coffee table), but The Banjo Lesson was the first that I put on paper. The moment that I laid eyes on that painting in my living room, I knew that I wanted to be a creator. Whether it be visual (drawings, paintings and sketches), content (music, or my podcast), or even this editorial that you’re reading now; the ability to make something out of nothing is a gift that no one should ever take for granted.

When I was 9 years of age, my father transitioned from this life. Many of the things he used to say, or teach, didn’t make any sense to me at the time. As a grew older, however, certain situations in my life caused me to implement some of those lessons that he taught me years earlier. As time progressed after his passing, The Banjo Lesson would soothe my psyche, and it always gave me the feeling that although he wasn’t here physically, he was always watching over me, helping me navigate the trials and tribulations of this thing we call life.

Hampton University's Museum. (Photography by The Culture Travelist, 2016)

Hampton University's Museum. (Photography by The Culture Travelist, 2016)

In retrospect, I realized that one of the most difficult times I experienced was also the most exciting. After graduating high school, I took my talents to Virginia and attended the prestigious Hampton University. It was the first time I heard so my different accents, slang and various expressions of fashion in one concentrated space. I fell in love instantly. My black was beautiful, and so was everyone else’s. During my matriculation into the university life, I thought that I would forever leave behind The Banjo Lesson. Ironically, I became closer to it than I’ve ever been.

In the summer of 2005, the single most impactful event in my life took place. Hurricane Katrina devastated my city, stripping away most of the culture that its history worked so hard to achieve. Families were misplaced, people lost livelihoods, and the hope for the future was just a glimmer. The print of The Banjo Lesson, which stood in my living room was washed away, never to be seen again. I’ve always felt that part of me went with it on that summer day in August; but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. My mother used to tell me that I became a man when I was 9 years old, but it took until the storm for me to fully realize it.

Family first, life is short, and material things don’t matter. These were the three lessons that I took from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Everything else was secondary.  It is crazy the way life happens. Prior to going to college, I did a respectable amount of research about Hampton University. It’s origin, its founder, it’s history… my mother and I even attended “High School Day”, where teenagers from across America could get a glimpse of the college life in a few hours. For some reason, I didn’t know that the original painting of The Banjo Lesson sat in the university’s museum. Just like that, I was reunited with something in my life that never really left in the first place. Seeing that piece of art for the first time (again) brought back so many feelings of nostalgia, and it reiterated the fact that memories are the one of the most beautiful things that life has to offer, not material possessions.

I appreciate you all for taking the time to walk with me down memory lane. As always, take care and God bless.

-          Okla