(Originally published in The Cincinnati Enquirer on Nov. 6, 2008)
Won first place in the 2008 Society of Professional Journalists’ Arts/Entertainment Feature category (Cincinnati.)
ARTIST ANTONIO ADAMS BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO TRAGEDY
By Alex Shebar
Antonio Adams is a beautiful speaker, though he rarely talks. His conversation is his art.
It’s true in his everyday life, and more so in moments of tragedy.
On Oct. 24, the house at 2654 Alms Place in Walnut Hills that Adams shared with his mother and four siblings was destroyed by a fire blamed on electrical problems. Everything the family owned, including Adams’ prized artwork, burned.
Although sad and frustrated, he channeled his pain into his work. Days after the fire, Adams began to sketch the scene seared into his mind.
The drawing lies on a white page in a small notebook with an incomplete sentence scrawled on top: “Still on fire before it’s all gone.”
Below, in pen, is a rickety three-story house – old and elegant. Flames burst from the door, windows and roof, and sparks around the drawing gives the house a human feel – as if the ancient building is crying as it slowly dies.
It’s an emotional scene. One that will eventually become a beautiful painting.
That is what Adams, 27, does; he turns negatives into positives.
Although Adams is slightly mentally challenged, and has trouble living by himself and doing things like driving and making appointments, he’s never let it hinder his work.
“I felt something negative going on, so I painted it,” he said.
Adams was at Visionaries and Voices, a Northside studio for artists with disabilities that’s become a second home to him, when he got the news. The only member of his family in the house was his brother Fazion, who got out safely. The fire took about two hours to put out. Firefighters estimated damage at about $150,000.
Adams’ work and life has touched many, and people now are working to help him and his family. Hamilton County Arc, a private organization that helps the mentally disabled, started the Antonio Adams Family Fund. V&V is also helping to set up a benefit concert Nov. 20 for him and his family.
“I’m shocked by all the people who are behind us and trying to help us,” said Diane Adams, his mother. “You never really know who will be behind you until something like this happens.”
Supporting Adams didn’t take a second thought for many.
Shake It! Records at 4156 Hamilton Ave. has his artwork hanging on its walls. On Nov. 22, 10 percent of all sales will be donated to his fund.
“Antonio has affected the lives of hundreds of artists in the area, so now it’s a time for everyone to step up,” said Darren Blase, co-owner of Shake It!
Walking into V&V, Adams is easily to single out easy to spot. He is imposing with his thick body and tall stature. Around his neck dangles a self-made, long beaded necklace. It’s meant to be an artistic tribute to African tribal culture. His heritage is important to him.
Adams has been creating art for years. He went to Hughes Center magnet school where he took classes, but mostly he is self-taught. Adams is best known for his hands-on work, although he has practiced in different media from photography to script writing. His cartoonish pencil drawings, brightly colored paintings and life-size statues sell from $350 to $1,000.
The money is not enough to live on. Adams also works at Frisch’s Big Boy in Norwood to help with family expenses.
Adams’ subjects include politics, comic books and even the dead. He said he used art to give them new life.
“What you see in his work is someone who is both wise and curious. He’s studying and trying to understand the world around him,” said Bill Ross, co-founder of V&V. “I think that’s why people are drawn him.”
People have been interested in Adams for as long as he’s been creating, Ross said. He’s worked with and inspired many people – sometimes by his work and other times by his positive spirit.
Adams’ work can be seen in buildings across Ohio, as well as in shows across the country from New York to Los Angeles. Gill Netter, a movie producer of films such as “The Naked Gun” series, has an Adams original hanging in his beach house in Malibu, Ross said.
“Antonio has a way of creating almost a magical pull for the viewers to be engaged in his work. I can’t quite put it into words other than he truly knows what’s he’s doing,” Netter said. “His limitations doesn’t stop him from making profound statements in his work.”
Before it burned, the attic of Adams’ old home was his studio. He had had a space to create and more importantly, house his most prized possessions.
While frustrated at the lost artwork, Adams remains optimistic. His attitude is that he remembers what all his work looked like, and he can reproduce it – maybe even better.
“He’s working everything out by drawing it,” said Blair Whitt, V&V studio coordinator. “It’s kind of therapeutic for him to be doing it this way.”
That is Adams’ way – taking the bad in his life and reworking it into something good.
It takes a few days, but Adams finishes the painting of his burning house. Through its simple, cartoon-like feel, viewers witness the anger and sadness that he feels when thinking about what’s been lost.
Yet, behind the glowing reds and yellows of the house’s towering flames lies optimism. In the painting, the sky is blue, the grass is green and there is space on the canvas to create something new.
“If you think about something positive, you can remember it, tear it down and do a new one. It’s rebuilding,” Adams said. “That’s what it’s all about.”