Rough road enriches one artist’s talent
How had it happened? Chesiel John, a talented artist and honors graduate of Parsons School of Design, was homeless in New York City.
“I took a difficult path,” Chesiel says, “but it’s not a sad story.” She knows in her heart that all the hardships and grief she’s faced have enriched her life and her art.
The Hard Path
Born in Trinidad, Chesiel moved to New York with her family when she was fourteen. She’s always been creative. “My mom put a brush in my hand when I was a baby,” she says. Her mom had a creative side, too, though her dream of being a singer remained unfulfilled. But she never pushed her own desires onto her daughters. Chesiel says, “She allowed me to choose my own creative path.” One of Chesiel’s dearest memories is their Saturday ritual when she was in high school. “My mother would take Saturdays, only for me, to purchase art materials.” Sadly, her mom died in 1994, when Chesiel was just seventeen.
Chesiel continued to pursue her creative dreams as she began studying illustration at Parsons School of Design in 1995. But her grades suffered because of her grief, and during her sophomore year she was advised to take some time off or drop out. She opted to take two years off. Grief caused rifts within the entire family, and the tension grew as Chesiel and her two sisters endured their father’s overzealous rules. The girls finally reached a breaking point. Chesiel’s oldest sister took two jobs and managed to find them a one-bedroom apartment so they could move out.
Chesiel went back to Parsons in 2000 with a renewed commitment to finish her degree. She also began reading about musicians—their lives and philosophies. Many of her portfolio illustrations were of jazz musicians—pen and ink drawings that were whimsical, yet edgy. Her illustration style turned out to be just what Verve Records was looking for, and she landed a project with them illustrating singer Nina Simone’s upcoming CD. During those two years, she also produced editorial illustrations for magazines. She graduated with honors in 2002, continued to teach, got published as an editorial illustrator, entered juried shows, and began working with art dealers to show her work.
Stumbling Along the Way
Then tragedy struck again. A dear friend died, and grief consumed Chesiel. Over the next few years, she struggled with her art and her personal life, and when a romantic relationship fell apart, Chesiel found herself pregnant and homeless.
That’s when she met members of the Sisters of Life and the Missionaries of Charity. They helped Chesiel many times over, providing food, shelter, and spiritual guidance. “The Missionaries of Charity and Sisters of Life are my heroes,” Chesiel says.
After her son was born, she thought he needed his father in his life, so she rekindled that relationship. But it was not to last, and for a second time she was pregnant and homeless.
With help once again from those two Christian organizations, Chesiel and her two babies survived. She even managed to produce some freelance illustrations during that time.
Then the Sisters of Life found a family who volunteered to sponsor Chesiel and her kids in their Austin home, so Chesiel stepped out in faith and moved to Texas. Eight months later, she found a place of her own.
Back on a Promising Path
Today, Chesiel continues creating freelance illustrations, works on commissioned pieces, cleans houses to pay the bills, and spends as much time as possible with her kids. Even when she’s exhausted, she works on her art. “You have to show up,” Chesiel says of being an artist. “It’s like a seed planted within you that continues to grow, and if you keep going, you get to see it blossom.”
She has expanded her creative endeavors in the last few years to include 3D sculptures, created from both old and discarded items. She strives to speak of history and humanity in her pieces and to bring awareness of the world—the past and the future.
One such piece evolved out of a trip to Taylor, where she discovered the Dr. James Lee Dickey House—the future Dickey Museum. Dr. Dickey was the first African-American doctor in Williamson County and a great humanitarian. Chesiel created a sculpture to honor the man and his work, incorporating items that would have been tools of his trade in the early to mid-1900s—a cracked leather medicine bag, medicine bottles, an old first aid kit. The memorial will be displayed when the museum opens.
Another project, shown at Zilker Botanical Garden last year, is her Percussion of Thought—ten rusty barrels, reminiscent of drums she’d seen in Trinidad, built from scrap metal. Each barrel is encircled by chains holding “ornamental charms”—bottle caps, a vintage frame, bells, records—mementos of times gone by, reminders of the tracks we leave behind.
Chesiel considers her life blessed. She hopes one day “to be a professor, to be somewhere talking to kids or people about recycling or anything that has to do with humanitarian change.” And she’ll continue to use her art “as a way to speak.”
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