At the corner of Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW is a tiny park with one tree and zero park benches, where the closest thing to shrubbery are weeds poking through the concrete. Yet it was here that the artist found his inspiration.
A few minutes after 5 p.m. on a cloudy day this week, JoJo Fekwa, 38, set out another canvas on his easel. The painting was the outline of a woman sitting with her legs crossed, hair blowing in the imagined breeze.
It was his 10th work of the day. The others, abstract paintings of a woman’s face in yellows and oranges and reds, lay on the park’s rusting railings.
Rush-hour traffic oozed by. It smelled like car exhaust. Fekwa focused on the canvas, stroking bright spots of color on an evening as gray as the gravel beneath it.
A splash of paint was all it took for drivers to turn down their windows and turn their heads. Joggers deviated from their straightforward sidewalk paths for a closer look. A woman driver yelled at him: “Is this a new spot for local artists?”
“Come join me tomorrow!” he replied.
Fekwa, thin and unshaven, wearing splotched jeans and tattered New Balance sneakers, spoke with the lilt of his native Cameroon. He was 8 years old when his mother got him his first paint set. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do since.
Other artists can have their secluded studios with perfect light and ambient music. Fekwa’s sanctuary is the street, amid the rumbling of car engines and neighborhood shouts, the blurred sound of music spilling from a car racing through the traffic light.
This was how he painted along Rue Bastos, his home country’s version of Embassy Row, in the capital of Yaoundé. It’s what he appreciated in the other cities where he’s shown his art.
“I want to create a little Paris,’’ Fekwa said. “D.C. people are all about politics. You don’t get to see them enjoy their life — having a coffee, people kissing, people making art.”
Since moving to the District almost a decade ago, he’s searched for street corners that inspire. He has painted in Dupont Circle and at Ridge Road and Alabama Avenue in Southeast. He liked the corner at Eastern and Rhode Island avenues in Northeast, but that was the one time someone called the cops on him.
Lately, he has realized the value of painting in “eclectic neighborhoods,” or territories in transition.Where people walk around more and are more willing to buy his paintings right there, for $150 each. He’ll stay until his muse goes away.
At Ninth and Rhode Island, in the Shaw neighborhood, he paints in front of the Carter G. Woodson Home, a national historic site. He paints behind a home for low-income residents and the homeless. The professionals bike past him, Whole Foods bags hanging from their bike handles.
No one is sure what to make of Fekwa, whose art has hung in exhibitions from Paris to Miami to Howard University. They like that this corner is being used. Some offer food as if he were homeless, explaining why there are four melting candy bars sitting next to 17 open jars of paint.
In little more than an hour, he has given life to the woman’s outline: She has beams of gold, red and black hair, and her legs are colored with wistful blues and purples and pinks.
Fekwa stepped back, smiled and pumped his fists.
“It’s extra beautiful!” he shouted in French. He called Melvin Collins, a neighborhood resident who commissioned the painting for his girlfriend.
“Your masterpiece is ready!’’ he said.
Fekwa scrawled his signature and snapped a photo of the painting on his phone. As Collins headed home, canvas in hand, Fekwa mused: “It always feels like a part of your heart gets taken away.”
Then he placed another canvas on a easel. It was 6:40 p.m. He’d paint until the night sky got too dark.
Reporter Robert Samuels begins a weekly series in which he explores the District, street corner by street corner.