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From Sierra Leone to Takoma Park, artist pursues lifelong passion

By Lindsay A. Powers | The Gazette,

Ever since he was a child growing up in Sierra Leone, Abdul Razak has found himself drawn to art.

Razak, 25, of Takoma Park recently recalled how, as he walked to school in the morning, he would pass by and admire the pictures and statues of local artists on the street.

“I was so much admiring that,” he said. “I used to ask myself, ‘What kind of a knowledge does somebody have just to look, to create something from nothing?’ So I start saying that I think this is something I can do.”

Since his interest was sparked by those works, Razak has become an artist with a fondness for pencil drawings and watercolor paintings, and aspirations to make art his livelihood.

“It brings me a special joy,” he said.

‘Something I cherish’

Razak said he never took art classes but remembers drawing since he was about 6.

“I was doing it just to make me happy,” he said of himself as a young artist. “I was not thinking about anything like having to go for competition or something that could bring income for me.”

Although he said he had trouble when he first started drawing portraits, he recalled seeing artists working on portraits in the streets.

“I said, ‘How can somebody represent the face of someone exactly as a person is?’ That was kind of inspiring me,” he said.

As he drew portraits — the first was of his mother — as well as scenes of nature and human activity, Razak said he sometimes would give his work to family and friends.

Occasionally, he would find drawing more appealing than schoolwork.

“Instead of reading my notes and everything, I would just tear a paper from my book” and draw, he said.

The activity that brought him joy would also lead him to several competitions in Sierra Leone, including a national poster contest in 2001 that tasked students with representing the effects of the country’s 11-year civil war.

Razak said he created a poster depicting young people after the war, homeless or with amputated limbs, for which he won first place.

For another poster competition in 2006, which he also won, Razak said he entered a poster portraying young people discussing how they want the government to improve their lives.

“They are like in a conference, while government agency sitting down, listening to their grievances, seeing whether they can address some of these issues,” Razak said.

In July of 2010, he moved from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the United States, living in Upper Marlboro before settling in Takoma Park about two months ago.

He moved to the States for several reasons, he said, including to pursue his art career, seek a better education and “get a better life.” He currently works as a geriatric nursing assistant on the night shift and, Razak said, continues to draw and paint about two hours a day.

“No matter what I’m doing, the art is something that I always do, because it is something I cherish [more] than any other thing,” he said.

These days, he works mostly on portraits, often from photos that he either takes on his cellphone or gets from the Internet, even if they are small.

“I can zoom with [my] eye,” he said.

It was at the Takoma Park Library where Razak met Phil Shapiro, a library assistant, who said he became one of Razak’s early supporters.

“When I first met Abdul, he showed me an amazing portrait that he made from a small cellphone photo,” Shapiro wrote in an e-mail. “I would have thought that was impossible until he handed me the portrait to hold in my hands — and sure enough, it matched that small cellphone photograph.”

Since then, Shapiro has helped Razak develop a Web site and shown his drawings to his co-workers at the library and in the city government, several of whom have commissioned portraits from Razak.

Rebecca Brown, coordinator of public services at the library, said she saw some of Razak’s work and decided to commission a portrait of her grandson Jeremiah to give him for his ninth birthday.

Brown said her grandson “just loved it” because, for him, “only kings and queens and famous people have pictures.”

Razak said he hopes to one day establish his own studio and create art as a business.

“But since I’m kind of new in the United States . . . I have a lot of things to accomplish before ever I will reach that level,” he said.

Part of that process, he said, will be further honing his skill.

“I think there is a lot more work for me to be doing, a lot of things that I need to learn, a lot of skills, because art is an ever-learning process,” he said.

He hopes to gain sponsorship for his artwork and also wants to go back to school, possibly to study “something in the health field.”

Yet for the artist who enjoys portraying natural scenes and human life, art is “a lifelong something.”

“I want to create some kind of beauty that people will remember even after my own generation . . . something that will reflect my hard work even when I will be gone.”

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