Saturday, January 14, 2017

Out of Africa: Interview with Artist Steven Boyyi

Wednesday I received an email soaked with excitement from Kelly McFaul-Solem at CPL Imaging. She said there was an artist there that I should meet, a young man from Uganda whose work was fresh and fascinating. I should come over "right now" she said. I couldn't, however. I had meetings and deadlines. I asked if Friday lunch hour could work out. It did, and it was worth the wait.

Founded by Jeff Frey, CPL Imaging is the premiere resource for artists seeking to reproduce their paintings, drawing and other images. Using high end scanners and giclee printing techniques, Frey and company continue to serve the art community here in the Upper Midwest by maintaining the highest standards. On top of everything else, they are just plain good people and it did not surprise me to find Steven Boyyi's work spread across the lobby table when I arrived.

Steven Boyyi's story is worthy of a much longer treatment than I can give you here, but you will quickly discover the impetus for Kelly's enthusiasm.

(L to ) Tim Turk, Dan King and Steven Boyyi. Mr. Turk helped Steven through
the process of acquiring a temporary visa.

Boyyi was accompanied by Tim Turk, a retired nurse who is affiliated with Duluth Bible Church. For four years Mr. Turk has been involved with a mission organization that trains pastors in Nairobi, Kenya, teaching English and tutoring students who speak Bantu and Bimba. Another member of the church met Steven Boyyi during an art exhibit in Kenya, and through a series of efforts helped bring him to the U.S. on a temporary visa.

Besides their shared faith, another common denominator between Mr. Turk and the artist: both lost their parents at an early age.

His work features an innate sense of design.
Steven Boyyi does not know when he was born. He was raised in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. There were no papers when he was brought to the children's home for 30 boys as an infant. "The home was run by big bosses from Ireland and another care taker from Uganda. I was told I was nine months old (when brought there) and stayed there till 17 years." At age 17 the orphanage closed and the boys were forced to live on the streets. Like anyone in desperate straits, he used resourcefulness to survive, making a hammock out of material akin to discarded flour sacks and hanging it from branches in a tree for a bed. He laughs when he describes the first soaking rainfall.

He had goals, though. Taking inspiration from the Bible, he held some of the verses in his heart, such as these words of Jesus, "Do not let your heart be troubled..."

In addition to being artistically inclined, Boyyi was a skilled soccer player. The kids stayed near the university because they had access to the food that was being discarded. One day his skills were observed and he was invited to attend the school on a soccer scholarship. During this time he began to nurture a goal... to get his name out there as an artist that he might develop a source of income by which he could help the thousands of children living on the streets of Kampala.

"I learned the technique of ironing on ginger cloth in the children's home," he says. "A man used to come to teach our big brothers in the home and I was seeing what they did, so I tried it many times and it was not coming out as a good paint, but as I did more and more then I come out with what I have now." What he has now are colorful images with a fresh spirit.

He began making art when he was 13. At 16 he made his first cards which he made an effort to sell to people.

"My traditional name is Makubuya," he explains. "It's not a common name but it belongs to a clan in Uganda called FFUBE clan. I don't know most of the meaning... I (will) know all that when I grow up."

A singular feature of his work is the manner in which he uses pieces of candy wrappers for the colors in his drawings. (Above right) "I started using candy papers when I was 20 years, when the home closed I had few water color prints to use and I had to find a way of making the same thing. So I started with a big paper and glued on the book first and it was nice but big, so I broke it into a smaller pieces, then cut into the small. People found me at the university drawing and said that (I was making) really unique art. I carried on with it and started going to people selling one by one. People liked it but didn't buy. As I went on it got better and still better, till now."

This is how his approach has evolved with time: "I tear a paper around and then I cut in the middle. I glue it, then draw around it to make the Africa life we live in most of my Africa. I base the pictures on my life and the lives of most of the African children who grow up on street and have talents which can be helped to become better people in the world."

Both his spirit and earnestness are contagious. Everyone who meets him seems to take an interest in his art as well as his ambition to help other children who grew up like he.

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To see more of Steven Boyyi's paintings and drawings, visit this page at Jeff Frey Photography.

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