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How artist Alonzo Adams captures the essence of black culture through art

Growing up as an only child in Plainfield, New Jersey, Alonzo Adams spent much of his time alone. A rare disease forced him to undergo nose surgery twice, further isolating him from other children. But he found a friend in drawing.

He said he realized by fifth grade that he had a “God-given talent.” Years later, he moved to Rutgers University to study engineering to fulfill his mother's wish. But when the consistently high-performing student failed calculus, “I knew engineering wasn't for me,” Adams said.

Around that time, he discovered the art of Charles White, a black artist whose work focused on poignant images of black life, and Adams' purpose — and career path — changed. As a new student, he showed a professor his first oil painting, called “The Start,” which depicted a runner getting ready to take off in a race. The professor was so impressed that he visited Adams' home to persuade his mother to allow her son to change his subject.

“It was like a college coach coming into a player’s living room to recruit him,” Adams said.

Adams' biggest collector is Basketball Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning.
Adams' biggest collector is Basketball Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning.Courtesy: Alonzo Adams

His mother agreed, and “The Start” marked the beginning of his career. Adams, who holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts, made a splash right from the start and is now one of the country's leading artists reflecting black culture.

“I dreamed of doing great things, so to be able to live out my dreams is amazing,” he said.

Adams, 62, is truly living a fantasy. Famous people are drawn to his work. Collectors of his art include the sports and entertainment luminaries: They include pro basketball Hall of Famers Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo, current NBA stars Chris Paul and Bam Adebayo, actor Wesley Snipes, NFL Hall of Famer and television host Michael Strahan, actress Jasmine Guy and comedian Tracy Morgan. Hollywood star Eddie Murphy, singer Patti Labelle and former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young also own early Adams works.

“His work reflects the essence of black life,” said Mourning, who first saw Adams' art at the 1997 NBA All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. “I was just stunned and kept looking at everything. I bought five pieces, put them in my house. And over the years I've noticed a uniqueness in the character of his work. Given the opportunity and visibility, he could become one of the country's leading ethnic artists.”

“Daughters of the Moment” is a work created by Adams during the 2020 social justice movement.Courtesy: Alonzo Adams

Heritage Fine Arts describes Adams' work as “dominated by the earth colors favored by Rembrandt and the American artists he followed, giving his work a poetic, contemplative quality.”

“It's extremely flattering to have celebrities — or anyone — endorse my work,” said Adams, who ran track in high school and is an avid golfer. “Usually, my collectors have seen my work on their friends' or co-workers' walls and asked about me. I don't want to sell my art. I want my art to sell itself.”

And it happened.

Morning is the No. 1 collector of Adams' work. Guy, who starred in the popular television series “A Different World,” has been an Adams collector for many years and has hosted several events showcasing his work.

Guy sat for a portrait several years ago and the details in the finished product mesmerized her. “And the pose he used was not a pose at all. It was just me looking out the window and thinking,” she said. “It was a brilliant choice by a brilliant artist.”

Actress Jasmine Guy posed for Adams for this photo, which he has hanging in his Atlanta home.
Actress Jasmine Guy posed for Adams for this photo, which he has hanging in his Atlanta home.Courtesy: Jasmine Guy

Adams' connections to celebrities didn't end there. While working on commission as an appliance salesman, he saved a woman hundreds of dollars on appliances and warranties she didn't need. He said she reminded him of his mother “and I couldn't let her go knowing she was wasting money.” About six months later, the woman took the first newspaper article about Adams to the set of “The Cosby Show,” where her son had found work as an extra.

The son shared the article with the show's star, Bill Cosby, who bought one of Adams' watercolor pieces without seeing it. Adams said Cosby later called him and urged him to apply to a master's program to further hone his skills. “You apply to any art school in the world, get in on your own merits — don't mention me — and I'll pay for it,” he remembers Cosby saying.

Adams was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, and Cosby paid for her tuition as well as an apartment and a stipend.

“I know there's controversy about Bill Cosby, but he changed my life,” Adams said.

The late poet Maya Angelou was also an influence on him. She admired Adams' work and organized a show for him at Howard University and a dinner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the latter event, she said, “'Dr. Angelou, I'm looking for that artistic voice.' And she said, 'Young Mr. Adams, you have to go out into the world, soak it up like a sponge, bring it back to your studio and pour it out.' Those words stuck with me.”

But how did she influence his work? “I started traveling with my camera and taking pictures of everything that impressed me,” he said. “I started writing things down in a book. Her words informed my vision.”

A trip to Ghana in 2019, several years after receiving Angelou's advice, also inspired her. She visited the so-called slave dungeon at Cape Coast, where enslaved Africans were held captive before being put on ships headed for the Middle Passage.

“When I came out of the men’s dungeon I felt like vomiting,” Adams said. “Whenever I feel like I can’t do anything, I always think about that experience. I asked the tour guide, ‘How did they survive?’ And he just said, ‘They survived so you can survive.’ That made me realize that I have a lot of things to say in my work.”

Adams and his artist son Kyle Olani Adams worked together for the Pivot exhibition in New York last November.
Adams and his artist son Kyle Olani Adams worked together for the Pivot exhibition in New York last November.Courtesy: Alonzo Adams

He is proudly working on a 15-foot by 60-foot mural in his beloved hometown of Plainfield. And Adams has teamed up with his son, Kyle Olani Adams, 23, also an accomplished artist. They teamed up for the “Pivot” exhibition at Detour Gallery in New York last November. “A lot of people say, ‘He’s better than you at charcoal,’ and I say, ‘You’re absolutely right. And I’m proud of him.’ What I like most about Kyle is that he has this desire to be great. He’s determined. That’s the kind of person he’s going to be.”

Quiet and modest, Kyle Olani said his older brother Jaylen inherited their father's passionate personality “and I think he got the artist side of me.” However, he “didn't take art seriously” until high school. Now, after creating constantly during the COVID pandemic, he's on the rise.

“I see the potential for greatness in Kyle,” said Mourning, who has purchased his work and placed one of his pieces in the lobby of the recently opened Overtown Youth Center in Miami. “All he has to do is stay disciplined, hardworking and hungry, and good things are going to happen for him — just like they did for his dad.”

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