Painting by Omari Booker of himself as a child wearing his dad's Harvard sweater.

Conversation with Omari Booker

Painting by Omari Booker of himself as a child wearing a Harvard sweatshirt which belonged to his father, after a schoolmate spat on the sweater.
"My Dad Went to Harvard" by Omari Booker.

Kristin sat down with Omari Booker in his studio to learn more about Omari's life, his work, and why art is so important to him.

Portrait of Nashville-based painter Omari Booker standing at his easel while holding a painter's palette.

Omari Booker is a Nashville painter. His current show, "I Live Here Too" is showing at abrasiveMedia through May 16th.

Closeup photo of Kristin Chapman Gibbons

Kristin Chapman Gibbons is a Teaching Artist with abrasiveMedia. She is also the founder of True Stories Let Loose, which is producing Story Booth Nashville (Facebook link).

by Kristen Chapman Gibbons

Omari Booker is an artist who likes to take you places you may not want to go. When I interviewed him at his West Nashville studio in March, he told me that this show is all about uneasiness…his, and yours. He started with a question, “Why am I so uncomfortable when I drive by this homeless man? Some of [the homeless people I pass] I see more than my mom! I wasn’t thinking of art necessarily, but the idea [for this show] came out of noticing. I needed to look at my discomfort, to look at my own tendency to look away.” This collection of paintings asks you to confront your own tendency to look away.
After a tour of Omari’s studio, we settled in on the deck for a conversation about freedom and the role of an artist. “It’s our job as artists to be awake and to see. If you are going to be good, in my opinion, you have to be awake. You have to see. You can’t go back to sleep.” In encountering subjects with experiences different than his own, his compassion grew, and he was able to access a richer expression of humanity. Omari’s own history gives insight into why waking up is so critical for survival. The paintings in “I Live Here Too” are a repudiation of the blindness of bias.

"Creative expression was my way back to tenderness..."
Omari Booker

He grew up feeling apart from his world, always watching. As a young man, he was incarcerated and came back to painting while he was in prison. He says he “rediscovered the value of painting for my well-being; art is the furlough. It is how you get out, while you are still in.” He continued, “If I was creating, I wasn’t really there. Creative expression was my way back to tenderness, to admit everything was broken, but that I was still there—still documenting what was broken, if nothing else, and that was freedom.”

It was also around this time that he was introduced to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning through the Higher Education Initiative. Omari credits the book with helping him create “humanizing experiences in a dehumanizing place.” He still has the copy that he was given while he was in prison. He also gives props to hip hop for helping him find his voice. Omari said that hip hop is easy to dismiss but, “it teaches you ‘The Game.’ It is truth-telling. It shows you there is a way to be yourself and be successful.” Through painting, reading, and music, Omari was searching for ways to connect to his own humanity, even as he was being denied it. He picked at the scabs of his own stories through his art, confronting his blind spots with unflinching truth and profound empathy.

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Painting by Omari Booker. Portrait of an older, tired man with a dollar in his pocket.
"How Much a Dollar Cost" by Omari Booker.

“Art is the space where I can take the mask all the way off."
Omari Booker

Omari Booker is no longer in a dehumanizing place. Instead, he uses art to revisit painful and truthful moments in his own life, and in the lives of others. The afternoon after I left, he was preparing to paint a particularly difficult memory from when he was in the sixth grade. He recalled that he was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. Even though his father attended the university, he felt “oddly ashamed” to wear it. Another kid in his class commented about the sweatshirt, saying “a n*gger shouldn’t wear it,” and then spat on him. “I held that image,” he said, “the stain from that spit never came out.” He knew that it would be emotionally challenging to paint but he felt he was ready. Omari completed this painting after we spoke and it is shown in the current collection.

He told me that painting gives him permission to re-engage his own experiences. “Art is the space where I can take the mask all the way off. I’ll be up there painting, with music pumping, cussing, crying, whatever—I can be the person no one sees.” This work is for himself. I asked him if he ever worried about whether the heaviness of his subject matter would negatively impact his success as an artist. He responded, “Listen, my work is not hugely marketable; it isn’t décor. I sell paintings of things nobody wants to look at.” He continued, “my job is to put it in front of people to start a conversation. There are people out there who want to have that conversation and continue it in their own space.”
I asked him if he had any advice for other artists. “Get to a point where you can accept it all, that if this is what you are called to do, do that. Don’t try to shift what you are doing just to fit a market, because then you are killing yourself. And I may have one more day to paint, so am I going to paint what means something to me or what might fill a market? I mean, you better do something for you.”

We all define success differently. Success for Omari Booker is about going deeper into his own humanity and the humanity of others. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I was doing it for output,” he said. I asked him how he knew if he was where he wanted to be. “If you are eating every day, you’ve already won. Today is the victory. This is still unimaginable to me, an ex-offender, doing this new thing, on the backs of so many people. I think about the guys I was locked up with, and there is just an amazing amount of grace to get to do what I do.”

Amazing grace indeed.

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You can see Omari's show "I Live Here Too" through May 18th at abrasiveMedia.