Story by HANNAH MCMORRIS
On a cloudy day in East Austin, I walked to Epoch Coffee and was greeted by a woman named Kemi. Making small talk, I effortlessly stepped up from the gravel parking lot onto the smooth pavement near the Epoch chairs and tables. Embarrassed, I recognized that my new companion, Kemi couldn’t do the same. She was in a wheelchair and didn’t have the luxury of stepping up onto the pavement. Kemi wasn’t bothered, and brushed off my apology, while we proceeded to look for a ramp for her to use.
Searching for accessibility is a struggle I never come into contact with. However, situations such as these have become part of Kemi’s daily routine. But don’t get me wrong, Kemi is in no way jaded or bitter. On the contrary, she accepts challenges with grace, faith and discretion.
From the short amount of time I got to know Kemi, I hope to have absorbed some of the empowerment and light she radiated. Hopefully, you can feel this through her own words.
SprATX :: Who are you, and where did you come from?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: My name is Kemi Yemi-Ese, and and my family is originally from Nigeria. For half my life, I was raised in Houston, and then went to Baylor. I majored in Neuroscience and Studio Art. But once I had my car accident [in 2006], I decided to go back and drop Pre-Med, but stay with the Art and Neuroscience. I taught for a little bit and moved to Austin, and that’s when I really discovered my passion to follow my art and pursue a degree in rehabilitation counseling, so that eventually, when I’m done, I can combine my love for art and my love for medicine and become an art therapist.
SprATX :: Just to touch on the car accident, what happened?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I was driving from a friend’s house and this lady came, almost as if she was going to hit me head on. So I swerved to get around her, rolled over when I tried to correct the vehicle, and ended up breaking my neck and being paralyzed from the waist down, as well as part of my arms.
SprATX :: How did you deal with your injuries and the long-term effects?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: It was definitely hard, but my family is very faith-based, so I know that my faith in God really helped me pull through. Plus, in one instance, my former boss gave me a crayon and a sketch pad, since she knew that I loved art, and it was just something that really helped me discover my identity again. It helped me realize that I’m still Kemi, but I just have to do things a little differently than I’m used to. So I just kept drawing, I kept painting, and then I went back to school to finish my Studio Art minor. They put me in a painting class and a graphic design class and that’s what really got me into painting. Before my accident, I didn’t paint at all. I didn’t really like it, but afterwards I found that it was a much more flexible medium than pencil and graphite. So I’m excited where I’m going with my art, but I’m also just grateful that I’ve had the art to help me cope with a lot of different things.
SprATX :: What were some of the hardest things to deal with after the accident?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: A really hard thing was trying to find my identity now with the [wheel]chair and my disability. Before my accident, I was Pre-Med, a praise dancer at church and running around all over the place. I was very, very active, so to go from being super active and independent to being dependent on people for your daily needs is a hard thing to go through. But when you have a good support system, and friends and family that really love and care for you, it makes things a little bit easier.
But that was the hardest thing for me: being able to find my identity with this disability, and still maintain my strength and independence. It’s still a daily process of making sure that I don’t let the stereotypes of what it means to have a disability define who I am. I want to define my own life, and not be held down by labels just because of the chair.
SprATX :: And how would you describe your identity now?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I describe my identity as fiercely independent, vibrant, colorful, inquisitive, and empathetic. I knew that I had empathy before [the accident], but now, being in a position where I’m forced to kind of sit and watch everybody else hustle and bustle in their life makes me very aware of the human experience, which also feeds into my art.
SprATX :: Moving beyond the accident, what do you do now and why?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: Right now I’m in school, just trying to finish up that degree program, and I’m also trying to develop my art as a professional artist. I paint a lot of different things. I’m inspired by everything around me, and I’m trying to make my voice within my art a little more consistent.
Plus, I really want to develop myself as an artist, so that when I eventually become an art therapist, I’ll have a little more credibility and a bit more experience as far as using art as a healing medium for myself. I want to be able to give other people the same tools to do it for their lives, whether they have disabilities or not.
SprATX :: That’s incredible. How do you want to incorporate art into becoming a means for therapy?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I want my main clients to be people with disabilities; people who either come through car accidents like I have or traumatic brain injuries and help them transition by learning how to use art as a coping mechanism to better help their transition from being in the hospital to living life with a disability. But I know that since art is healing to all people, I would eventually branch out and help anyone who needs healing in that way, not just people with disabilities.
SprATX :: I know that recognizing your own artistic talent was a process. When did you first realize you were an artist?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: The first time I realized I was an artist was when my parents acknowledged my art. Coming from a Nigerian culture, you’re either an engineer, lawyer, or doctor. There’s no room for anything else. Even before my accident, I had to sneak in my Studio Art minor, and when my dad found out, I had to explain to him that in order to be good doctor, I have to be well-rounded, and art will eventually help me out. [laughs] It wasn’t the whole truth, but it helped him get off my back for a while. And after my accident, when I just decided I was going to paint, just to help me cope with things, my mom looked at one of my drawings and got really emotional.
I said ‘What’s going on?’ and she replied ‘I don’t know how you’re going to pursue anything in medicine when you can paint and draw this well.’
And it made me think, ‘Okay, my mom and my dad are actually accepting my art.’ They were starting to see and appreciate that when God gives you different talents, you can’t just shun it away to be a part of other people’s expectations. They were my hardest critics besides myself. So in order to feel like I was successful, winning them over was important, and I didn’t even realize how important it was until they had that reaction to my art.
That’s when I really knew I was an artist: when I broke the mold from my parents on what it means to be successful. Because success doesn’t come from monetary gain. Success is so much more than money and status.
SprATX :: When you really started viewing yourself as an artist, what were some of the struggles that came along with that?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: Just wanting to find my voice and have that voice relevant and attractive to other people. I went through this thing of, ‘ Should I paint for myself?’, or ‘Should I be painting things that will appeal to the mainstream?’ I went through a period where it was all about: maybe I should paint to get a lot of [Instagram] likes, or maybe I should paint just to get acclaim. But then I realize that I wouldn’t be happy and my art would lose its meaning if I only painted commercialized images to get attention. Really, the genuine attention that my art receives is better than masses of superficial clicks.
So that’s been an inner struggle: making sure that I’m painting and being true to myself, and exploring deeper themes than just painting celebrities and things like that. I realized that I need to pull myself away from that and just paint true to myself. Regardless of how much exposure I get, I want to make sure that the right eyes land on my art and that’s it. I want as many people to have a connection with my art, not just an ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
SprATX :: What is something you’ve painted that you believe audiences will connect with?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I like painting a lot of images that deal with space or themes of inner potential. One of my pieces titled “Creation” shows a woman with her eyes closed and gears in her neck. That piece represents the idea that all of us live in these finite bodies, but we can create things beyond and outside of ourselves that are infinite. With the backing of God and this infinite potential we have within ourselves, we can almost live forever because we’re creating legacies outside of our self.
I like to explore themes like that, especially with my disability, I like to explore themes that reflect how finite our bodies are. We won’t live forever, but the things we create outside of ourselves may live forever in the lives of other people.
SprATX :: If money and time weren’t an issue, what would be your dream project?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: There is this one painting that I did early on of a guy’s body. He has a TV for a head, and his hand is covered in white noise. My dream project would be to bring that painting to life in a 3-D environment, where I would make a mannequin and put a TV on the mannequin’s head and have all these cords coming out placed inside of a dark room. And you would walk into the dark room and the TV would come on with an emergency signal. You would hear different may-day signals to represent how my body dealt with my accident and the fact that I have a spinal cord injury.
So instead of just painting a girl in a wheelchair, I would explore disability in a way that everyone would be able to understand. Because everybody has had a problem with a television once or twice, and they can understand the disconnect between the cord and the monitor. I want that to be a full immersion into what my body went through. I could see that being a permanent installation at a museum or something like that. That would be cool.
SprATX :: Why did you choose to use a TV for that?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I just felt that everyone receives messages through the television. If I painted it now, it would probably be a smartphone, just to show that communication is key. But when communication is within your body and it’s broken, then you have a real problem. On the inside, it can be apocalyptic.
SprATX :: You are such an inspiration to budding creatives. What advice would you give to younger artists?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: My advice is to get connected with other artists. Go to as many art shows as you can, and maybe even branch out and think of other ways to spread your medium around. Don’t be afraid to give away your art to people who maybe can’t afford your original pieces, because you never know who that person may be connected to and you never know where that piece may end up. Treat your art as a message, not as something to glorify yourself.
SprATX :: And lastly, what does the future hold for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Kemi Yemi-Ese :: I see myself as a practicing rehabilitation counselor and art therapist. I’d like to work in a rehabilitation hospital like St. David’s and hopefully have a family, while still pursuing my art as a professional. Right now, I still do custom paintings and things like that for clients, so I want to continue doing that.