Stories Behind the BrushStrokes

 /  August 2011 / ,

Writer: Ashley Owen / Photographer: Ashley Owen 

Barnstable artist Frank Chike Anigbo found inspiration for his canvases worlds away on Skid Row.

Barnstable artist Frank Chike Anigbo

Anigbo’s workshop is lined with paintings inspired by conversations and real life experiences with homeless people, that he documents through journaling. Photo by Ashley Owen

Painters render the subjects they are passionate about, and Frank Chike Anigbo finds his subjects far away from his Cape Cod home. Since 2005, he has visited Los Angeles and documented the lives of homeless men and women who walk the streets of the Skid Row neighborhood. Painting is his way of bringing these people out of anonymity and making them visible and distinct. In return, his subjects provide Anigbo with a rare honesty that appears on his canvases. “Most of us walk around with masks on to hide who we really are,” Anigbo says. “But with people with absolutely nothing, I find incredible sincerity. They have nothing left to hide. They lost it all already.”

Barnstable artist Frank Chike Anigbo

Although he is a Barnstable native, Frank Chike Anigbo’s subjects range from far beyond the Cape. Photo by Ashley Owen

In his studio in the Old Schoolhouse in Barnstable, paintings of all sizes and stages of completion line the walls and classic music echoes around the spacious room. Anigbo works a full-time job, and he does most of his painting very late at night. After 2 a.m., he says, he is at his most alert and emotionally vulnerable. Barefoot and donning a black-and-white cotton scarf and blue plaid button-up shirt, he carefully scrutinizes a six-by-14-foot painting, titled The Equestrian Portrait of the King of Skid Row. He adjusts the spotlight toward his canvas to illuminate its subjects, and his precise hands blend oil paints on a vibrant pallet. With the silhouette of his tall frame stretching across the canvas, he meticulously paints, rubs, and scrapes the pigments until he’s satisfied. He’s been working on the piece for nearly a year. “I consider myself a contemporary social realist,” he says. “However, my focus is at the very bottom end of society.”

Though Anigbo has exhibited works at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, the defunct Wilson Gallery in Dennis, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Barnstable artist has never given much priority to exhibiting his work. It is the process of creating art that compels him like nothing else. “Painting just feels like the most direct way to vividly express emotion and tell the truth about something you want others to hear, even if I never get to show it to anyone,” he says.

Barnstable artist Frank Chike Anigbo

Anigbo’s workspace is filled with tools, brushes, and paints that aid in making his portraits what they are. Photo by Ashley Owen

Anigbo was born in Nigeria and lived there until he attended college in Connecticut, where he studied computer software per his parents’ wishes. He taught himself how to paint by studying books, frequenting museums, and analyzing works by Monet, Degas, and other impressionists. A 1999 trip to The Museo del Prado in Madrid inspired Anigbo to adopt a new style. “You can’t do what Velázquez, Rubens, and Goya did with impressionism. You just can’t,” Anigbo says.

He relearned his craft and honed his style while taking computer software jobs that brought him from Hartford, Connecticut to rural Vermont to Cape Cod. Though he had no intention of staying on the Cape for very long, he met his future wife, Karen, who spent summers in West Yarmouth. Thirteen years later, he’s still here. Cape Cod provides Anigbo with a beautiful and relatively quiet place to live and work. “If I were to move away from here now, I’d have to move far away from New England because no place around here is as good,” he says. In many ways, the Cape is an escape from the reality that he paints, writes, and thinks about.

At the moment, Anigbo is deep into an exhibition for the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The exhibit, slated to be displayed in spring 2012, deals primarily with the people he has encountered on his trips to Skid Row between 2005 and 2008. Anigbo wants his audience to know each subject as a person—not simply as a painting—so he plans to include a catalog of information he has documented about the lives, relationships, and stories that define his subjects. “I can’t just show these paintings without talking about the people,” he says, “just as I cannot show any of these paintings outside of the context of all of them together.”

Barnstable artist Frank Chike Anigbo

Anigbo adds the finishing touches to one of his portraits. Photo by Ashley Owen

The relationships between Anigbo and his subjects develop organically, and he spends anywhere from an hour to several weeks at their sides. In 2007, for example, he spent two weeks living in the area with a woman named Sherri, whose home consisted of a blanket, pillow, and traffic cone. Anigbo sat by her side as others came to visit with her, or to buy a trinket she was peddling. In this world, the most striking thing Anigbo found was how normal life ultimately seemed. “One of the most important and constant lessons I’ve learned is how universal life is,” he says. “Spend enough time in a different part of society, and just about anything can become completely normal.”

Through multiple trips to the area, Anigbo has learned that conversations produce better insight than interviews. “The quality of what you end up learning [in interviews] is only as good as the questions you asked, or as good as the answers they choose to give,” he says. “But if you spend a week or two weeks or three weeks with someone on a constant or nearly constant basis, after a while you forget why you really came there and you just talk and listen.” He documents these conversations and experiences in journal entries and voice recordings, detailing the life stories of his subjects. They aren’t statistics, but people replete with childhoods, struggles, and regrets.

Lately, Anigbo has found little reason to visit Skid Row again. It’s a gentrified place where the homeless have been mostly displaced to make way for, as he puts it, “fashionable condos, art galleries, and hipsters with very small dogs.” Instead, he continues to seek out parts of the world that others like to forget. “I’ve spent much of my adult life feeling very strongly that so many people are discarded,” he says. In long nights at the studio he captures their spirits, and he goes to sleep knowing that his work means something.

Ashley Owen is a freelance writer and former intern for Cape Cod Life Publications.