By Renee Foose, Special to the AFRO
Fifty years ago, following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife, Coretta Scott King, founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change to continue his legacy of campaigns for civil rights and social justice. The tumultuous events in 1968 shaped the thinking and focus of a young artist who found a way to use his talent to address higher goals, and make a difference in the lives of thousands of Black Americans, one drawing at a time.
Kofi Tyus was raised in Washington, D.C. and found his love of art at a young age. A high school teacher recognized his talent and helped him win a scholarship to attend Howard University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He continued to study at
Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and later returned to Washington, D.C. where he worked for the federal government making illustrations and maps.
Although Tyus was using his artistic talents for a valuable public service, it wasn’t satisfying his passion to serve a greater good. He said he was inspired to take a different direction when he couldn’t find a suitable Mother’s Day card for his mother. He decided to start his own line of Black greeting cards with the intention of creating positive images and messages not found elsewhere and sold them at a price that would encourage widespread sales. In addition to launching a popular line of greeting cards, Tyus began free-lance work with book illustrations, court room sketching, political cartoons, and a comic strip series featuring his own children that was syndicated in over 100 newspapers nationwide.
His wife, Fodowo, describes his work as “warm love, you can feel the love and joy in his work, and his message is always just right.” They met at an art show where he was showcasing his work. Together, they manage the marketing and sale of his art work.
Tyus told the AFRO his early inspiration for art was “hunger and purpose” which came at a time of unrest in the nation. Now, fifty years later, his inspiration comes from faith, “once you realize there is only one Creator, there is no limit to where creativity can carry you” he said. “Water colors are my favorite medium, it provides freedom. Like cooking, the test is in the taste. You can do anything with watercolor, if it tastes good, it’s good.”
After a long and distinguished career creating uplifting messages and championing social justice, Tyus hopes young people will continue to draw on his art as an inspiration and to use his work “to figure out what is important to you, and to be clear with who you are.”
His work is on display at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams Morgan and will be featured in several upcoming exhibits in the Washington, D.C. area.