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Liberation: Treasure Coast Artist Jemal Hayes ‘Draws’ on His Family’s Past for Black History Month

Tania Ortega-Cowan

February is Black History Month, and the Emerson Center in Vero Beach is celebrating with a special art exhibit. We dropped in on one of the artists in his own studio.

JH: My name is Jemal Hayes. I was born and raised right here in Vero Beach.

Inspired by the book Multiple Streams of Income by Robert Allen, Hayes used his love of the arts to build a successful business. He taught himself graphic design, photography, videography, and deejaying, and through his company, Mr. J’s Media Productions, he and his high school sweetheart and wife Simmone raised five children!

JH: I have four boys and one girl. My oldest is 25 and my youngest is 17.

About 4 years ago, he went back to his original love of drawing and painting.

JH: Right now, it’s mixed media. Acrylics, I use charcoal, and oil sticks.

He has several pieces on display at the Emerson Center for Black History Month.

JH: That series – I call it LIBERATION.

The main painting is a portrait of his great-grandmother Joera.

Credit photo provided
Jemal Hayes in front of his Black History Month Series LIBERATION. Directly behind him is the portrait of his great-grandmother.

JH: My grandfather’s mother. She was a slave and they actually grew up on a Georgia plantation.

She had 8 children. Hayes was raised by one of her sons, his grandfather JC Wallace, and his grandmother Naomi.

JH: They raised me because the crack epidemic took a toll on my parents. My grandfather was a laborer so for the first ten years of my life I actually lived on a milk dairy. I really think it saved my life. It was really a blessing.

Specifically, Tripson Dairy. Hayes first got into drawing because of his father.

JH: My father would correspond with me through prison, and he would send these nice drawn cards. I didn’t have much to say, but I was able to draw.

When the dairy closed, they moved to Gifford.

JH: It wasn’t really cool to be a guy carrying a sketch book in my neighborhood, you know. You look down the road and the most successful guy – he was selling poison in the neighborhood. Here I am: 6’4” – 275 pounds and I got a sketchbook in my hands. (Laughs)

Throughout high school…

JH: …I always had a hustle, people would say, because I would sell around this time of year – Valentine’s Day – I would draw pictures and that was the way I would make extra lunch money. I would draw roses and flowers.

In fact, looking at his current artwork…

JH: You can see roses and flowers if you really look close. (Laughs)

And female forms in motion.

JH: I pay a lot of homage to women because they were strong. I love to see people dance and my mom... My mom’s always been a happy person and she loves to dance. So, you will see a lot of motion in my art.

Hayes shares some of the stories his grandfather passed down.

JH: You couldn’t look a white woman in the eye. Or if they were coming your way, you would actually have to step off the sidewalk and let them walk by.

He shares these stories with his own children too.

JH: They probably get tired of hearing me. Maybe they’ll appreciate it one day. I remind them what has been paid for you to sit at the same table with your peers.

He says those conversations are hard.

 JH: Just raising young black men – I really think it’d be nice if it came with a book. When they get pulled by a cop – that conversation. Or how they will be treated certain ways.

He describes these limitations as chains…

JH: …that you can’t break free of. You are born with those chains. Because of just your skin.

However, he also teaches them…

JH: …that you can see yourself transcending into something else by the way you live your everyday life.

The Black History Month art exhibit runs through February 26 at the Emerson Center in Vero Beach.

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