All smiles for Eritrean painter

Abraham Tesfasilasie, 21, holds his oil painting entitled, "United", at his apartment in Seattle. Tesfasilasie, along with a friend and fellow artist, is putting on an art show on July 10th to help raise money to perform dental work he needs. The art piece depicts a scene from Asmara, the capitol of Eritrea, where he is from. (Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Abraham Tesfasilasie, 21, holds his oil painting called, “United”, at his Seattle apartment. Tesfasilasie, along with a fellow artist, is putting on an art show July 10th to help raise money to perform dental work he needs. (Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times)

It’s been a good year for Abraham Tesfasilasie. He held his first art show, started community college and got a job at the library. But the most inspiring experience for this 21-year-old refugee from Eritrea?

Getting braces.

When I first wrote about Tesfasilasie last summer he was desperate. Years of living in refugee camps had left his teeth in terrible shape. His first year in Seattle had been a whirlwind of new schools, friends and experiences, but Tesfasilasie struggled to enjoy it through the bleeding gums and chronic headaches related to his declining oral health.

But his lifelong passion for art came to the rescue — with a little help from his new home.

At the end of his senior year, Tesfasilasie won a national award for a beautifully enigmatic self-portrait. Inspired by this success, he decided to put on a show of his paintings — many depicting his hopes and struggles as a new immigrant — to help raise money for much needed dental work. Mentors at the Metrocenter YMCA encouraged him to also launch an online campaign to solicit further donations.

By the closing of his show, Tesfasilasie had raised almost $9,000 — some of which came from Seattle Times readers.

“I feel something deep in my heart for those people that donated,” says Tesfasilasie who has had a root canal, regular cleanings and got braces on his lower teeth thanks to those donations (the upper braces come next month), “A lot of people care about others, and it helps remind me to keep working hard.”

Today Tesfasilasie is doing just that. He works full time at the High Point Public Library and attends art and English classes at Seattle Central College.

In his free time he paints — most often in the cramped bathroom of a one-bedroom apartment he shares with fellow Eritrean artist, 21-year-old Nahom Girmay, and Girmay’s mom and younger brother.

“I don’t want to mess up the floor [in the living room] and it’s more quiet in there,” explains Girmay, who just graduated from Garfield High School and is himself an award-winning artist who was chosen to create the design for this year’s Central Area Community Festival.

The results of these bathroom sessions (there is literally a paint-spattered easel across from the toilet) are all over the apartment. A solemn portrait of Girmay’s brother sits drying in the living room, a blazing orange sunset burns on the wall next to the front door and an Eritrean cathedral silhouetted against a purple dusk hangs in the tiny kitchen.

Girmay and Tesfasilasie clearly inspire each other — commenting on each other’s work and playfully fighting over who gets to use the bathroom studio. Recently they’ve been particularly interested in painting subjects from their home country. They say it helps them stay connected to where they come from and to share their culture with Seattle.

“We want to try and tell other people about our backgrounds and our memories,” explains Tesfasilasie looking at a small painting of praying figures shrouded in white. “It’s important because it makes you who you are.”

That theme has inspired their upcoming joint show, “Memories from Back Home,” opening July 10 at the Triangle Art Gallery at the Metrocenter YMCA, 909 Fourth Ave., Seattle. The artists will be in attendance from 6-8 p.m.; the art will be up through August.

Both Girmay and Tesfasilasie say they are just excited to get their work seen, but they are quick to add that any money they earn from the show will be put to good use.

Tesfasilasie still needs to raise another $2,000 to complete his dental work (tooth implants) and Girmay hopes to raise funds to go to art school (he was accepted to Cornish College of the Arts and had his portfolio accepted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but can’t afford tuition to attend either school).

Tesfasilasie says the experience of having people believe in him — even when they didn’t know him — has encouraged him to continue to dream big.

“I know I’m not perfect,” he says smiling big enough to catch the glint of his braces, “but I just want to try.”

I know he will.

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

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