Terrence Adeyanju found an artful way out
He traded gang life for a path to self-discovery.
Terrence Adeyanju remembers the first time art awakened something inside of him.
As a young boy, he asked his mother to draw the letter “K” for him. She misheard him and drew a cake instead.
“And it was really beautiful,” he says. “I kept redrawing that cake.” His mom wasn’t artistic by any means, he says. As a single mom who moved with Adeyanju when he was 2 to Madison to a homeless shelter until she found housing, she didn’t really have time to make art.
But the misunderstanding introduced Adeyanju to drawing, and he quickly moved on to doodling Batman, Spider-Man and every other superhero or video game character he could think of. He had a cousin who was also a talented young artist. “He showed me things that I would learn 15, 20 years later in figure drawing class,” Adeyanju says.
Drawing was becoming a big part of Adeyanju’s life — until he became affiliated with a gang in high school.
His two older brothers were affiliated with the gang before Adeyanju was. He wasn’t succeeding academically at Madison East High School. Gang activity consumed him. He stopped drawing.
Then at 16 years old, he lost both of his brothers to the prison system for the same crime. Fraternal twins, his brothers were given 15- and 12-year sentences.
“Losing my brothers was a huge turning point,” he says. “I remember I was just going in the same direction at the time. And I switched my route.”
Operation Fresh Start — a program that helps Dane County youth through education, mentoring and employment training — showed Adeyanju that drawing could be his way out. But he committed his first crime in his first term at OFS. After that, the program leaders gave him one last try to get it together, and he never looked back.
“They really changed my life,” he says. “It made me feel accepted to find other kids where the system wasn’t working for them either.”
His mentors at Operation Fresh Start worked hands-on with him, introduced the idea of a career in graphic design and gave him a grant funded by Americorps at the end of the program that paid for his first laptop. Adeyanju enrolled at Madison College and earned a degree, then spent a few years at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
His art turned into some extra income — his first work was for local bands as a freelance artist. But he reached a point where freelance work was not fulfilling a larger need to create art for himself.
“At the time, my brothers only had [a few] years left, and I just felt like I had nothing to show for it and I was just at a very low, low spot.”
Adeyanju broke down due to an overflowing of unprocessed trauma. “At the time I was the head of the house, resentful of my father never being there for us, dealing with symptoms of PTSD and mourning the absence of my brothers all while trying to be ‘successful’ in a racist society.”
He turned to therapy. “I had always been, like, ‘Oh, I don’t need therapy, I can figure everything out myself,’ because that’s always what I had to do. I had to rely on myself. But I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he says. “It was one of the best decisions of my life.”
Therapy helped him unravel what had built up inside of him. “I carried a lot of shame and guilt that I didn’t have the tools to know how to deal with,” he says. “I was always a suppressor. It’s always that toxic masculinity, ‘boys don’t cry,’ ‘keep everything in,’ ‘be tough’ thing that just eventually, the water in my cup got way too full.”
After he started therapy, Adeyanju’s art became a powerful vehicle of self-discovery. “For me it meant a lot. It was therapy,” he says. “It meant getting through what I was going through and I couldn’t really talk to people the way I wanted to … and [art] was the best way I could visually show how I felt.”
He created “Nurture” and “Infinite” — both heavily symbolic graphic prints he calls “footnotes” that represent different breakthroughs he was having — but he did not share them publicly. “I held onto these things for like a year,” he says. “It was just going to be for me and my therapy.” But it was actually part of his breakthrough with “Nurture” that convinced him to release his work.
Today, his art frequently sells out when he puts his prints up for sale. When he sold his “Infinite” print in July 2020 with sales benefiting Freedom Inc., he raised $1,050 in three to four hours.
Adeyanju continues to share his highly personal art, he’s still in therapy, he’s a board member at Operation Fresh Start (the first and only board member to have ever gone through the program) and was most recently working as a graphic designer at Ameriprint Apparel, a screen-printing company in Sun Prairie, before being laid off due to the pandemic. Over the summer, a chance encounter while he was working on a downtown mural with fellow Madison artist led Adeyanju to a paid opportunity to cover a boarded-up Overture Center for the Arts with his work. “I just wanted to be a part of what I thought was a historical moment,” he says.
His art touches on some of the same themes at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to challenging internal fears, Adeyanju has worked through fears that come from his environment. “I realize I live in a system that is designed to keep Black people at a low self-esteem.” Yet his art does not reflect any realistic skin color.
“I don’t work in the color of my pigment, because that’s my liberation and also my box,” he says. “I’m so proud of my lineage, but people also use that to demonize me, to hurt me, to tell me what I’m capable of or what I’m like. My color, I’m so proud of it, and at the same time, I’m more than that. I’m much more than that.”
And the hope is that viewers see that, too. Adeyanju says viewers’ reaction to art can be just as powerful as creating the art. He hopes others will ask questions, find the meaning and have their eyes opened to our shared humanity.
“[Art is] all self-discovery for all of us,” he says. “To me, that’s the real revolution. … We all have our areas that we’re not facing things that will come out in how we deal with people and relationships.”
Adeyanju’s relationships have benefited as a result of therapy and artistic expression. His mother is his best friend. He’s trying to plan a trip once it’s safe for his dad to come visit from his home in Nigeria. Adeyanju is close with all four of his siblings who still live in the area, and he meditates regularly with friends. The strength of his relationships is a reflection of the work he’s done and the art that’s helped him get there.
“Without the artwork, oh man, I think I would have completely imploded. Those things had to come out of me,” he says. “It wasn’t some objective like, ‘Oh I’m going to make this artwork and it’s going to do this or that.’ No, it was like, I was going through these things and the need to express it was so high … and it was the only way I knew how to do it. So what didn’t get caught in therapy got caught in art.”
Read more about “The Healing Arts” here.