Genesis the Greykid is a fixture in downtown Chattanooga, and he is relatively easy to spot thanks in part to the coal-black dreadlocks that rest atop his thin frame. He's also easily recognizable as the guy who can be seen walking nearly everywhere downtown or sitting in an outdoor cafe enjoying a cup of tea or working on one of his latest paintings.
"I'll hear people say, "That's the guy that walks everywhere,' " he says during a recent breakfast meeting at Stir. Later that afternoon, he set up shop on the cafe outside and went to work on one of his smaller paintings.
To others, Genesis is known as the guy who leads workshops and seminars about writing poetry and using the art form to envision the world as a better place. As is the case with so many artists, Genesis the artist and poet is becoming better known for his work outside of the community than he is here.
In fact, the last four months he has traveled from one side of the country to the other meeting some high-profile people. He had a highly successful gallery exhibit in Los Angeles where he rubbed elbows with Tesla founder Elon Musk, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry and former NBA star Scottie Pippen.
He showcased 23 48-inch by 60-inch oil-on-canvas pieces as well as seven smaller ones and sold five that night and had commissions for others as a result. Many of his pieces he calls "PoAnguardia," a word he made up to define the merging of poetry, painting and art that he creates. He first envisions the words he paints on the canvas, and then paints around them.
It could be a simple one-word theme like "love" or one that is more involved like the piece rapper Yo-Gotti bought, which reads:
is not in the arm
but the family
and we exercise
In June, he spent nearly four weeks in the Hamptons creating new works with artist/designer/illustrator Audrey Schilt, an illustrator for the fashion designer Halston for many years, and he was the featured artist at the Aspen Institute Socrates Program, a three-day workshop for 100 of the world's best and brightest.
It included industry leaders, attorneys, White House staffers and Howard Buffett, an associate professor at Columbia University and the grandson of business magnate/philanthropist Warren Buffett. Most of the people on the guest list had founder and co-founder next to their names. Genesis was the only artist on the program, and he led two sessions that had about 40 people in each.
"It was a pretty impressive group," Genesis says.
"The first thing I did was have them write a poem about their shoes," he says. "From the perspective of their shoes."
Then he showed them a video of an emotionally charged, real-life courtroom scene of a father confronting the man who had killed his son.
"I had them write about that from any perspective they wanted," Genesis says. "It could be the father, the man on trial, the judge, the clock on the wall, the woman's purse on the bench. It didn't matter, as long as they owned it."
Getting an audience of about 40 people to write a poem entirely from the perspective of their shoes is hardly a new exercise for Genesis, who's in his early 30s. He has presented similar workshops in juvenile detention centers, art classes and in affordable-housing facilities, and he says this was not all that different, except for the status of the audience members.
"The cats in the juvenile home and the cats in Aspen all had something to say; they just saw it from different perspectives," he says. "And sometimes from places they had never thought about before."
The Aspen programs include weekend-long seminars (one in the winter and one in the summer), and day-long salons in major U.S. cities including New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Topics for past seminars have included the U.S. economy, bioethics, energy security, technology and privacy, the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan, religious fundamentalism, education innovation, globalization, health reform, China and America, sports and society, green investing, immigration and sustainable communities.
For the last two years, Genesis has done a gallery showcase every December in Chattanooga and followed those up with a similar exhibit elsewhere. The first was in New Orleans, and this past year, he spent several weeks working and networking in Los Angeles before the exhibit.
Before each, he takes a cross-country journey taking notes and finding his muse for the works. He took a train two years ago, and last year it was a slow and deliberate car ride on back roads.
"I like to meet people along the way and get the mood of the places I see," he says.
He purposely held the exhibit in a formerly empty space just a block off Skid Row in LA in a part of town not often frequented by Hollywood elite, but he drew a large crowd, including Pippen.
"The energy of the show was very, very, very high," says Sparkle Holmes, CEO of the A-List Group in LA.
"It was so close to Skid Row, but people came across town for the show, which is rare, especially for Los Angeles. Everybody wants to do everything in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood, so the type of turnout he got, especially so close to Skid Row, just doesn't happen.
"There were lots of millionaires, and it was a very artsy crowd. Very diverse with a large number of poeple coming throughout the event."
"The reception was really beautiful," adds Gatsby Randolph, president of Project Hollywood. "We were in a beautiful space, and Genesis made it his own."
Randolph connects people in Hollywood for a living and helped get Genesis in front of the right people during his stay.
"When I first met Genesis, I thought he was special and that he needed a bigger stage. He loves Chattanooga, but LA has more people in bigger tax brackets. I put him in the room, but he delivered. Five minutes after he walked in, he was talking to [actor] Adrien Brody and Halle Berry, and they were blown away."
The show drew good reviews in addition to a good-size crowd of more than 100, including celebrities and the ultra-wealthy. Patrons who attended were struck by the seemingly simple messages of his paintings.
"Genesis gave a lot to the space, and the space gave back to his work," says actress and model Priyanka Bose.
"There was a lot of energy, and it was a beautiful evening.
"I don't know his work from before, but the vibe I got is that Genesis has lived these words. He has lived them and experienced them. All of what he says is very truthful, and it is something that people just need sometimes: these words on the wall to remind of the truth. They just need these words on their walls to remind them. Simple things like love."
Actress/TV personality Sundy Carter offered the same opinion of how the works offer reminders of simple truths that too often get overlooked by people of all walks of life.
"It was very successful," she says.
"It was a mixture of people. Very diverse, and everyone was very open to what he was doing. His artwork brings people together, and it has these characteristics that we should all have. Treating people the right way because nothing else matters. It's very simple, but very beautiful.
"It draws you in. The same for him. His style is very simple and eccentric at the same time.
"Sometimes, we all just need a little reminder to love, or to be kind, and sometimes we need a big reminder. As in, right there in front of us in large print."
While he has set his sights on conquering the art world, Genesis is loyal to his hometown of Chattanooga. Born into a military family that moved often, he lived here only briefly as a youngster but returned to visit family. As an adult, he could have chosen New York or Los Angeles, where his art and music careers (he was also a ghostwriter for musicians) were taking root. But he picked Chattanooga.
"I love this city, and I love coming back here after being in those places. It's grounding. I feel like in Chattanooga you can create something and see the effects of it."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.