Feb 27, 2016

"Art is a motivation": How artist Adam Alli found his balance

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Tucked into a comfortable chair at the edge of a cafeteria-turned-classroom, Adam brings out a dog-eared binder and an equally beaten up map.  He’s been a construction worker, a refugee, a political activist, a prisoner, a farmer and landscaper, making his way across two continents and countless countries as he seeks balance, safety, and peace. Now, he’s an assistant artist with Mural Arts’ Porch Light program, and through the bustling noise of the ongoing class, he tells me, with laser focus, about his art and his travels.

As we begin talking about his life, Adam unfolds a tattered plastic map. He points to his birthplace, Lugazi, Uganda, and then borrows my pencil to trace his life’s trek across the African continent. East and west, north and south, Adam travelled across African countries, learning languages, studying technology at universities, working as a mechanic, and spending time as a horse trainer. His life was interrupted several times by famine, political protests, and war, and in 1990, after a three week ocean journey with no food, he found himself in a refugee camp in Liberia. Adam’s brother came looking for him in the refugee camp, and once they connected, they began farming swamp land, trying to carve out an ecologically sound, beautiful place. Adam’s brother saved enough money and bought a farm, but Adam was ready for the next adventure.

Alli traces his travels. Photo by Steve Weinik.

In 1994, Adam was resettled as part of a refugee program in Dallas, Texas, to work in a factory that created air conditioning tubes. From there, Adam lived in North Carolina, working a job in landscaping, and then moved on to Kentucky, where he worked in a meat factory. His wife joined him in 1996, but, as Adam says, it was “not a peaceful marriage.”

Adam shifts in his chair, and tells me that Kentucky is where he went to prison, an experience that he does not like to dwell on. In prison, however, he reconnected with art. As a young man, Adam’s father had encouraged him to create things out of whatever materials were nearby. Adam learned to do woodworking and woodcarving, weavings out of grass, and became adept at fixing broken toys.

One morning in prison, a guard asked Adam to work on cleaning the cells. The air conditioners blew at one strength – very cold – and inmates liked to stuff clean toilet paper into the air conditioner to control the temperature. As Adam removed the toilet paper, he noticed the transparent quality of the paper, and decided to try working with it.

Laying the sheets of wet paper flat on cardboard, Adam stuck the entire board under his mattress, lying on top of it to flatten and dry the paper. The material that emerged had a rough, interesting texture, and Adam began using it to paint scenes from his life in Africa, spooning out paint with the plastic cutlery he found in the cafeteria.

Craig Bunting, a curator, saw Adam’s work, thought it displayed a fantastic level of talent, and included Adam in an exhibition – and became a huge proponent of Adam’s work and Adam’s artistic career. Adam began working with all of the left-behind materials – tobacco ash, rope and sawdust, roofing rubber, used t-shirts and old bedsheets – even tennis rackets that had lost their netting.

Detail of Ali's artwork. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Adam found a balance in his art-making – a balance that he’d struggled to find in the outside world. “When I make art,” Adam says, “it gives me control over who I am.”

When Adam was released from prison, Craig encouraged Adam to move to Philadelphia, where his ex-wife lived, because the cultural and artistic potential of a big city would open up a new world of possibilities.

And it’s been incredibly positive for Adam.  In 2010, he went into recovery from addiction and has been clean ever since – and credits art as his conduit for healing. He’s a peer counselor now, helping others talk through anger management, recovery, mindful meditation, and how art can be a vehicle for healing.

“Art is a motivation to keep going, a way to make the world better,” he shares. And he’s learned a lot about art as a means of mental health through his work with Mural Arts. He met artist Kathryn Pannepacker, saw her work with The Guild, and began volunteering to help during paint days and with weavings.

His volunteerism turned into a part-time job when artist James Burns hired him to be an assistant artist on murals and to help during classes with the Porch Light program. Adam feels happy in his life now, and feels strongly about the importance and healing power of these experiences, talking fluidly about the way art can create hope for each person: “Coming to class is like a place of worship – we are different colors and races, but we are brought together by the paint and by the healing from addiction. People of the same feather are looking for help, looking to find the central parts of life. If you can find that balance, you can see where you’re heading.”

Adam’s work can be seen all around the city: he participated with Mural Arts’ Nana Blankets, helped to paint the North Philadelphia Beacon Project, and has artwork displayed in multiple exhibitions in Philadelphia.

Last updated: Feb 29, 2016

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Sandy Smith says

What a sensational true story! I loved working with Adam. He seemed to have a heart of gold. I enjoyed his positive energy. He was a joy to be around. #humble