Olu, pronounced “Oh-Lou”, is a black man in his late fifties with great, rounded shoulders and an easy manner. He’s a business man, artist and a sage. Olu sits on a low wall outside of a restaurant in downtown Cleveland where he carves elaborate walking sticks with a folding knife.
|Olu and Me in his studio|
“That’s beautiful,” I told him as I walked up to him. Across his lap was a piece of cedar about four feet long and an inch or two thick. He held it firm in one hand, turning it, as the other gripped the knife and gingerly transformed the wood into an ornate and rustic piece of art. Where he stripped the bark, the alabaster of the pulp provided a contrast to the dark exterior.
“My raw materials are cheap,” he said with a smile.
“How long does it take to make one of them?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “each one takes about eight to ten hours. I try to get about five dollars an hour to help with my room. This one here is about sixty dollars, but I am willing to negotiate.” Business man.
As he handed the mostly completed stick to me, I immediately noticed the intricate detail of the face. It reminded me of something you would see on Easter Island or from a market in Jamaica.
“Where do you get the inspiration for the design?”
He chuckled. “I don’t get inspiration. I look at the stick and listen to what it wants to be. Then I just bring it out. I guess you could say I uncover what is already there.” He grabs another piece of cedar, raw and untouched. “Like this one here. I was looking at it this morning and I see a wizard.” Artist. (Those words have really stuck with me the last few days. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I like that idea.)
“How did you start doing this?” I knew I was asking a lot of questions, but his story was compelling.
“Well,” he stopped working and looked at me, “Seven years ago I had surgery on both of my knees.” He pulled up one of his pant legs to reveal a massive scar. “I could only walk with two canes - hobbling around, mostly. I was miserable. One day I asked God what I was going to do with the rest of my life. So I just pulled out a knife and started carving a few bumps and rings in one of my canes. One day, a guy asked me where I got that old cane with the design in it. When I told him I made it he asked if he could buy it. I said, ‘sure.’ God kinda led me here. I’m grateful.” Sage.
There was no way I was leaving without the walking stick.
While Olu uncovered what was already in that ordinary piece of cedar, I uncovered something that was already there, too. I uncovered a talented artist who claims he can’t draw. I uncovered a wise man that is probably often overlooked because his studio is a wall.
For fifty dollars I have a very fine piece of original art – the only one like it in the entire world. But it hangs on my wall not as art, it hangs there to remind me that there is a lot in this world to uncover if we are just willing to look. And of course, it reminds me of Olu.