By Damien Croghan
“I drew this,” artist Maysoun Al-haj explained, “an hour and a half before [the] show.”
The paint was still wet when the painting, “Serenity,” went on display at the Artist of the Arboretum showing at the Lincoln Regional Center in March. The artwork depicts a nude woman overlooking a garden.
“When will you ever be able to just be nude in a garden and not messed with?” she asked. “You’re calm.”
That calmness reflects Al-haj’s idea that creating art serves as a source of tranquility. “I guess art for me is like meditating,” she said. “I never know what I’m going to end up with.
“That’s what makes my heart dance. Anything creative.”
Lien Ho, a local artist and Al-haj’s friend, believes that creativity is evident in many of her pieces. “Every painting or project she works on tells a story,” Ho said. “I really like that I can connect with her art like that. It’s pretty inspirational to me.”
Cody Manthei, program specialist for the Office of Consumer Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, first discovered Al-haj’s art on display at Partners in Recovery. Manthei finds she’s drawn to artists who capture authenticity. She decided to display Al-haj’s artwork at the Arboretum.
“You can tell that Maysoun’s work comes from her inner spirit, inner place, inner soul,” Manthei said. “Knowing her and seeing her, you just know that her work is very genuine.”
Stepping into Al-haj’s art studio, you don’t see a single canvas.
Instead, you find a few torn bed sheets, sprawled, covered in paint. Her mother works at Embassy Suites, she explained. She makes art out of the bed sheets the hotel throws away.
A Sudanese refugee born in Sana’a, Yemen, Al-haj moved to the United States with her parents and two siblings in 2000. She was only 5 years old when she arrived in Lincoln.
“My creativity and love for art started in Yemen,” she said. “There was just open fields, open space. My imagination was just off the wall crazy.”
She has never been to Sudan, but the country’s instability has affected her life and influenced her art.
“I guess having all of those political struggles has affected my life so hard that I just want to love people,” Al-haj said. “Just loving people’s characters and judging them based off of that [rather than ethnic groups].”
She describes herself as a nude artist.
“I like things natural,” Al-haj explained. “I’m really good at drawing women, so I’ve stuck to that. I draw a lot of Afrocentric things. Trees, flowers, all of the beautiful things in life.
“I guess I have an eye for beauty.”
Unless a client specifies otherwise, all of Al-haj’s art is made from recycled materials. She is currently working on a piece, an abstract painting of the Eiffel Tower, that is drawn on a flattened cardboard box.
Al-haj also describes her art as being equal parts expression, meditation, and motivation.
“For the most part, I never draw anything that’s sad,” Al-haj said. “I make everything about love.”
She used to sit and criticize her work. No longer. “Whatever is in me comes out. I mess up all the time,” she said. “It’s a part of it, and it stays.”
Her ideas on imperfection in art are influenced by her favorite artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Haitian-American artist who incorporated Afrocentric aesthetics into his abstract style. Basquiat died in 1988, but his graffiti-inspired pieces can be found in galleries throughout the world.
“His art is not perfect,” Al-haj said. “[Some of his pieces] literally look like a 4-year-old drew it, but at the same time his art has a lot of … positive messages from past leaders.
“The thing I love about his art is that he just did it, every day, on the wall, on the concrete, on the canvas. Just did it. He didn’t care if anybody thought it was good or bad. He did something that he absolutely loved.
“That’s what you can see from Jean-Michel’s art. I just learned that if you love it, everything just falls into place.”
Like Basquiat, Al-haj is self-taught.
That tells Manthei something. “It tells me that she’s very determined and very motivated with herself. I thought that was something we [at the Arboretum] wanted to express.”
Ho finds Al-haj’s art inspiring. “It makes me want to step outside of my comfort zone and experiment with different things in art.”
While her parents are supportive of her, they’ve always been the hardest to communicate with in regards to her art. “They were always ‘school school school,’” Al-haj said. “They struggled to get here to provide me with and education, and I didn’t take it.”
Al-haj wanted to go to the Art Institute in Austin, Texas, but her parents convinced her to stay close to home. She studied architecture at Wayne State College, but dropped out after her freshman year in 2012.
“I never was really a fan of school. I developed my artistic skills doodling in my notebooks,” she said. “After being pressured into a school I didn’t want to be at … second semester, I didn’t care. I just went and started buying art supplies … then I started doing art for people, getting paid for it.
“From then on it just grew.”
She returned to Lincoln and started pursuing her art career seriously.
“I had an epiphany I guess,” Al-haj said. “I’d rather go through the ups and downs of art just like people go through the ups and downs of school … It’s making me happy, it’s making me grow into a person I’d want to be.
“I’m done doing what everybody else is doing. I’m going to take a leap of faith and follow my dreams.”