Local artist strives to make a difference using art and touches many lives along the way.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
Sawyer, 4, was at Leesburg’s Rodgers Park recently on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with her grandmother Juanita Petty and brother Luke, 9, and she could not wait to leave.
No, she wasn’t upset, sick, hurt or even tired; she was just very excited about the experience she had while there and the work of art she created as a result.
“Let’s go, let’s go so I can hang up my picture,” says Sawyer, explaining how she could envision the perfect spot on the wall in her room at Grandma’s house for hanging the bright and colorful painting of flowers, grass, a rainbow and a sun she’d just created at the park.
Juanita, taken by Sawyer’s excitement says she takes her grandkids to the park often, but on that particular visit, they were treated to something special after running into Semeion Richardson, founder of Artist With A Purpose, a non-profit she established with a goal of encouraging children to paint and express themselves through art.
On that Saturday, Semeion was there leading one of her organization’s Pop-up-Art at the Park events, where she brings art into the community by setting up easels, blank canvasses, paints and brushes for any child who wants to create a masterpiece on the spot.
“We just came up here to play when they asked us to join them and the kids were thrilled because they love to paint,” says Juanita. “We never expected anything like this to happen, but it’s really cool and something the kids won’t ever forget.”
For Semeion, the purpose behind the Pop-Up-Art experiences she creates is two-fold – she provides a free mobile service for kids who may not be getting very many opportunities for art at school and teaches them how to use art as a way of expressing their feelings, but in such a fun way that they don’t even realize they are doing that.
“You never know what kids are going through, just even in their homes in general. I mean, take a look at what’s happening in society now. You’re seeing things every day that are bad,” says Semeion. “Everyone want to be in a happy place, in a place where they can feel joy and love and I just thought that was something I could bring but I what I did was put a twist on it.”
She continues: “it’s more connected to mental health, but I don’t ever tell them that when I go out into the community. I just go out there to build more relationships in the community, to chill with them and their families, paint and play games with the kids.”
At one time, Semeion, a 1999 graduate of Leesburg high School, worked as an art teacher at a local school, but she lost her job due to unfortunate budget cuts. Semeion also holds an associate’s degree in commercial art and a bachelor’s degree in human services and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in behavioral analysis.
After she stopped teaching, Semeion was left searching for ways to continue giving back and now, uses what she’s learned in her career, her schooling and her life experiences to do it.
“I had been an art teacher for so long, so I just decided to start a whole mission for it,” says Semeion. “Without art at school, I noticed the kids in the heart of my community were not getting the kind of art I got taught growing up as a kid and so I said, “Hey, let me just take some of the money I have and bring art to the community in a different way.”
That’s when Semeion felt inspired to continue teaching, but in the way she remembers it being taught to her as a kid.
“I was really taught art, just the whole meaning of it, why it’s important to lean shapes, to mix colors, to learn science with it, plus teachers when I was growing up, they were involved in the community beyond school walls.”
With that in mind, Semeion says she began collecting items like paints, canvasses, brushes, easels, and other supplies needed to get her mobile program started.
“I called it “Artist With A Purpose,” because I felt art was really more of a purpose than a job. It really means a lot to me,” says Semeion, explaining that at each pop-up event, she has the kids who show up paint a couple of pieces together, then sells them to raise funds for more supplies to keep it going.
Semeion says for her, the best part of what she does, is seeing the enjoyment on kids’ faces.
“These kids are so excited, and they just open up to me and to art. You would think I’ve seen them every day,” Semeion says.
Orlinda Littlejohn, a childhood friend of Semeion’s who was at one of her events for support, calls what Semeion is doing “a game changer for the community.”
“She brings a positive and hopeful vibe that needs to continue to blossom in children and people, and she’s bringing people in the community together and it’s a wonderful thing, period,” says Orlinda of Semeion, adding, “To be here in the moment of it all and see how she creates and brings this magic to life is pretty rewarding.”
Besides her Pop-Up Art events, Semeion also works with different organizations to spread the word about purpose and dealing with mental health through expressive art via art gallery shows, teaching one-on-one art classes, volunteering and more.
Artist with A Purpose also collaborates with other organizations like the Mount Dora Center of the Arts, the Leesburg Center for the Arts, Head Start centers, and churches and Semeion continues to reach out to other places like nursing homes, colleges, public schools, and foster homes, to talk about mental health awareness and what can be done to help people going through dark times.
She knows firsthand art is a good source for dealing with all kinds of things, explaining that when she was a child, she personally used art to “paint” her feelings. A few years ago, she used art to get through the grief of losing her mom despite a hard-fought battle with cancer.
“Grief is a hard thing. My mom died of cancer, but she’d always taught me to build on purpose. Regardless of what you see or feel, and I actually used my art to become better. Whatever issues I felt when I was little, I was painting them and I always felt like, ‘Wow, this really works,’” she says. “It’s like art and poetry; I used it kind of like people who write in journals or people who write poetry. And now, I use it for helping people deal with mental health issues or kids who may be dealing with ADHD, autism and other things.”
Semeion adds: “My goal is to create an atmosphere of change, of betterment, through art because there are emotions kids or even adults can’t explain in words, but they can paint and express themselves using art in different ways to share how they’re feeling.”
Semeion says personally, her feelings are most evident in the colors she uses for her pieces.
“Most of my artwork is abstract, so it’s not necessarily pictures I draw. It’s a whole process discovering how I feel inside. If I’m happy that day, I’ll paint with yellows or blues or if I’m angry or upset, I put blues with reds or orange,” Semeion says. “Whatever it is, I feel better after painting.”
And that’s not all.
Through a family member, she heard of Yvon and Monalisa Baptiste who operate The School of the Hands of God, in Haiti.
Semeion was touched by Yvon’s efforts to help find ways to provide families with clean drinking water, and children with shoes, clothing, and schooling, and she knew she wanted to be a part of it. She also decided to involve local children and others to help where they can.
“The school was started in 2010 after three earthquakes hit Haiti and Haiti has never been the same since,” Semeion says. “During the pandemic, I really had time to focus on it, and on getting more involved with helping in their efforts.”
This year, Semeion is working to try to raise enough funds to purchase 400 tennis shoes for the kids in Haiti who walk about 12 miles to and from school everyday.
Semeion wants to purchase plain white quality shoes that she and volunteers from throughout the community are painting in all different colors and designs. In October, the shoes will be shipped to Haiti for the students.
“I’m just trying to teach kids here how to serve others and show them how different things are there,” she says, adding that she sees pictures and videos of the kids and hopes to meet them one day. “There is a lady going next year who is donating violins to the students and who will teaching violin to the kids, and I would like to come along to do art with them.”
Here, she is also searching for a venue where she can set-up a studio to work and teach out of, and where she can display the artwork created by way of her organization.
Until then, she will continue with her pop-ups, art supplies in hand, to reach as many kids in the community as possible and she thanks all the people in her life who’ve helped her along the way to help others.
“It’s like I’ve built this tree and when you have a tree with so many branches, the seeds fall and then another tree grows,” Semeion says. “I’m just being one tree right now, but my goal is to just drop seeds so that everybody can have that growth and accomplish whatever their purpose is because they should just do it and this, what I’m doing right now, is mine.”
For more information or to donate funds or supplies to the cause, visit theartistwithapurpose.com or follow Artist With A Purpose on Facebook.