Written By: Karla Burnett
What do you do when your first attempt at selling a product lands you with a three-year prison sentence? You turn inside for the product that has always been in your heart. That’s what artist Omari Booker did when a felony drug charge changed the course of his life. During his three years behind bars, Booker nurtured the passion that had been with him since he was a child: visual painting and the creative arts.
Coming to grips with being incarcerated was one of the most transformative periods of Booker’s life. After returning home in 2013, Booker spent time dishwashing and detailing cars. Long nights and early mornings were to be had as he worked two to three jobs, attended classes at Tennessee State University, painting during his spare time. In college, Booker’s love for painting was supported by his art instructors. With their urging, he hosted his first small exhibition shortly before graduation. This was in 2014, but even then Booker treated painting like a job – painting for a living before it earned him a living.
Inspired by Hip Hop musicians like Kanye West & Jay Z (who are often featured in his artwork) Booker says that in addition to their music, it was their confidence and determination that spoke to him. They were led by passion until their creativity was recognized and, subsequently, compensated.
”Music is the fuel. It’s the energy. It’s spirit-driven stuff. Anything you do that is really good, it’s not you. It’s not us, it’s through us. Having music playing, having that spirit to get lost in, it’s a conduit. I’m so grateful for musicians,” says Booker.
In our conversation, Booker remarked how Billboard chart-topping artist “Big Sean” got his big break by free-styling on the spot for Kanye West. Although finding his audience has been key and took time, he never doubted his skill or himself. The way Omari sees it is this: “If you don’t like my art at this exhibition, I’ll go to a festival. If you don’t like my art at this festival, I’ll go to a gallery.”
Booker’s persistence and perseverance never budged.
He attributes his success to his supportive mother, who always encouraged his craft. She never tried to force him into a traditional career, always saying to him “Just paint. Paint for year after year after year and, eventually, it’s going to work out.”
Grateful for the second chance, Booker owns his wrongdoing and the sentence associated with it. “There was nothing liberating about selling drugs with your life or your freedom constantly being on the line,” he says.
During his three years away, Booker had time to mature, gain perspective and realize the importance of using your efforts for good. He is now employed at Woodcuts Fine Arts and Framing Gallery in Nashville, Tenn. where his art is regularly displayed, and plans to someday retire with a paintbrush in his hand.
His advice to anyone who is struggling with finding their passion? Listen to your spirit. If something is tugging at you to do or create something, you must do it. Once that thing starts tugging at you to create, you must listen, lean in and trust that it will work. If you treat it like a job, if you show up again and again, eventually it will pay you like a job. If you ask Booker, his bills are paid but he’ll never work another day in his life.