Adedayo Laoye believes that his ancestors, living and nonliving, guide him and infuse his paintings with their spirits. The members of his family, all Yoruba in Nigeria, stare out of his work as a serene face, a mask, a crown. But the 36-year-old artist didn’t realize this was what he was meant to paint until he was thousands of miles away from his homeland.

Laoye grew up in Ede, a town in southwest Nigeria. Both his father and mother drew. “As far as I know, I started drawing at four years,” he says. “All along, the love for drawing was there.”

But as the grandson of the timi or king of Ede–the custodian of customs and spirituality, who settled cases and received taxes from the town–Laoye was expected to take up more serious interests. Because his grandfather had been a pharmacist before his coronation, and because his father was a veterinarian, Laoye was expected to become a medical doctor.

“My mother secretly furnished me with drawing books and paints,” he says. “She took them out when my father was gone. He rode a motorcycle, so we could hear him coming back. Then I’d take out a mathematics book.”

When Laoye was 14 his father died. Shortly afterward he had an art teacher who encouraged him to study fine arts. At 17 he enrolled in art school and received his “ordinary national diploma,” the equivalent of an associate’s degree. In 1980 he did an internship as a graphic artist at a TV station, designing flip cards, storyboards, and backdrops. He liked the attention and glamour of TV so much that he took a full-time job at the station. He also did political and erotic cartoons on the side.

When he returned to school in 1983 to finish his degree, he discovered that there’d been a fight between his fraternity, the Palm Wine Drinkers’ Club, of which he’d been chief when he left, and the rival group, the Pirates Confraternity. “I wanted to major in sculpture, but unfortunately the sculpture department was full of lecturers who were Pirates. I felt threatened. The painting department was full of Palm Winers, so I decided to major in painting.”

Laoye’s strong suit had always been drawing and composition; as soon as he applied paint, he ruined the work. But during his second year he learned to use watercolors and could then move into oils. For his final project he went to a fishing village and created Fisherman’s Return, a moody oil painting that captured bare-backed men on a wharf hauling in fish.

After graduation he began working in a series of ad agencies in the city of Lagos, designing posters, calendars, and billboards. But he wanted to polish his impressionistic style in America. In 1987 his uncle gave him the money to go to Howard University for an MFA.

Laoye quickly discovered that his Western-influenced style was not what his professors were looking for. “I kept emphasizing the impressionists Cezanne and Monet. My professor kept giving me Cs. He said, ‘You have to paint like yourself. You’re an African. You have to paint like an African.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

During his second semester he took a class with the renowned Ethiopian painter Skunder Bogasian, who encouraged him to go to museums to see abstract African art. Yet he continued to draw realist images and then paint them. Finally Bogasian spelled it out for him. “He told me, ‘Yoruba is one of the greatest cultures for icons, symbols! If you can’t see that they’ll fail you!’ He hit me on my chest and said, ‘Your painting comes from your heart, not your head! Express yourself! This is not graphic arts!'”

Gradually Laoye began throwing colors and lines together in abstract forms. But at the end of his first year his uncle’s money ran out. The arts faculty offered to donate money for another semester, but Laoye proudly refused. He worked two jobs to pay for the next semester, then left, promising his professors he’d save up his money and return.

He started working at the Washington, D.C., branch of an art- gallery chain, moved briefly to its branch in LA, then decided he wanted to move to Chicago. He stayed at the YMCA while he searched for a job or an artist-in-residence program, and spent many lonely weeks being rejected while his money dwindled.

Then he met Patrick Woodtor, who gave him a job at his Window to Africa art and clothing store. “He gave me $200 so I could stay at the YMCA until I found a place to stay,” says Laoye. “Someone told me about the Wooded Isle artist studios on Stony Island, and I moved in. It was all bare–the drywall wasn’t even painted.”

Around this time Laoye kept thinking and dreaming about his grandfather. He started to paint The Three Crowns, a dreamy watercolor showing oblong shapes that represent the crowns his grandfather wore. “I wasn’t even planning to do crowns. The hardship brought it out of me. I painted by candlelight for five days. I knew I was doing something unusual. I thought, ‘Maybe this is what they were talking about at Howard.'”

He began painting more cultural symbols, but soon ran out of canvas. “The other artists in the studio said, ‘Who says you have to paint on canvas?’ So when I saw a door on my way out one day I thought, that could work. The deities are intermediaries to the spirit world, like doors. I’ll paint the orishas.” Orishas are African deities that take on various incarnations.

Laoye would meditate, light candles, and make an offering so that the spirits of the orishas would run through him and let him know what to paint. One of these doors, Obatala, a work splashed with white that portrays the deity of creation in the form of a crowned man on a horse, took first place in the Museum of Science and Industry’s 1991 “Black Creativity” competition.

Westernized paintings no longer interest Laoye. “I don’t paint from images anymore. I commune with the spirits and let them guide me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.