Pursue Your Dreams: Eli’s Story

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Katelyn Latture

Most of his weekdays are spent working as a greeter supervisor for the Graves-Gilbert Clinic, but Elijah Norwood, 25, finds his real purpose and passion in art.

One can see it in the way he talks about his artwork as he sits at the Barnes & Noble café table. His face changes when he talks about it, and his hands float through the air as he explains what it means to him and where it has taken him through life.

Norwood’s artwork — whether it is a painting, writing a theatre script or leading a drum circle — has allowed him to discover his personal mantra and outlook on life.

“I am who I am,” said Norwood. “It’s all expressing me.”

Norwood speaks of a life motivated by and spoken through art for the purpose of creating and helping others to create, which is how he created his business 22 Starving Artist.

It began as an Etsy shop, which sat empty for a year or two before having Norwood’s hand-printed shirts and art prints added to it, he said. It now has its own website and is in the process of launching more artists into the public eye.

At first, Norwood struggled to explain what 22 Starving Artist is because it means so much to him. It isn’t finished yet, said Norwood, but it is becoming a combination of all the things he wants artistically and in life.

The business is now comprised of five artists who perform and facilitate drum circles together, but they each also have other artistic abilities. Ambra Norwood is an herbalist focused on personal and natural care. Brandon Green is a percussionist. Chanel Watkins is a photographer and musician. Lacretia Dye is a professor at Western Kentucky University and also works as a therapist and yoga instructor.

Dye, 43, met Norwood when he was still a student at WKU and has supported him since meeting him in 2012. She, Norwood and Ambra would lead community drum circles on campus on Thursday evenings as an alternative to Thirsty Thursdays, the weeknight notorious for partying and drinking.

“22 Starving Artist is Eli’s vision of bringing out the things we were already doing,” said Dye. “I hope it gives people, like, an outlet to connect and be themselves.”

22 Starving Artist is “fostering an environment for artists,” said Norwood as he becomes giddy talking about it.

Right now, it mainly serves as a website for their drum circle services. Norwood wants it to be a platform for artists, he said. He said he eventually wants to add more artists to the website, so they are able to get their names out there in the public eye.

The business’ logo is a white equal sign on a black background. It represents equality, said Norwood.

“And I don’t mean black or white,” said Norwood. “That’s what people take it as. I love everyone. Black, blue, tall, stout.”

He said the logo, as well as the business, encourage people to be exactly who they are. Everyone has a unique perspective, said Norwood, and he defines equality as being you.

Humble beginnings

Norwood wanted to “make it big” and to make a lot of money when he started pursuing art, he said. Like many other aspiring artists, he said he wanted to be another Rembrandt or Picasso when he began.

“I just want to be creative,” said Norwood.

Norwood drank and smoked a lot when he was a teenager, he said. It started when he was in high school. He gave up drinking and smoking for a short time, but eventually returned to his unhealthy habits when he went to college.

According to Norwood, he finished his first composition piece, titled “Strawberry Man,” he was sitting on his then-friend and now-wife’s bedroom floor at 3 a.m., drinking a 22-ounce bottle of beer.

He was drunk when he finished that piece because he thought that was how a starving artist should be, Norwood said. He thought the starving artist was characterized by consuming art, alcohol and drugs.

Struggle and change

Norwood dropped out of college at WKU in 2013, one year shy of graduating. He dropped out of school again after studying for two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. After dropping out of college, Norwood worked as a freelance artist for about two-and-a-half years.

“I was trying to make the next dollar,” said Norwood. “I jumped from job to job.”

His wife, Ambra, 25, said it was hard when Norwood first dropped out of college because they depended solely on her paycheck, but she always supported his decision.

“I would feel terrible encouraging him to pursue something his heart wasn’t in,” she said.

Norwood’s dropping out of college reflected in his artwork, said Norwood. He said lack of structure, professionally and otherwise, showed in his paintings.

Perhaps a more important catalyst of change in his work was his 2-year-old daughter, Genesis. Norwood said her birth changed his artwork. It changed mainly because he needed to make more money. He could not support himself, Ambra and Genesis only on his freelance pieces.

Despite the financial burdens, Ambra said she loves watching their daughter interact with Norwood.

“Before she could walk, before she could talk, she would be in that studio with him,” Ambra said.

Norwood’s mentor, Robert Dye, 40, owned his own barbershop when he lived in Michigan. Since meeting Norwood in 2012, they have had many conversations about their goals and about the struggles and successes of owning a business.

“My advice was just do anything, even if it’s a small step,” said Dye concerning Norwood’s idea for 22 Starving Artist.

Dye remembered Norwood going through a lot of frustration and battling himself to stay positive when pursuing his own business.

“It’s easy to get frustrated, and for him, I think he’s seen a lot of frustration,” said Dye.

Dye said Norwood’s mindset has changed over the years. He said Norwood would complain at first, but he’s learned to be more patient and positive.

Community involvement

Norwood’s artistic goal is no longer trying to become a world-famous artist. He wants to

help people better understand themselves and others. He wants to help them be more vulnerable and open, he said.

“That’s my passion – to touch people more,” said Norwood.

On Wednesday evenings, he teaches an intuitive painting class for Community Education of Warren County, a local nonprofit that collaborates with community members “to provide lifelong learning for our citizens.” The class is meant to teach students to depend on their feelings and intuition to paint, rather than worrying about whether or not the next brush stroke will ruin the canvas.

Norwood said his students have opened up since the first painting class. They were all stiff with their brushes at the first class, afraid one stroke would ruin the painting, said Norwood.

“They often say, ‘This is changing my life,’” said Norwood of his students. “They’ve been asking to stay later. The class ends at 7:30 p.m., and we stayed until 9:30 p.m. last week.”

Norwood walks around the room and asks each woman individually about her painting. He asks them to explain their painting, but the conversation usually leads to them talking about their lives, he said.

This is the point of Norwood’s intuitive painting class, he said. He wants to invite people into the process, he said. He said he wants them to become more of who they are and to be comfortable with themselves.

The paintings are reflective of each woman’s life and personality, Norwood said. One woman with a more positive, bubbly personality has smaller brush strokes. Another woman with a more relaxed, soothing personality has longer, smoother brush strokes. We all have a rhythm about us, said Norwood, and it is displayed more and more in the paintings of his students as they go from week to week.

“Thank you for the ‘awakening’ you’ve given me,” said an email from one of his painting students. “Hadn’t touched my paint supplies in over 10 months, and it feels good to be creating again.”

Norwood also teaches and leads a drum circle on Thursday evenings for Community Education of Warren County. He said teaching the drum class can be more challenging than the painting because he has to teach his students how to properly hold and hit the drums.

However, as the last class approaches, Norwood said the two women in the class have made a lot of progress. In last Thursday’s class, one woman said the drum circles served as meditation for her.

Alice Tarnagda serves as Community Education’s Enrichment Coordinator and Norwood’s boss. She said she looks for variety when she plans classes for the community.

“The classes he is currently offering were things we didn’t have,” said Tarnagda. “Being able to offer something unique was very appealing.”

Art in everything

Norwood said he would not argue if someone said art was not important. That is the other person’s opinion.

“If you don’t believe in art, why do you act differently in every building you walk in?” said Norwood.

Norwood used a library as an example. Don’t people hush when they walk into the building, asked Norwood.

“We’re just talking about aesthetics and bookshelves,” said Norwood. “But, isn’t that art? It’s been purposefully and thoughtfully designed that way.”

He rose out of his chair for a split second as his passion overtook him.

“Art shapes perception,” said Norwood. “How can you ignore it?”

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