The doorway to John Aytch’s apartment looks like any other on his floor at New Community Gardens Senior. But step inside and you’ll find yourself transported into a colorful, paint-soaked world.
Aytch, 79, welcomes you in but apologizes for the fact that his bed occupies what would traditionally be used as a living room in his one-bedroom unit. He urges you to look past the clutter.
His fretting fades, however, as he watches your eyes widen to absorb the feast of artwork that covers the walls, shelves and floor. A majestic gorilla, spotted in her natural habitat, dances across a canvas. Oversized art books spill from bookcases. A pile of magnifying glasses sits under one of his many work stations.
“It’s my life. Art is me. It’s something I was born with and depended on to survive,” Aytch said.
Welcome to the laboratory of an artistic genius.
When Ozella Williams heard of Aytch’s talent, she wanted to see it for herself and handed him a photograph of herself receiving her diploma at Central High School in Newark in 1959.
Williams, who also lives at NCC Gardens Senior, was amazed at Aytch’s life-like rendering of her graduation photo. “That’s when I had him do eight” portraits of other family members, she said.
But for the majority of his life, Aytch has struggled with a different mode of creative expression—putting pen to paper to read and write.
“I pick up a book and I look at it and I’d wish, wow, I wish I knew what it said,” said Aytch, who grew up in Green County, N.C., as the son of a sharecropper. He briefly attended school but spent most of his time working the fields picking cotton and tobacco. His entire family was illiterate, according to Aytch. “We thought we were only going to be farmers,” said Aytch, who is now surrounded by brushes, sponges, palettes, painting knives and perhaps hundreds of tubes of Liquitex acrylic paint.
In 1955, Aytch joined the Army and served for three years. He moved to New Jersey in 1962 and soon began working for an industrial company, where he learned to extrude plastic, earning 85 cents an hour. He quickly became an expert but said he couldn’t progress upward at the company due to his lack of literacy.
“It was totally embarrassing,” Aytch recalled. “If you’re illiterate, they treat you like that,” he added.
Meanwhile, Aytch continued to hone his craft. Each day, he pulled out his sketch pad and practiced drawing. “The hand and the mind (are) just not one,” he said, describing the process of how an artist fine-tunes a skill. “You have to be able to concentrate. I can focus and I can eliminate everything else,” he said.
Over the span of a decade, Aytch gradually taught himself to read. He says he studied the dictionary two hours daily, pouring over the spelling of each entry. “It was a tremendously slow, agonizing process,” he admits.
Angelique Christopher stumbled across Aytch’s artwork in her first month on the job as Care Coordinator at Gardens Senior.
“Nobody warned me before I went there,” she said of her first home visit to Aytch’s apartment. “I wasn’t expecting anything like that. I was totally blown away,” she added. “He likes showing off his work. He’s very proud of what he does.”
And that’s exactly what Aytch wants to do—gain a higher profile to display his art. He wants others to be inspired by his work and also wants to pass along what he knows through teaching. For instance, how do you start drawing a portrait of a person?
“You have to be structured, you have to build a frame,” Aytch said.