DENVER — Life as a college student can be scary: new surroundings, new friends, new concepts. But for 20 year old Kesiena Sebeni, college is a safe haven.
Sebeni moved to Colorado from California in 2021 under unexpected circumstances. She was both running to a new life as a biology major, and running from domestic violence.
“I started dating the wrong guy, and he started making my life a living hell. He stalked me, harassed me, he would show up at my job,” Sebeni explained. “Eventually, as the violence and scary stuff kept on happening and it no longer became just me and him, but it became my family who got affected, my friends who got affected. That's when I knew that something had to change. And so I had to come up here to hide.”
"Art is a Portal into my Mind"
Kesiena Sebeni shares how art has helped clear her mind and overcome struggles.
The man Sebeni fled from landed in prison for five years, a fact that brings her great relief. She decided to stay in Colorado regardless, and take advantage of the fresh start. With this, Sebeni hoped to be able to move on from the pain and create the life she dreamed of.
“I really hide a lot of the information about how I came to Colorado. I don't like people looking at me as a victim. I’d just rather move on and show how strong I am,” she explained.
“Strong” is no exaggeration. Sebeni seems to have always forged a path of her own.
“I'd always wanted to be an artist, but my parents would always tell me that you're very good at science and math. You'd make a great biologist, doctor, anything but artist,” she smiled.
Sebeni continued, “My father is an engineer. He firmly believes in education in school leading you to a good life. He used to sell fish on his head in a village in Nigeria and started very small, but by studying, he was able to come to America and make a better life for him and his family. And he's my biggest inspiration.”
When she came up against the tough decision between honoring her parent’s advice and pursuing her call to art, Sebeni decided to do both.
And as luck would have it, Sebeni’s art honors her family’s legacy as much as her career path.
Through her sense of independence, Sebeni also makes sure to honor her family's legacy.
“My mom is Indian. In Indian culture, there's a lot of like scarves and cloths and saris which are very colorful with beautiful mandalas and patterns. And growing up with that background, it's kind of helped me with the type of art I do,” said Sebeni. “ I love mandalas and like patterns like that. My dad, also. In Nigerian culture a lot of the headdress and clothing is also very colorful, so I try and put as much colors into my artwork as I can.”
Sebeni is working toward a focus on environmental science, as she’s passionate about nature and the human connection to it. This passion also shows through in her artwork.
“I try to put a lot of my emotions about the current state of things into my artwork, from the feeling of like, dread of, ‘oh my gosh, our planet is burning up,’ to the fact that all flowers are so pretty. The simple beauty of the world from flowers to the sky, colors in general,” Sebeni shared while gazing out her studio window.
Now, Sebeni spends her week studying biology and her weekends unwinding with painting. She often spends an afternoon at RedLine Denver, where she’s the youngest member of the Core Artist program — a program the gallery created that helps artists build skills and find career opportunities.
According to Sebeni, the program has been essential to helping her achieve the balance between school and art.
“Getting an opportunity to be an artist by profession without having to ask my parents to pay for my schooling in art was ideal.”
Sebeni found RedLine Denver through another program that used art as a mode of healing from PTSD. This was a method she found to be very effective; not only because of her lifelong love for art, but because it provides a way for her to express feelings she finds hard to put into words.
“It's very important how much art really depicts what's going on in a human's mind more than anything else can,” Sebeni reflects. “I really feel like it's kind of like a language on its own. It comes from your heart.”
For Sebeni, the pursuit of art also has a deep spiritual meaning.
“My religious beliefs include Hinduism. And as a person who believes that for your chakras, one of the most important factors includes creativity,” she shared. “Which is why I really believe in the practice of just doodling at least once a day because if we aren’t creating, what are we doing?”
The PTSD support group visited RedLine Denver once a week for therapeutic art classes. Through this, she joined a public exhibit where her mandala painting sold almost immediately. Reach Core Artist leader Moe Gram noticed, and asked Sebeni to join the career-building Core Artist program.
Sebeni's mural that was sold at a RedLine exhibition. Sebeni says the mural contains multiple themes, including racial relations.
Joining the group helped Sebeni advance her art skills, find new modes to share her work, and build a supportive community. Considering the program eliminates barriers to entry many programs like it have, Sebeni was able to meet people from many different walks of life.
“Seeing other artists telling me stories, some of them have been homeless, some of them have gone through mental health, drug addictions. It's really helped me understand that we're just human and life can be hard sometimes, but anybody can get out there and make a name for themselves if they just suddenly think to themselves, ‘Hey, you know what? I deserve better.’”
Elle Naef is a digital media producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at email@example.com.