Essey Habtu may only be 13, but he’s already painting oil portraits like a seasoned pro — and taking that talent to the bank.
The Grade 8 student at Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary and Middle Schools started posting photos of his oil paintings to Instagram last July, thanks in part to the encouragement of his teacher, Sheri Kovacs.
Habtu, who is Eritrean, says he usually paints people he knows — like his sister and grandmother — or interesting faces he finds online.
The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired him to paint people of colour.
“I really wanted to shine some light on people of colour, and how beautiful we are and how we matter,” he said.
Habtu has been drawing for a long time, but Kovacs encouraged him to try painting last year. He took up oil painting and says he loved the calming effects of the brush strokes.
“It’s just me and the paintbrush, so it’s nice to just have some time and just paint,” he said.
When Kovacs, who teaches French and art, saw his oil paintings, she said she was blown away.
“I said [to him], ‘This is absolutely amazing.’ And I knew he was already talented, but I didn’t realize how well he could paint in oils,” Kovacs said.
“The fact that he’s 13 years old and can draw and paint so amazingly, I said to him, ‘You have to get out there. You have to put your art out there.'”
Since he began posting his paintings on Instagram, Habtu has sold five, two of which were commissions.
It was a surprise to discover people wanted to pay him for his work, Habtu says.
“I never thought in a million years that I would ever sell any of my pieces because I was like, no, I’m a kid, I don’t think anyone would want to buy my art,” he said.
“It really shocks me every time someone buys art.”
Kovacs says it’s been incredibly rewarding to see her student excel.
“It’s always rewarding, always, to see somebody pick up a paintbrush and create magic out of it. It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” she said.
Though his teacher thinks his art could become world-renowned one day, Habtu says he wants to go to medical school so that he can help people who are sick.
You can find more of his paintings on his Instagram page at @esseys_portraits.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.