Some artists take years to specialize in their field. Others pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and instantly feel a connection. Fourteen-year-old Essey Habtu has only been painting for the last couple of years but has already started to make a name for himself in Winnipeg’s arts scene.
Habtu started drawing at about eight years old – all because of his brother.
“He used to draw and do little sketches, and I always thought they looked so good, so cool,” Habtu says. “When I first tried, it was definitely a fail, but his sketches inspired me, and I went on to practice and practice.”
Although his brother was the one to inspire his drawing, Sheri Kovacs, his French teacher at Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary and Middle School (WMEMS) encouraged him to try painting.
“I was a little scared to try it, because I was very used to the pencil’s clean, controlled lines,” Habtu says.
Painting is different than drawing, but his online viewers were amazed by what he could do. When he first started posting on Instagram, he was painting portraits of people that looked like himself and his Eritrean family members. He also liked taking inspiration from Pinterest photos of a variety of people.
Once his posts began gaining traction, he started getting commissions for his paintings.
After CBC News wrote an article about his work, Habtu caught the attention of someone pretty high up in Winnipeg’s arts community.
Thomas Morgan Jones, Prairie Theatre Exchange’s (PTE) artistic director, was scrolling through social media one day in August of last year when he happened to catch a glimpse of Habtu’s work in a post from CBC.
After talking it over with the team at PTE, Jones sent Habtu a message over his Instagram account, @esseys_portraits.
“I read this article, and the first thing I thought was, ‘well, we should commission him to paint some portraits of some of the playwrights we have in the upcoming season,’” Jones says.
From there, Habtu began painting portraits of playwrights Darla Contois and Ins Choi, whose plays are featured in PTE’s current season.
Darla Contois is a Cree-Saulteaux actress and playwright. She studied theatre at Manitoba Theatre for Young People and the University of Manitoba. She is also an alum of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. The War Being Waged, Contois’ first major theatrical work, premiered in 2021.
Ins Choi is a Korean-Canadian actor and playwright most known for his play Kim’s Convenience, which was adapted into a hit CBC TV show. His play Bad Parent also premiered at PTE. Unlike The War Being Waged, Bad Parent will have a rolling premiere, with it being performed at PTE, then at The Cultch in Vancouver with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (vAct) and finally at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts with Soulpepper in Toronto.
Both of the playwrights got to choose which photo of themselves would be used as a reference. The portraits took Habtu three months to complete. He delivered the paintings on Nov. 1, just a few days before the live premiere of The War Being Waged.
“We decided that a really meaningful thing to do was to have all this ready for the reopening of our theatre to the first live audiences we’ve had in 20 months,” Jones says.
“This whole art experience has been shocking,” Habtu says. “I would have never thought I would be doing this two years ago, let alone selling my art.”
Jones found it to be impactful that audience members of The War Being Waged – the first in-person show to be presented at PTE since the COVID-19 pandemic began – could observe Habtu’s portraits before entering the theatre doors.
The portraits “had proper lighting and were very prominent. It was like he had his own little gallery in our space,” Jones says.
With live events slowly returning, Jones emphasized how grateful he was to work with Habtu and to bring this collaboration to life.
“We’re a midsize theatre company that focuses a lot on new works, but almost exclusively on Canadian works. We love celebrating the community and finding ways to have intersection between the work that we do in theatre and any number of other disciplines,” Jones says.
Jones was also very drawn to Habtu’s story and his inspiration: the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I want to shine a light on People of Colour,” Habtu says. “I got really inspired when BLM started. It is what gave me the spark to start painting (People of Colour).”
The PTE commission gave Habtu the opportunity to further this vision by spotlighting two BIPOC playwrights through portraiture.
Although Habtu may have a bright future in Winnipeg’s arts community, he says art isn’t the only thing he is excited about.
“I am also passionate about science. I love knowing about the things in our world and how they work,” Habtu says. “My plan is to do something in the medical field. I am not sure what yet, though.”
Habtu’s sudden push into the spotlight was something he never thought was possible. He says the whole experience, from interviews to commissions, has been intense, but in a good way.
“I am so thankful for all these opportunities and support. I have no words to explain how thankful I am,” Habtu says.
“I can’t believe how young he is, because the work is amazing, but also I can totally believe it,” Jones says. “One of the greatest things that we can do with young people who are expressing themselves in this way is to support them as much as possible.”
Published in Volume 76, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 13, 2022)