Aaron Fowler smiles nervously as he surveys the gallery where his artwork is being exhibited for the first time in New York City. The 25-year-old had dreamt of this moment ever since his senior year of high school when his art class took a trip from St. Louis to New York and visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“You can have your art here one day. This can be a reality for you,” his art teacher encouraged the class.
On this breezy day in New York, nearly a decade after he made a personal vow to rise above the slums of St. Louis, Aaron, along with his longtime friend Michael Shultis, both moved to the next level in their art careers with a dual showing of their work at the Thierry Goldberg Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
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Aaron couldn't help but remember his former teacher’s words of inspiration as he watched more than 100 of his friends, fans and supporters mill about the gallery marveling over his paintings and growth as an artist. Now a second-year student in the MFA program at Yale, Aaron is experiencing the fruits of years of study and labor. This blissful moment gives way to an even greater sense of pride as he notices his mother, Anita Fowler, smiling over at him from across the room.
Anita flew from St. Louis to attend her son’s first art opening the weekend of her 40th birthday. Her bright eyes shined, projecting every positive wish she has held for him since she gave birth to Aaron when she was just 14 years old.
Most young women beginning life under such hardship would not have been able to withstand the stress. Being a teenage mom didn’t stop Anita from moving out of her mother’s house at the age of 16 and graduating from high school with her class, even though by that time she was caring for Aaron while she awaited the arrival of her second son.
“When it gets hard, I always look at my mom’s situation, and I know that I can do anything.”
After her third child, Taylor, was born four years later, she put aside her dream of becoming a registered nurse, dropping out of nursing school to take odd jobs to support her family. Aaron later remembers his mom sitting all of her children down and explaining to them that the relationship with Aaron’s stepfather was not working out. She asked them to understand the sacrifices they would all have to make in order to pull through this transition.
“We moved back in with my grandmother,” Aaron says. “It would have been easier for her to stay with him for financial reasons but she didn’t. She had a tendency to bottle things up and take it. After she left him, she changed. It was huge to see her transform right before my eyes.”
Three months later, Aaron’s mom bought a house for her family. She worked feverishly to maintain their home and a sense of stability for her family; a trait that Aaron says he looks for in every woman he dates.
“Being a good parent was her mission,” Aaron says. “She focused on that and dedicated herself to that. She instilled so much in us: to be a leader and not a follower and to give it your all. She always told me to be my own man, be my own person and I listened. My mom and I are best friends. I can talk to her about anything.”
Although Anita had no clue that her son would grow up to be a rising star, as she grew up with him, she took him along with her on her journey to adulthood. Her main focus was expressing a sense of tough love, being the kind of mom who hugged her children tightly but would also administer a quick dose of punishment when necessary.
“I watched her grow up from being a child into a woman,” Aaron recalls affectionately. “When it gets hard, I always look at my mom’s situation and I know that I can do anything.”
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From the racially segregated streets of St. Louis, Aaron’s gift of painting portraits that reflect the traumas of his childhood and the loss of friends and relatives to violence and other misfortunes have earned him a spot in Yale’s Master of Fine Arts program; which is rarely offered to students who have recently finished their undergraduate degrees.
As Aaron finishes up his Master's degree, Anita is beginning a new chapter in her life. Her youngest child, Taylor, has graduated high school and is beginning her freshman year of college. This year, Anita will pick up where she left off when she decided to forego her dreams to raise her family. She will be moving to Atlanta to finish her nursing degree with three grateful children enthusiastically cheering her on.