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Painter Addonis Parker uses his craft to reach kids

Standing 6-foot-6, Addonis Parker towers over a giggly gaggle of kids in a small classroom at Allapattah's Moore Park. Wearing baggy jeans, a mustard T-shirt and a black cap, he manages his way around the tables, giving each child a blank sheet of paper and a pencil.

"I want your name, date, and 'Project: Art Forever' at the top, " he says. "Now draw."

The kids sketch books and basketballs, radiant suns and smiling self-portraits.

Their assignment: Come up with designs to paint on a handful of desks in the computer lab next door.

This is FOCAL (Foundation of Community Assistance and Leadership), a free summer camp for low-income kids 7-16 years old. They come five days a week from neighborhoods including Overtown, Wynwood and Liberty City and rotate each hour between sports, computer training, English classes and, of course, art classes. During the school year, it's an after-school program.

Parker is a 34-year-old painter who's worked in Miami for six years, but his pieces aren't found in high-brow galleries or exclusive museums. He doesn't mind. The closest he's gotten to the official art world is an exhibit of a dozen canvases that recently opened at Fort Lauderdale's Old Dillard Museum, a schoolhouse converted into a free African-American museum and community center.

His artistic mission is two-fold. The first part is to represent his urban African-American experiences through his unique medium: wooden boards he finds on the streets, staples to drop cloths, and paints with cheap brushes and house paint. More importantly, he wants to teach those around him the importance of art and creativity.

"Being an artist is not just painting pictures or having the fame and glory of being in art shows, " he says. "Being a complete artist is getting involved with the community, especially working with children."

Angie Moleie, who lives in Wynwood and will be a fifth-grader at Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School this month, has attended FOCAL programs since she was 7. She says art class is her favorite. "I keep all my drawings and paintings I've done on my wall at home, " she says.

Recently, Angie, 10, learned to draw cubes and other three-dimensional shapes during a lesson by Parker on depth perception.

"I'm very happy and blessed that she has this kind of art teacher, " says her mother, Amparito Alomoto. "I'm not a very artistic person, but she loves it and is so proud."

Parker teaches at FOCAL three days a week, opening each class with the same question: "What does art do?"

The students' response, in unison: "Art creates and never destroys."

For Parker, art has become a career. He makes a living from selling his canvases -- for as much as $4,000 each -- teaching kids and even painting house interiors.

His pieces have bold, yet dark and cloudy colors, and are often political -- Justice of Peace: Error in the System, shows a black man with shackles on his wrists, grabbing his head in frustration and fading into an orange sunset. Lady Justice stands in the background against a cross and a Confederate flag rises in the foreground. On the other hand, he's also put together portraits of R&B singer Fantasia Barrino and hip-hop artist Missy Elliott.

Right outside his studio at 6200 NW Seventh Ave., Parker has restored an iconic mural of Martin Luther King Jr., originally painted by late Miami artist Oscar Thomas. He's worked with students at Allapattah and Miami Edison middle schools to complete outdoor murals. Anybody who's driven in downtown Miami has likely seen his mural of the historic William English plantation, on the side of the I-95 ramp at South Miami Avenue.

"Addonis really has a passion to give back to the community, " says David Chiverton, the founder of FOCAL and head of Weed and Seed, an anti-violence group with which Parker mentors at-risk youth. "In the inner city it takes almost anything and everything. You never know what will capture a child's interests."

Parker grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where "there were no summer programs or camps and you just had to tough it out on your own, " he says. "I understand the kids I teach are going through similar situations and that's why I'm so eager to help. When I was young, we had no help."

He began drawing after watching Woody Woodpecker as a 4-year-old and hasn't stopped since. After loading up on art history courses at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, he came to Cocoa Beach and later Miami. Now he's a teacher himself.

"The most rewarding thing is to watch a child grow, to watch him use the techniques you gave him, not just art but all the other skills, too, " says Parker. Those other skills include math and geometry, which he incorporates into his lessons.

Parker says his dream is to start his own children's art center near his modest studio. Although he's still in the planning stages, he does have an idea for the program's name: Art Forever.