Apex Academy’s art teacher was born in Liberia and came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 14. His journey to America shaped how others viewed him.
“Before moving here I never considered myself to be ‘Black.’ I was Liberian, then African. To Americans, however, I am first Black, then African, then Liberian; and to Black Americans, an African, who is Black, from Liberia. Who am I in reality?” Zeinway said in “Artists as Activists,” a book featuring his work and life story.
Zeinway was selected as one of the artists to be featured in the book based on his submission to a yearly art exhibition. The book showcases artists as activists speaking about equality and justice, and different things for using art to tell their story. His life experiences have led him to create paintings of war and its effects on Liberia, and his different identities.
Apex Art Teacher Martin Zeinway was featured in the book “Artists as Activists” by Saad Ghosn.
After leaving Liberia during a civil war, Zeinway worked at Cleveland Public Schools through AmeriCorps after high school. As he saw the progression students made in an after-school tutoring program, he felt a sense of gratification that stayed with him as he pursued an art degree in college.
“My professor said, “’You can do your art but education will pay the bill,” Zeinway said. “So, I said, ‘You know what, I’m interested in education even though I want to do art.’ So let me just teach art instead.”
Zeinway’s interest in art originated on the beaches of Liberia, where he drew in the black sand as a child after school. It was there that he saw a passerby offering 25 cents to some kids to whoever could draw a particular character. The winner of the competition was Zeinway. His interest was piqued, and he soon became the go-to person for a drawing among his friends.
After moving to Cleveland with his uncle’s family, Zeinway came back to Cleveland as an educator and empathized with the issues he saw a lot of kids dealing with. He could relate to those growing up poor, and in telling them his story, showed students their situation doesn’t necessarily determine their future.
When he discovered his talent as a child, Zeinway told his parents he wanted to be an artist, but they had concerns about monetizing art as a profession. Now they see he is making a living and inspiring children to develop their talent, Zeinway aspires to one day build an art school in Liberia, which he still visits.
Apex’s art club adorned the gym walls with the school mascot.
“I wish I had the opportunity when I was in Liberia but because of the environment and the culture differences because of lack of exposure... I just want to give (kids in Liberia) a foundation to share that there are opportunities in the U.S.,” he said. “That would be my way of giving back.”
Zeinway has taught at Alliance Academy of Cincinnati and Orion Academy, and has been at Apex for about 15 years. His perspective has helped him connect with those in need, such as a student who had a troubled home situation. Upon learning of her struggles, Zeinway told her she shared the same name of the Ashanti Empire and regaled her with stories about the African royalties. That connection stuck with her years later when Zeinway saw her again in middle school and saw that her behavior had progressed.
At each stop, Zeinway’s journey from Africa and how it has shaped his art shows students that they, too, can tap into their own background and create something beautiful.
“I just try to stress to my students that it's always good to follow your talent,” he said. “I can teach art for free. If my bills are paid and I have a little money in my pocket, I’ll do it for free. That's how much I enjoy it, to see the passion.”
Keep up the excellent work, Mr. Zeinway!
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Apex Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in East Cleveland, Ohio, serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes over 95 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.