He sits alone, hunched over in a worn, brown leather jacket with papers scattered in all directions.
It’s cool, around 55 degrees, and only one other table in the minipark where Main, Chapel Hill, and Morris streets meet is occupied. Downtown Durham has an artist in its midst, and on a day like today, no one is taking notice.
Ernest Oliphant wakes up drawing. He draws just about all day, and when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he draws some more.
In fact, as we’re talking now, he’s drawing me.
Oliphant was born in Chesterfield, S.C., but he doesn’t remember anything about that. Durham has always been home as long as he can remember.
He’s had a rough-and-tumble life. His dad moved early on, his mom worked in the cafeteria at Duke. They started out in Hickstown and later moved to the West End. Reading was really tough for Ernest. His grades weren’t the best but he did play some football at Whitted Junior High and Hillside High School. He started skipping school, got part-time jobs, and eventually lost interest in school altogether.
Oliphant enjoyed picking up a pen and drawing every now and then, but it was just something to do. He worked here and there, in the NCCU cafeteria, the Washington Duke Hotel, the Coleman Lumber Co., and was even a golf caddy for a while. He married his first love, but that fizzled out after a few years.
But through it all, Oliphant has drawn all types of quirky, bold figures with pens and colored pencils. Now that he’s 61, drawing is a fun pastime and a way to express himself. He scrunches down, making sure strokes with a black medium-tipped marker. If anyone stops to see what he’s drawing, he cheerfully gives it to him or her without hesitation.
“Hey, why did you do that?” I ask him. “You could had gotten a couple of dollars at least.” I know he lives in Oldham Towers, a building for low-income seniors. I figure he could use the money.
“Oh, no, it’s not about the money,” he answers with a gap-toothed grin.
“It’s more like a sharing thing. I like to share my art with people because I can tell it makes them happy.”
And he gets started with the next drawing. While we’re talking, he stops and digs into a worn shoulder bag. It’s stuffed to the gills with papers and it looks as if his whole life is in there.
Oliphant takes out a one-page 2013 calendar. One of his drawings – some might call it “outsider” art and some might call it “abstract” – graces the top. “I’m gonna copy these and make me some money – maybe $1 each.”
“Yeah, but knowing you, you’re probably gonna give them away,” I say.
“Well … yeah,” he grins, his voice trailing off. He fishes out a photocopy of a children’s book he’s working on, “Jungle Boy and His Friends.” The booklet features drawings of animals at play, flowers, and birds in flight accompanied by a simple tale of animals living in the forest.
Finally, he extracts a drawing of a man on a bike. “I’m taking an art class at NCCU and learning about silk screening. I’m gonna start making T-shirts.”
“Well, you can’t give those away,” I say.
“Oh, no,” Oliphant says. His eyes sparkle. “I’m definitely gonna sell these.”
Roylee Duvall, owner of Through This Lens photo gallery, has known Oliphant for years. In fact, he was one of the first to visit the gallery when it opened on Chapel Hill Street eight years ago.
“Ernest has a good heart,” Duvall says. “I always feel good after seeing him.” He explains that he could tell that Mr Oliphant was struggling, but appreciated the fact that he never asked for a handout. “I like the fact that he’s always working on something. He always has something to do.”
When Oliphant had the opportunity to display some of his pieces in one of the businesses in downtown Durham, Duvall helped out by making a series of mats for a nicer presentation.
When asked what drives him to share his art instead of sitting around watching TV, Oliphant says: “I like my freedom. I ride my bike in the early morning and I feel great – like I’m part of the world. And then I want to share my joy by giving away my art. It makes people happy. It’s like I’m sharing myself with others.”
He stops and then smiles. “I haven’t had the best life, but I enjoy it and do the best I can.”