Meet BonJo: A painter helping shape the future of Fort Wayne’s creative community

In Fort Wayne, new artists are always emerging and adding their distinct styles to the vibrant, growing art scene. When BonJo moved to Fort Wayne during her junior year of high school, she began immersing herself in the local art community, but she was an artist long before that.

BonJo traces her artistic roots back to childhood in Texas, where she says she was always doodling, coloring and writing stories. She recalls going to summer camp, where she won art competitions, honing a talent that later became her life’s work. She comes from a creative family, too. Her siblings also won their share of art competitions at summer camp and her grandfather was also a painter.

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist BonJo sketches on her iPad.“He passed away when I was two, but my mom always talked about how much he painted and so I think that's where that creative bone comes from,” BonJo says.

Despite starting with doodles and coloring, BonJo found painting to be her preferred medium. 

“I don't draw,” she explains. “So people are like, ‘Oh you drew that?’ I'm like, I did not draw that. I painted's just completely different.”

Looking at her work now, BonJo’s style is fluid, diverse, and ever-changing. She says it makes it hard to categorize, but she likes to refer to it as “flow.” While the style itself might be a challenge to categorize, her art often carries a personal and cultural narrative, showcasing her Afro-Latino heritage.

She points to a couple of self-portraits as examples of some of her favorite pieces, both of which exemplify that narrative and celebrate her identity.

“I really just want to highlight my nose and my lips because those are my favorite features,” she explains. “And a nose also just kind of represents who you are and where you come from. I know a lot of people don't like their noses, but I think highlighting the nose and your lips– I hope it gives people the confidence to be proud of who they are, no matter what size, what color it is because that's your true identity right there.”

Rachel Von Art LLCA self portrait done by BonJo.Painting not only allows her to celebrate that identity, but BonJo explains that the creative outlet allows her to explore and embrace who she is.

“I’m Afro-Latino, so I got into self-portraits because I wanted to embrace who I was,” she says. “Being biracial is hard– some people think it’s an advantage, but it’s hard when you’re trying to identify yourself. Being a painter helped me identify who I am….being able to express myself through my art has helped me just embrace who I am and my culture.”

Rachel Von Art LLCBonJo points out details in her self portrait.BonJo is primarily self-taught as an artist, but she does not take lightly the mentorships, opportunities, and lessons learned from other local artists like Mike Johnson or Phresh Laundry. Last summer she was an apprentice for Alex Hall, helping with projects like the Only Rain in the Drain Legacy Mural. 

She says the opportunity to work with established Fort Wayne artists is exciting and she hopes to be able to pass down the same lessons and mentorship to the next generation of Fort Wayne artists. 

Recognizing the importance of opportunities and connections for artists like herself, so she launched Last Fridays, a monthly event that showcases local artists and their work. BonJo works with a team of artists, who she describes as “superstars” to put on Last Fridays. Those collaborations include J. Tubbs, Kelsey Martin and Rell Holman.

“Working with black creators is really important because it just means so much to work with them and to work with superstars who are well-known, well-respected, and just for us to understand where we come from and where we can go,” she explains. “That teamwork with them is awesome– more than awesome. It’s more than words can really explain, honestly.”

Rachel Von Art LLCA portrait of Biggie Smalls done by BonJo.Last Friday’s atmosphere is casual and fun. J. Tubbs helps curate that with the music and BonJo and her collaborators always include some sort of creative entertainment, like a collaborative live painting or art battles. It’s all about creating connections, fostering collaboration and showing appreciation for fellow creatives. BonJo says even in this first year, she’s already been able to witness that happen.

“A lot of people came to the art show not knowing the other artists and now they're collaborating and that's what we wanted,” BonJo says. “We wanted the next collaboration to take off. Now everyone's clicking up and being friends. We're only in the beginning stage. We have a couple more shows for the rest of the year, so I'm excited to see what are the artists we get.”

Rachel Von Art LLCBonJo rolls her art pieces.BonJo says experiences where she was able to showcase her artwork have been transformative for her career, which is one reason she knows how valuable an event like Last Friday is for local creatives. But her goals are bigger than just hosting an event– she wants to help other artists grow and have the capacity to support themselves as artists. A big part of that is having opportunities to show people your work and creating connections.

“I was just so excited to get my artwork out and seen and talk about it with people I don't know and see how people just break it down because art has its own story to every different eye,” she explains. “Having opportunities and being a part of the opportunities just builds your portfolio up. It builds your support system.”

As someone who is dedicated to their art and building a career out of it, BonJo says she knows the hard work it takes to use your art to support yourself.

“If you want to survive and live off your art, you have to go hard and it's not a nine to five, it's a twenty-four-seven or twenty-five-eight,” BonJo says. “I started out as a painter. I grew into it, but I also want to become a businesswoman in the art world, so I can live and work off my art.”

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist BonJo sketches on her iPad.And much like she’s sharing her knowledge with other creatives through Last Fridays, BonJo has no plans to keep what she’s learning about being a business in art to herself. She says her biggest goal at the moment is to open her own gallery, which will give her the ability to take younger artists under her wing.

“I wanna take my art business to the next level. I'm learning these things so that I can teach the other artists,” she says. “These are what galleries are looking for. This is how you can be a successful artist and not just a painter. And hopefully, just figure out a way how to survive off your art– not just doing art as a fun thing.”

For herself and for the future of the arts in Fort Wayne, BonJo is hopeful. She says the local art scene is growing and the new generation of artists who are hitting that scene are heavy hitters.

Rachel Von Art LLCLocal artist BonJo in front of her piece "7 Dulce" at Union Street Market at Electric Works.“Fort Wayne's art scene is growing,” she says. “I'm a part of the growth and I'm excited to keep bringing these opportunities out for people and collaborating with others.”

Meet BonJo and explore her art at the next Creator Space Event at 6 p.m. on June 27 at the Local Archive or at the next Last Fridays event on June 28.

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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.