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This Towson basketball player traded sports for painting. His ‘powerfully expressive’ work is drawing attention.

Lately, Chinedu Victor Uyaelunmo has been delivering his strokes not on the basketball court, but on the canvas. He’s exchanged his No. 34 jersey for a painter’s smock.

Uyaelunmo, a 7-foot, 230-pound power forward who averaged 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 points this past winter for the Towson men’s basketball program, has stepped away from the sport for the immediate future and turned his attention to painting. He is one of 12 “Emerging Artists” who will have his work displayed at the Baltimore County Art Guild’s inaugural Arts & Drafts Festival this weekend at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Halethorpe.

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“Painting is something that I love doing,” said Uyaelunmo (pronounced Ooo-Yell-A-Mo), whose first name means “God is leading me” in his family’s Igbo language back in Nigeria. “I never did painting for money or whatever. I did it because I love it.”

Mary Catherine Cochran, director of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, said Uyaelunmo was among about 120 artists who applied in February for one of 60 spots to display his work at the guild’s festival. She said a panel of judges approved his application in March, describing several of his samples as “bold,” “aesthetically striking” and “powerfully expressive.”

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Chinedu Victor Uyaelunmo, a Nigerian-born contemporary artist and former power forward who played for Towson University, has traded basketball for a paint brush. He executes his art using brushes and palette knives.
Chinedu Victor Uyaelunmo, a Nigerian-born contemporary artist and former power forward who played for Towson University, has traded basketball for a paint brush. He executes his art using brushes and palette knives. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“The jury was blown away by his work,” said Cochran, who has been the director for almost two years. “He had a very unique expressive style. His canvases seemed to be larger than life, and I didn’t know he was a basketball player. So it kind of makes sense, right? His brushstrokes and his impressions have a sort of uncontained energy to them that really spoke to the jurors.”

Tigers coach Pat Skerry said Uyaelunmo showed photographs of his paintings to him and others, but he was unaware of his former player’s exhibit at the upcoming festival.

“Seven feet or 6 feet, I haven’t had a lot of Division I basketball players that are accomplished artists,” Skerry said of Uyaelunmo, who transferred to Towson in 2019 and sat out a season under NCAA transfer rules. “But he clearly is, and that’s what makes it such a kind of unique story. The guy has athletic ability and ability in the fine arts. I don’t know how often you find that combination.”

He transferred to Towson after two years at Southern California, where he shot 53.8% from the field in 43 career games, to join his younger brother Chidi Solomon Uyaelunmo, a 6-7, 230-pound forward. The brothers had led their Fort Lauderdale high school to a 23-6 record and Florida’s Class 5A boys basketball championship in 2016-17. Now the younger brother, after three seasons with the Tigers, has entered the NCAA transfer portal, declaring his intent to transfer to another school should one want him.

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Uyaelunmo said he has been drawing and sketching since he was little. But he pivoted to painting in 2018 as a student and forward at USC after Oluwole Betiku Jr., an outside linebacker on the Trojans football team, introduced him to that medium.

“I like both, but with painting, I felt like you could express more,” Uyaelunmo said, adding that he prefers painting portraits of people he finds in photographs or on the internet. “You could do more different things with it.”

In a four-bedroom suite at Towson’s Millennium Hall that he shared with teammates, Uyaelunmo said he kept about 10 paintings in his room, moving some off his bed and his desk to make room to sleep or study. He joked that his room “always” smelled like paint.

Despite juggling school and basketball, Uyaelunmo estimated he spent 20 hours per week painting, usually at night.

“When my friends would go out to party, I would paint,” he said. “They would come back at 3 a.m., and I would still be painting. It was fun. I didn’t want to go out much. Painting was my getaway.”

Last winter, a friend suggested Uyaelunmo apply to the Baltimore County Arts Guild. He said he was surprised when his application was approved.

“I still can’t believe it, to be honest,” he said.

Cochran said the arts guild places an emphasis on helping early-career artists by not charging them a fee to display their works in 10-foot-by-10-foot booths. None of the jurors were aware, she said, of Uyaelunmo’s basketball career until a reporter approached them.

“We see him as an artist because that’s who he came to us as,” she said. “The fact that he was a basketball player is a surprise, but that’s an amazing thing. That’s really part of what the guild tries to do — provide these creative opportunities especially for emerging artists to tap into that creative energy.”

Skerry, the Tigers coach, quipped that he did not discuss art with Uyaelunmo often because the latter’s level of understanding was way above his. But he said he has an appreciation for artists like Uyaelunmo.

“It’s like watching a gymnast,” Skerry said. “When you don’t have that talent in that area, you have great admiration for the people who do.”

Uyaelunmo said he has sold about 10 paintings to different buyers. But he wasn’t ready to declare the feeling of selling a work better than making a game-winning play on the basketball court.

“It’s different,” he said. “When you dunk a ball, it’s just in the moment. It’s like, OK, you dunked it, and it’s the next possession. But [selling a painting] is not something that happens every day.”

Chris Wilson, owner of a production company called CuttleFish and an artist himself, met Uyaelunmo last fall through one of his teammates and purchased three of his paintings, hanging them in his homes in Baltimore and New York City.

“I was drawn to his level of commitment to his craft,” Wilson said. “I visited his studio, which was his apartment at Towson, and there were paintings everywhere. There were paintings in the living room, stuff hung on the walls, and I’ve done the same thing. So I was like, ‘This is a person that is really serious about this.’”

Wilson said he favors Uyaelunmo’s impasto technique, which is a type of painting in which the brushstrokes are visible and provide a texture that makes the image appear to come off the canvas.

"When my friends would go out to party, I would paint,” said Uyaelunmo. “They would come back at 3 a.m., and I would still be painting. It was fun."
"When my friends would go out to party, I would paint,” said Uyaelunmo. “They would come back at 3 a.m., and I would still be painting. It was fun." (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“Some of his work, I want to say that it’s unfinished, but looking at some of his pieces, I can see the evolution of him learning and growing,” Wilson said. “A lot of his paintings have these figurative images, and I really like that, too. The one painting I have now, it just kind of stares at you. They’re just soulful bodies of work. He’s able to capture that, and I think that’s beautiful.”

Uyaelunmo is taking an online course this summer to graduate from Towson with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He said that is his top priority before he decides whether to pursue a professional basketball career. He’s no longer listed on the Towson men’s basketball roster.

Cochran predicted that visitors to this weekend’s Arts & Drafts Festival may be struck after viewing his art.

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“I think there are great painters, and you can sort of walk by them at a show like this because their work is quieter or more subtle,” she said. “His is not, and I think that automatically will engage people that pass by. So I think he’s going to have a very strong and positive reaction from the folks who come to visit.”

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