Ayokunle Odeleye is a sculptor and former educator who currently resides in Stone Mountain. Over the last 47 years, he has been commissioned to create monumental work all over the country, with several of his pieces are in the state of Georgia.
He has both a welding and wood studio to help him bring his sketches to life.
“I do what’s called public art,” Odeleye said. “A lot of people think public art is when an artist does a piece of work in his or her studio, and then they put it downtown or someplace like that. That’s not public art. Public art is when an agency, or arts agency, or state government, or any entity commissions a work of art specifically for a site.”
For the outdoor projects, almost all of the exterior work is done in stainless steel so that weather elements won’t deteriorate the work. He also sometimes works in bronze.
Odeleye, originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, started pursuing art seriously with the encouragement of his high school art teacher.
His former teacher was “a mentor to a lot of black kids in that town because it was a very rough town for black kids,” Odeleye said. “You talk about police violence is now, all of that was going on way back when I was a kid.”
He started as a painter until he transferred to Howard University from Virginia Commonwealth University for both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. He took a sculpting class at Howard, where he was introduced to welding.
“A light came on when I started doing sculpture,” Odeleye said. “When I started working three dimensional with my hands. I knew that this is what I wanted to do, and literally stopped focusing on painting and started doing sculpture of wood mostly, which is why wood is a big part of my vocabulary.
The first project he worked on was for the city of Baltimore after competing against 30 other artists for the contract. The budget for the sculpture was $25,000.
“Today, to do something like that would probably be a million dollar project,” Odeleye said. “But I took that whole budget and I didn’t make 10 cents on it.”
He instead used all of the money on materials to make a large piece. He was inspired by ancient Egyptians to create large works of art. People were surprised he was able to build a big sculpture on such a modest budget, but he wanted to imitate ancient Egyptian monuments.
“This individual thing, this Eurocentric signing of your name that was never part of Africa,” Odeleye said. “African artists were collectives, they didn’t sign it; They built stuff for the community, they worked in groups. They didn’t do individual pieces. So for me to have the opportunity to build a large scale piece that leaves my signature that says I was here.”
At Howard, he was an artist in residence. He moved to Georgia after that contract ended to teach at Spelman. He taught there for three years before transferring to Kennesaw to help build a sculpture program. He would go on to teach there for over 30 years.
It was never Odeleye’s goal to work in education. His motivation for teaching at first was a practical one. His mentor from high school suggested that he teach as a way to support himself financially.
“I’ve always made it clear,” Odeleye said. “I’m a sculptor who is teaching. I’m not a teacher who happens to be an artist. I’m an artist.”
With time, Odeleye became good at teaching and was able to enjoy it. He still has former students from over the years reach out to tell him how they impacted their lives the way his former teacher impacted his.
Odeleye retired from teaching in 2019. Currently, he is working on three different contracts simultaneously. One of which is for The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs for The City of Atlanta.
It took two years for the project to come to fruition. He had to go through the process of competing against hundreds of individuals and giving oral and written presentations. He then drew sketches to scale from various angles before making models and having engineers ensure his design could stand.
Once completed, the sculpture will stand 30 feet tall. He’s also working on a piece for a subdivision in Atlanta. The third contract is for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Odeleye plans on retiring from creating such large works of art after he finishes his current projects. He’ll then focus on his wood work and smaller passion projects.