Timothy Donelson volunteered to fight in Operation Desert Storm in an attempt to escape the drug culture that had taken hold of America in the 1980s. But to his disappointment, he never got shipped out to any battle zones.
“I believe if I had made it, I would’ve been able to get my mind clear and gotten focused, y’know in a war zone you can’t help but focus,“ Donelson said.
Donelson entered the military with a background in security. He served six years with the D.C. National Guard and four more years with a security firm that staffed many public buildings in the nation’s capital.
“I was going somewhere for a minute,” he said. That hopeful course in life came to a screeching halt when involvement with drugs landed Donelson in prison. He was incarcerated on and off for more than 15 years. Yet it was during a period behind bars when Donelson’s art career began. While he was in prison in Memphis, the warden hired Donelson to paint seven 9’ x 19’ murals.
“He saw one of my paintings while he was walking down on the compound. Next thing I know I’m painting pictures on the cafeteria,” Donelson said.
Despite personal doubts over the sheer size of the job, Donelson could not pass up the opportunity. All seven murals wrapped around the prison’s cafeteria and the administration provided supplies, including a 6’ scaffold, latex wall paint, and plenty of cheap paint brushes.
“It took nine months, they paid me $100 a month,” Donelson laughed, “which is nowhere near worth the price of ‘em, but y’know – I’m locked up – that was the only way I could get some income.”
Donelson began drawing at age 5 – copying from comic books and magazines. He said his mother remembered that he didn’t spend a lot of time playing outside with other children, but preferred to sit in a corner and draw. It had been his hobby ever since.
“Even coming out of college I don’t think too many people can put it down like I can do on paper. Especially with colored pencils and ink. I make it look like paint,” said Donelson.
After moving back to the District, Donelson found a place to live above a Jamaican restaurant and emerged as a prolific muralist in the North Capital community. He painted a mural within the restaurant, and several for other local businesses, including Taylor Funeral Home and Compliments Hair Salon.
“The more they learn about what I can do, the more they ask, the more they want it,” Donelson said.
He has expanded outward, having also completed a mural inside a Georgia Avenue liquor store, and several portraits and interior paintings for individuals. When asked what kind of work he is looking for, Donelson said he wants to keep doing murals and portraits “anywhere they need ‘em.”
“I need to really do something with this talent now, I’m 54 – I don’t have time to waste,” said Donelson.
He has managed to kick drugs and has been sober for about a year. But during th at same time, his money ran out and he has had to deal with homelessness.
He began selling Street Sense after seeing other vendors selling the paper, in hopes of rebuilding financially.
“It’s hard for me to get a job,” he says. “ I’ve got a felony record and a 15-year gap in my work history. Every time I fill out an application, that blows me out of the water,” said Donelson.
Selling the paper gives him the chance to talk to many different people, and get his name out there by submitting content to the paper. Donelson also feels the need to be a part of anything that supports the homeless.
“It took me a long time to get here, to become homeless. Now I just wonder how long it’s going to take me to get back.