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Education Station: Artist brings African-American figurines to Charles Dickens Elementary School students

The students at Charles Dickens Elementary were visited by artist John Starks, who says painting helps him with the side effects of chronic illness.

CLEVELAND — People from all walks of life have rallied around the students at our adoptive school, Charles Dickens Elementary in Cleveland. And recently, a local artist added a colorful touch to the Dickens Reads after-school program – giving the kids and himself a gift that will keep on giving.

Local artist John Starks is a figurine painter with a soft spot for children. He visited our Dickens kids during their after-school book club and brought some very special guests. Starks painstakingly hand-paints extraordinary African-American figurines. It's no small feat for a man with a number of health problems who needs an oxygen machine to breathe.

"I was diagnosed 6 years ago with chronic emphysema, and due to the different types of medications I take, they cause insomnia," said Starks.

What better way to pass the sleepless nights than to pick up a hobby. Starks says his mom used to paint figurines, so he gave it a shot and loved it!

"It turned into a nightly thing. I couldn’t wait for it to get dark. I'd wait to paint. It was something that just took over. Now I love to do it," said Starks.

Dickens students were tasked with creating their very own story about one of Starks’ figurines - getting their imaginations and storytelling juices flowing. The kids dove right in, which made Starks misty-eyed.

"You get to hear all this. The different names they make up and all of that. I’m choked up. I’m gonna tell you the truth. I guess the older ya get, you get emotional," laughed Starks.

When asked why a man – retired and ailing – would come out in support of kids he doesn’t even know. Starks answer was as magical as his figurines themselves:

"You give back. And if making somebody smile is your way of giving back, let it be. Like I said, it’s really something to make somebody else happy. It really is," said Starks.

Starks is a retired custodian who worked for the Plain Dealer for 33 years, but he says he’s definitely not done working yet. He brings his figurines to hospitals, nursing homes, and other schools. Dickens children even got to take home some of John’s figurines. 

For more information on John’s figurines, email him at metellyou56@gmail.com.

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