Hanging above my dining room table are these words written on an unfolded cardboard cereal box:
“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
This quote by Henry Longfellow represents the pinnacle of the American Dream, and as an 8-year-old homeschooler, my Mom made me recite it daily before eating our traditional Jamaican breakfast; dumplings, ackee, and saltfish.
My name is Dwayne Walker, and I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia with my five siblings. We weren’t rich, but my parents knew a balance between creativity, knowledge and hard work formed the key to success so they pulled us out of public school and took our education into their own hands. As I grew more curious about the world around me, my mom encouraged me to gain new experiences, explore my ideas and pursue my interests. I tried multiple creative subjects but gravitated towards art as a form of self-expression.
Even though I loved art, I wasn’t always a gifted artist. Instead, my parents believed in me so strongly that it gave me the courage to believe in myself. That’s all it took to develop a gift I didn’t know I had.
Like many young artists, my abilities grew to a point where my parents couldn’t teach me anymore. After months of testing homeschool art curriculums and searching for an affordable private art tutor, my parents decided to enroll me in a public school with an art program.
Public school differed from being homeschooled. I walked from class to class struggling to carry my textbooks and an art portfolio half the size of my body. I was shy, but I had a trick up my sleeve to strike conversations with classmates. I would sit down at my desk and browse through my portfolio at the perfect angle to catch the attention of a classmate around me. “Whoa! Did you draw that?”, echoed through the classroom. That sparked a hand full of great friendships. Adjusting to public school flowed smoothly until the first day in my 8th grade Language Arts class.
Ms. Plas stood outside the classroom while my classmates and I filed in and proceeded to our assigned seats. I sat down and opened my portfolio, but this time was different. Instead of one or two of my classmates engaging in conversation the entire class went wild! Students jumped out their seats, circled around my desk and leaned their heads closer to the artwork to observe the details.
As the class got louder my moment of stardom was cut short when Ms. Plas stormed into the room with a look of confusion on her face yelling, “Everyone back to your seats!”. The students dispersed revealing the portfolio spread out in front of me. She maneuvered her way to my desk, snatched the portfolio, and gestured with her finger for me to follow her outside of the classroom.
When we got in the hallway she held the portfolio towards the ceiling saying, “This won’t get you anywhere in life. My class will.” The sentences that followed are all a blur. I was too focused on holding back tears. Crying on the first day of 8th grade would’ve been embarrassing.
I couldn’t focus during the remainder of the class. Can my passion get me anywhere in life? Did I put my heart into art for nothing? Negative thoughts overflowed my mind, but the one concept that kept faith afloat was instilled in me years ago while homeschooled. The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight.
Ms. Plas was wrong.
With hard work and dedication, I can accomplish anything I put my mind to, and I wanted to prove it to her.
The road to improving my talent wasn’t easy. I experienced doubt, failure, and negativity from adults and peers. Luckily, the support of my family and best friends felt like the support of a multitude. Every night when my family went to sleep I rolled out of bed, turned on my lamp and created new art. I tested new mediums, practiced in my sketchbook and applied what I learned to larger works of art.
Creativity started to impact other aspects of my life. It enhanced my critical thinking and problem-solving skills during school, helped me confidently and effectively communicate novel ideas, and gave me a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me.
That year I won $100 in my first art contest by drawing a picture displaying the negative effects of drunk driving. My parents were proud of me! This was the first time the school recognized me for art and the news spread fast. When the school year ended my classmates voted me as the 8th Grade Class Superlative: Most Talented, and coincidentally, Ms. Plas was voted by administrators as Teacher of the Year.
After 8th grade, I switched from school to school seeking a great art program; one that allowed me to accelerate at my own pace. Even though every year I was matched with amazing art teachers, the system of creative learning at school was flawed and stifled creative growth. Throughout high school, I continued learning art at home while entering more contests.
In 9th grade, I won an international art contest that granted me a two-week art focused Italy excursion where the creativity in the food, streets, and architecture engulfed me.
In 10th grade, I won a statewide art contest that only accepted the top .01% of high school artists in Georgia where I developed techniques in new mediums. In 11th grade, my art gained recognition from dozens of social icons including Chris Tucker, Ne-Yo, and Ambassador Andrew Young. By the time senioritis kicked in I won over 50 art contest locally, statewide and nationally.
Over time my passion for art morphed into a passion for creativity. I enjoyed recording songs and performing them with my friends, writing poetry for my Valentine, and creating short films for YouTube. The process of creating something from nothing made my heart sing. Similar to art, entrepreneurship embodied this concept. While my peers worked their first jobs, I built side projects to make money. What I loved the most about entrepreneurship was the world became my canvas where my ideas solved problems.
Scholarships and handwritten acceptance letters from prestigious art schools started rolling in. I stalled accepting an offer. Everyone thought I was struggling to pick an art school, but instead, I struggled to decide between art school or business school.
I got to a fork in the road. Should I take the route of becoming an artist and create pieces that could impact the emotions of millions of people, or should I become an entrepreneur and solve a problem that could impact the lives of millions of people? I didn’t know what to pursue.
A few weeks before graduation I ran into my old friend from middle school, Julian. Back then Julian’s artistic abilities were ahead of his time. We occasionally had friendly art competitions where he always won by unanimous votes. In many ways, I looked up to Julian because art came effortlessly to him. I was excited to catch up, share my art with him and see his progress as well. To my surprise, when I asked about his art he said, “I can’t draw anymore.”
You can’t draw anymore? Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” It wasn’t that Julian can’t draw anymore, he simply gave up.
At that moment I learned a fundamental lesson that separates the super-creative from everyone else. Growing up, kids experience adults, schools, and society suppressing their creative passions. Kids can be empowered by these experiences if they are equipped with an avenue that nurtures their creativity, teaches them the benefits of creative thinking, and supports their original ideas. Instead of having this option, many kids, like Julian, simply give up.
This is a problem I could solve to potentially impact the lives of millions of aspiring artists. I didn’t have to choose between art and business. I could marry the two.
I dug deep into my past as a self-taught artist and dissected the method I used to take my talent from tyro to professional. I envisioned a platform that balanced creative freedom, learning the foundations of art, and following along with professional artists. After years of planning, my best friends and I created Sparketh.
Sparketh is the best way for young artists to learn art at home. Students are equipped with a library of 1,000+ art videos organized and instructed based on how I taught myself at home.
Today, Sparketh inspires 1,000’s of creative kids and teens around the world, but what touches my heart the most are the individual stories from our community. The story of the non-artistic homeschool mom who trusted Sparketh to help her daughter who lacked creative guidance at home. The kid who used Sparketh to follow in his artsy older brother’s footsteps.
These impactful stories fuel me daily.
To this day, hanging in my office is the unfolded cereal box as a constant reminder that this story isn’t over.
Together we’re writing Sparketh’s story of how we — creative parents, kids, teens, teachers, and schools — unite to make the next generation the most creative generation.
Hanging in my office is the original cereal box with the quote written on it. I was born on April 18th, 1994. This was written January 1, 1994. This was made before I was born, and I was reciting it as soon as I could speak.