The Bottom Lines : Once Felled by Bullet, Art Teacher Rolls Over Obstacles of Life

Times Staff Writer

The beads and charms on the art teacher's dredlock hairdo clanked as she sped among her students and their projects. She never seemed to stop talking or moving.

"OK, everybody, we're going to paint like this," Riua Akinshegun said as she showed her class how to make banners. She transfered a glop of red paint from a tube to a slab, then to a roller, then to a design--the first intricate step her young pupils would take in their day's project.

"And now we're going to dance like this," she said when the banners were finished and the children were ready for more action.

Dance they did--Akinshegun in her wheelchair, spokes glistening as the sun beat down on the concrete slab at Villa Parke Community Center, and 30 paint-smeared children who whirled their banners triumphantly.

It was the usual twice-weekly morning class of Pasadena Art Workshop's Art in the Park summer program, where the "classroom" is an outdoor space, the program is unusual, and the teacher even more so.

Akinshegun, 40, has spent the last 14 years in a wheelchair, a condition that she says slows her down but doesn't otherwise interfere with her pursuit of happiness.

Once a black separatist in Berkeley during the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s, Akinshegun was shot by a fellow resident of the activist collective where she lived. The bullet hit her spine, leaving her a paraplegic for life.

"I wasn't quite right for a long time after that," Akinshegun said of the lengthy depression she suffered after the accident. "I couldn't believe anything like that could happen. I lived without any direction or motivation for three years.

"Then I finally figured out that I don't have to change my life and my dreams just because I'm a paraplegic. I have the same kind of personality and other traits that I had without a handicap."

At the banner-making class, nobody seemed to notice that the students and their assigned space were messes, that the morning was miserably hot, that there was no music to dance to and that the teacher couldn't really dance.

This is the way their art class usually is, the children reported. They told of making kites, dolls, masks and other crafts during this summer's sessions.

"Riua is so wonderful she has a following," said Linda Arbino, outreach coordinator for the Pasadena Art Workshop.

"She has instant rapport. The children just seem to understand what she's doing," said Nancy McKinney, activities coordinator for the Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles, where Akinshegun teaches four times a week. "After the first class she taught here, parents started asking for more."

"Such a wonderful person," said Joan de Bruin, a coordinator at the Junior Art Center at Los Angeles' Barnsdall Park, where Akinshegun introduced a program for youngsters with handicaps.

Long ago, before she was felled by the bullet, Akinshegun was an unlikely candidate for the kind of praise she receives now.

She describes herself as the first member of her family of 10 children to "break the welfare mentality" by leaving New York and seeking higher education. She came to the West Coast while still in her teens, then got caught up in the revolutionary spirit that prevailed in Berkeley in the 1960s.

It was then that she moved into the activist collective. By 1971, she says, it had become a house divided by internal strife. She was shot, she says, by a young woman during that period of strife.

After recovering from the wound and subsequent depression, she left for Africa.

With her son, Akin, now 19, and a friend and the friend's children, she went to the University of Ife in Nigeria to study art. She discovered there, she said, "that I'm an artist, not just an art student."

Returning more than a year later, Akinshegun began specializing in making dolls and had one exhibit in La Pintoresca Branch of the Pasadena Library. She is in demand as an educator, an exhibiting artist and an authority on living with a handicap.

"This is so restrictive, that's all," she said of her confinement to a wheelchair. "I can't move fast enough to keep up with my mind. That's really the only thing I can't do--catch up with my mind."

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