While his fellow Bradley graduates headed off to jobs or further study, Jonathon Romain ’90 faced a different future. His conviction on a felony drug charge just weeks before graduation had earned him a 15-year prison sentence.
“I was graduating and getting ready to move into a new phase of my life along with all of my friends,” said Romain. They went to law school, medical school, work, and I went to prison. I removed myself from the ghetto but I hadn’t removed the ghetto from me.”
He grew up on the west side of Chicago and was in and out of jail from the time he was 12, so a university degree was not a likely option. But Romain wanted more for himself.
“I was not supposed to be at Bradley. The fact that I made it to Bradley was one of the defining moments in my life … To (manage to) graduate while in the midst of a full-blown criminal trial did wonders for my confidence.” He was confident that he could do whatever he set his mind to, and was determined to come out of prison a better person.
In the seven years he served, Romain found an outlet through art. Starting with pencil and paper, he soon moved to painting by watching other inmate artists. With practice, he became comfortable with watercolors, acrylics and oils.
After release, Romain began working at a gallery in Peoria through the prison’s work-release program and eventually opened his own gallery. Today he’s a nationally known artist whose work has been seen on television, in magazines and museums.
Romain believes the hardest part of being an artist is learning how to make money with your art. “Most artists don’t look at art as being a job, nor do most people,” he said. “I understood that what I got out of art would be a direct result of what I put into it. I didn’t make money (in) the first five years of being a professional artist but I worked every day like it was a job.”
He finds inspiration everywhere, from people he meets to social and political commentary to beautiful flowers.
“I express the collective thoughts in my life. I’m all over the place with my art. I don’t have a signature style that someone would easily recognize. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If my pieces had a cohesive bond I would be bored to death.”
Paying it forward, Romain sought to better the lives of others by traveling the country and sharing his experiences with America’s most vulnerable youth. Over time, however, he began to question the long-term impacts of these short visits. This led to the creation of a community arts center where he could truly make a lasting impact on young people.
Earlier this year, Romain and his wife purchased a closed school in downtown Peoria in order to refurbish it into a community arts center. They started a nonprofit organization, Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (ART), to fund necessary improvements to the building and programming.
“The worst-case scenario is that we provide a safe haven during the most critical hours of the day — after school before parents come home and on the weekends,” he said. “Best case scenario is we inspire through creativity, teach kids to work with their hands, and cause them to look at school opportunities differently than they would have otherwise.”
While waiting to open the building, they are focused on creating free classes for kids in the community. The goal is to have all types of artists involved: visual and performing arts, language arts, graphic arts and others. In recent weeks, ART launched a partnership with District 150 schools installing seven artists into an after-school program. Romain hopes to pursue similar partnerships with other organizations.
Additionally, ART received a State Farm Neighborhood Assist $25,000 grant to put toward their dream of opening a community arts center. The money will be used toward improvements to the building. They will pursue other grants and hold a fundraiser next year to help cover remaining costs with a goal of opening the center next summer.
He advises Bradley students to make every moment count. “I got mediocre grades because I traded time I could have been studying for something I thought was fun,” he said. “Those things weren’t worth the sacrifice … (Ask yourself) is it worth it?”