CHEYENNE SOOKOO FIRST PICKED UP A BRUSH AT AGE FIVE, BECAME HER OWN BOSS IN HER TEENS, AND REFUSES TO FIT THE MOLD OF A STARVING ARTIST
BY ELIZABETH LOREDO
Walk down Bedford Avenue on just about any day and one might hear music drifting faintly from one of its row houses, through the windows of a small sunroom studio. If that music is Trinidadian Soca, a blend of soul and calypso, there’s a good chance that the artist inside is working to a deadline, using the beat to push through final hours of a portrait assignment or the design of a logo. If it’s alternative music, “if it’s vibing and chill,” Cheyenne Sookoo disclosed, “Then I’m working on a calm piece, something that’s for me.”
Should a visitor happen to knock, he or she would be greeted by a vibrant 20 year old with a cup of black tea sweetened with condensed milk. It’s a touch of West Indian flavor, a culture Sookoo takes deep pride in and that informs imagery in much of her work, especially paintings of sun washed beaches and portraits of proud women of color, erupting with lush, unexpected florals.
These pieces and more, visible on her website, are the products of Paints by Chey, one of a number of businesses juggled by the artist, who accepts commissions. She’s also founded a company, Events on Canvas, which specializes in live painting at occasions like galas and corporate meetings. Then there are the Paint & Sips, on trend parties where Sookoo leads light hearted lessons and attendees leave with a painting of their own. She also provides private lessons for more serious students, and laughed as she explained, “That way they get to bring home a perfect canvas, not just a drunk canvas.”
How does a woman barely out of her teens support her art and accomplish so much? Five minutes with Sookoo made it quite clear that it’s through an astonishing work ethic, refined by excellent role models and by seizing every available learning opportunity.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago and transplanted to Brooklyn as a toddler, Sookoo witnessed her immigrant parents reconstruct their lives.
“They’re entrepreneurs as well,” she said. “I saw their drive and built off of that.” By the time she entered high school, Sookoo was already selling self made jewelry and playing clarinet with proficiency.
She’d put aside her painting, a passion in childhood, to concentrate on music. Until one day in 2014 when, as she explained, “I decided to pull down my paints again.” A self-confessed sci-fi geek and fan of the TV show Doctor Who, she painted galaxies. A friend asked if she was selling the work, and she arrived at a fee of $150. That first sale sparked Sookoo’s nascent entrepreneurial spirit. What followed was a domino like cascade of experiences: acceptance to a prestigious program for teens offered by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (ultimately being chosen its Global Entrepreneur of the Year); representing her hometown at innovator challenges nationwide; and winning thousand dollar awards at Shark Tank like business competitions unexpected wins for art oriented proposals.
One prize worthy pitch began, “Let me paint you a picture: Imagine having an artist onsite at your event, engaging your audience.” Sookoo won over judges, she said, by helping them connect emotionally with the concept: “A professional artist painting on canvas, capturing the spirit and essence of your event.” That pitch evolved into her Events on Canvas business. Along the way she collected awards and accolades, like being named Ernst & Young’s “Young Entrepreneur of the Year.” That acumen is in service to, she explained, art’s ability to make connections with and inspire people, referencing a quote by artist Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Sookoo said she hopes that others will “see the bigger picture” in her wide ranging work and her studio is the place, she said, “where the magic happens.” When painting there, “I feel free. I don’t need to hide anything. This is me.”