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Richmond Seju works hard at his art, athletics and making his way in the world

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Cloquet High School senior Richmond Seju is a world away from where he was six years ago, literally, artistically, academically and athletically.

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Richmond arrived in the United States — in Minneapolis of all places — five years ago from his native country of Liberia, in West Africa.

“I didn’t know what that white stuff was,” Richmond said with a chuckle, remembering the snowy March day he arrived at the age of 12. “I thought it was dust.”

He also remembers his first meal here. He ate an entire chicken.

Soft spoken and a little shy, Richmond also has a good sense of humor and a good head on his shoulders. He chuckles at the memory.

“That was what I wanted to eat,” he said, explaining that it was sort of symbolic of America for him, the land of plenty where he was certain no one was hungry or homeless, and everyone lived in grand buildings and didn’t have to work.

Only 18 years old, Richmond already has a lifetime of stories to tell.

As a little boy, he fled with his family to Ghana during the second Liberian civil war.

His earliest memories are of living in a refugee camp there with his brother, Michael, and his dad and mom, George and Joyce Seju. (Joyce is technically his stepmother, but Richmond said she is the only mother he has ever known. The fate of his birth mother is unknown. “We lost her in the war,” Richmond said.)

Richmond attended elementary school in nearby Ghana at the refugee camp. He doesn’t really remember the war, just the stories his parents told him and his brother about moving around a lot to try to stay safe, before ending up in Ghana.

When the war ended in Liberia, the family moved back to the capital city of Monrovia. Once there, Richmond didn’t go to school for four years: from the time he left Ghana until he moved to the United States.

Liberia was still reeling from two civil wars (from 1989-1996 and 1999-2003) and “things were still a little tense, I think,” Richmond said.

Joyce moved to the U.S. first, then she sent for Richmond’s father. Then they brought Richmond here. His brother is still in Liberia — they communicate via Facebook whenever Michael can afford to go to an Internet cafe — but the family is hoping he can move to the U.S. someday.

Having a family split up like that is not unusual, explained Richmond’s Uncle Sampson Zota Dolo.

“During the war, people would scatter when something happened,” Dolo said. “Maybe you’re at the house and kids are at school. You have to run, just run, and try to find someone you know. People put up names on bulletin boards, wherever, trying to find someone. No, there was no Internet,” he responded, laughing. “People would come with loudspeakers, ‘This family is looking for so-and-so.’”

When Richmond arrived, his parents were living in Brooklyn Center. He spoke Liberian, which he says is similar to English, so learning how to communicate wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. He had to get used to being in class again, which was pretty challenging for a 12-year-old.

But he also got to start thinking about more than simply survival.

Since then, art and athletics have emerged as Richmond’s two passions.

He remembers an art class at Northview Junior High, after his family moved to Brooklyn Park, before his move to Cloquet in 2011. His interest in art, however, had been sparked long before that.

Richmond’s father was an artist. A neighbor in Africa was a landscape painter. According to Richmond, his dad was a graphic designer who used to “design things for the country.” His father had, Richmond said, a unique style and an ability to just design things out of his head.

And he helped Richmond with his art when he was in school in Brooklyn Park.

“I remember that first art class here, learning how to draw,” Richmond said. “He’d look at my work and help me get better. Now he says I’m too advanced.”

Richmond moved to Cloquet a little over two years ago, and has been living with Dolo and Aunt Reginnah Weah, an arrangment that all three seem to enjoy and which has allowed Richmond to flourish in the small town atmosphere of Cloquet.

“It’s easy to make friends here,” Richmond said. “I’ve never been in serious trouble around here. Everyone is so nice to you, there’s no way you could get in trouble.”

He got involved in the track team that first spring, and started working with CHS art teacher Julie Deters, and working at his art.

Last month, his efforts paid off at the 7AA Minnesota State High School League Visual Arts Festival. The senior received two “excellent” ratings for his drawings and a “superior” rating for his painting. Richmond also earned a first place at the State level Youth Art Month Exhibit in the Twin Cities for a pair of drawings which feature a self portrait of Richmond, wearing his ball cap, looking up at another drawing of an eye. Inside the iris of the eye is a clock, burning wood and a cityscape.

It tells his story.

“The clock shows time, time to pursue my dreams,” he explained. “The wood is the struggle from the war. And the city represents the American Dream. And it’s all inside the clock, which is the iris.” (The drawings are currently being featured in a Trepanier Hall gallery exhibit, 212 W. Second Street in Duluth, featuring 11 different artists.)

“I like to draw all the time,” Richmond said. “I do it because I enjoy it and because it’s kind of like therapy. Because I want to express myself. Some people make music — I make drawings.”

In art, as in life, he’s come a long way.

“Many students come to me with the ability to copy pictures they find online,” CHS art teacher Julie Deters said when asked about Richmond. “They quickly learn that they have way more to offer themselves and the world than to copy the work of someone else. In fact, it cannot be called art if they are merely copying someone else’s photograph. Richmond was in that proverbial boat.”

Fortunately, she said, Richmond is a good student.

“He soon realized he needed to take his work to another level…a more personal, creative level. He has done that and continues to push the boundaries of creative expression,” Deters added, noting that Richmond is open to critical feedback and willing to put in extra time to research techniques and practice. “No one can say that it is all a gift. He works hard for the skills he displays in his artwork and athleticism. He should be commended on his focus and hard work more than the final product because it is, indeed, his drive that results in such beautiful artwork.”

As Deters noted, that same drive shows itself in Richmond’s athletic endeavors.

His face lights up when he talks about track, where he runs the 100- and 200-meter dash, plus the 4x400-meter relay and the long jump. In his third year on the Cloquet team, the Liberian native is frequently winning those races, and he was thrilled that the boys team earned the right to race at the True Team state event last weekend. The fleet-footed senior is also hoping he and his teammates will also get to compete at the state track meet in June.

“He is such a good kid, a good listener, not someone who will talk back and a very hard worker,” Weah said. “I’m very proud of him. Going to State has been his dream. We’ve been pushing too. We know how important it is to him.”

Although he was “too shy” to try out for soccer or football his first fall at CHS, thanks to encouragement from CHS girls coach Dustin Randall, last fall was Richmond’s first and last season on the Lumberjacks soccer team. Alongside exchange student Domenico Tomaselli, Richmond certainly had an impact on the team, which made it as far as the section finals before falling to Hermantown, something that still appears to rankle Richmond’s usually calm demeanor.

It was a far cry from the soccer games in the refugee camps, where sometimes players would make a ball by tying plastic bags together until they made something the approximate size and shape of a soccer ball.

Richmond talks about what he’s learned since he arrived here with a wisdom gained from a lifetime of experiences.

“Sometimes I see kids get mad at their parents because they don’t have the latest phone, or stress out about little things like clothes or how food is made,” he said. “I laugh. I remember. I try to appreciate the little stuff. Even if I don’t have something, I don’t stress. It could be worse. And I try to work hard rather than sit back and do nothing.”

In the meantime, he’s working on his dreams for the future.

“I know now that to get the American dream, you actually have to work for it,” Richmond said.

He graduates May 30 and hopes to study business and marketing in college, so he can make a business out of his art and someday be an international artist who can maybe influence the world in some small or large way.

“All of my art tells a story,” Richmond said. “I hope it’s something to make people feel better. Even if you don’t know the story [behind a particular artwork], you can put your own story behind it and make you feel better.”

Here’s to another lifetime’s worth of stories.

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