In her quiet East Nashville apartment, you can step into a gallery Dayo Johnson created for herself.
From self-portraits to eccentric paintings, there is no lack of color and creativity splashed onto each corner of her family’s home.
But it’s down a small hallway, pass Johnson’s series of children’s artwork and pictures of herself as a young mom, that you see where the true creativity lies.
Johnson has turned a small closet by her son’s bedroom to a studio cramped with bottles of paint and lights.
It is in this cozy environment where she seeks creative refuge to work on her most recent piece of a young girl.
“I knew I had to do something for her,” Johnson said.
The inspiration behind her recent painting came from an unlikely source. To know Johnson is to know how she likes to use different materials to incorporate into her work.
“I like to use rescued material,” Johnson said. “Friends give me things to use all the time.”
So it was not a surprise when four months ago, her brother gave some bed slats he picked up from a friend’s house.
It was only two weeks ago when she decided to take another look. She was about to disassemble the slats when she found some markings looked to be written by a young girl.
“I can’t describe the feeling when I saw them,” Johnson recalled. “It just broke my heart.”
Her discovery turned out to be personal and heartbreaking writings scribbled across the slats. They were short and simple but enough to give a glimpse into the mind of a young child.
One of them said, “7 years until Mommy gets out” or “I wish everything was easy”. Another referring to her grandfather who would get ‘out’ in a few months.
“I didn’t know who he or she was but it just moved me so much that I felt like I needed to put a prayer out in the atmosphere for this child,” Johnson explained.
So like anyone in this modern age, Johnson posted pictures of the slats to her Facebook. In hours, several people commented praising Johnson for her concern over the child. Unbeknownst to the those commenting, it was the discovery of the slats that have touched Johnson.
“I was in a rut creatively but seeing what this girl is going through inspired me to create a whole new piece,” Johnson said.
Lo and behold, the family of a girl reached out to Johnson after seeing the post on Facebook saying that the bed slats belonged to her.
It turned out the little girl who wrote on the slats is Maya Flye, a 13-year-old Goodlettsville teenager.
Her mom is incarcerated for drugs but is turning her life around, the family said. Flye may be young but she has gone through a lot.
“It hurts to not have a mother figure and not have her see me play basketball and talk to her about personal things,” Flye said.
Flye and her 9-year-old sister Naya are being taken care of her aunt and grandmother and shared a bunk bed together. Last year, she felt the urge to write down her feelings on the slats before her aunt gave it away.
It was not meant for anyone to see, until Johnson stumbled upon them.
“She’s made me happy for doing this and posting it, I’m thankful for her,” Flye said.
In Tennessee, one out of 10 children have or have had parents in prison. According to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Tennessee is tied with five other states for the third highest prevalence of parental incarceration.
“I can’t imagine not growing up with my parents in my life,” Johnson added.
On Friday morning, the two decided to meet for Johnson to give the painting.
With the teen were her guardians and little sister, equally eager to meet the woman who they are about to call family.
Johnson slowly approached the SUV, nervous yet tickled with excitement, whereas Flye quickly came up to her with open arms.
The two exchanged a few words in an intimate moment while loved ones stand on the side with tears rolling down their faces. Johnson brought her to the backyard of her mom’s house to present a painting with frames made from the bed slats.
“I want to stay in her life,” Johnson tearfully said. “The painting says hope and love for a reason.”
Flye said she wants to be a basketball player when she grows up.
Since writing on the bed slats, her grandfather has been released.
To learn more about the recent study on parents in prison, click on this link.