East City Interviews: Brookland Artist Toni Hatchett

By Sayyah George on January 25, 2013


“Dizzy” by Toni Hatchett. Photo by Sayyah Hart-Bey, for East City Art

Toni Hatchett’s earliest memories are of the aroma of turpentine and linseed oil.  She remembers playing with brushes and paint and being surrounded by immense beauty as a child. What she remembers especially is the fantastic mural that was painted on the walls of her grandfather’s basement art studio. The mural was her grandfather’s version of  French post- impressionist artist Paul Gauguin’s “Paradise Lost.”  It was an expansive piece that covered an entire wall of his studio.  The imagery of the lush beauty Tahiti’s Hiva Oa Island served as the backdrop for Toni’s  childhood playground.   “In retrospect, the mural taught me the importance of beauty and imagination and it introduced me to an important figure in the symbolist art movement” says Toni.

Toni’s Grandfather was Starling E. Hatchett. He was a Fisk Jubilee tenor singer who traveled the world performing and sang up to the end of his life.  He taught himself to speak foreign languages and believed in the power of imagination which he passed on to his granddaughter.  “He was my first art teacher” says Toni whose lessons took place in the basement of their Brookland home in northeast DC.  It was there that Toni studied her grandfather’s work and perfected her own .

She learned to draw and sketch portraits using charcoal and pencil. Later she began working with oil and acrylic paints.  “I really like art that allows me to see movement.”  She believes that movement in art tells a story the same way that the face of a subject tells a story.  She draws her inspiration from artist Earnest “Ernie” Eugene Barnes who is well known for his unique style of elongation and movement.

Toni received a degree in Media Arts at New Jersey City University where she learned to create art using a variety of mediums. After college, she never strayed from her beloved portraits “I think I mimic my grandfather’s work and the lessons that he taught me” says Toni who has learned to appreciate the way  portraits capture the inner soul of the person. Toni is also inspired by personal emotional connections and jazz music. Her Dizzy Gillespie piece which she created in blue scale was her first experiment with acrylic paint- a testament to her ability to capture the essence of her subjects in any medium.

She painted  “Good morning heartache” in oil after she reconnected with a friend after 16 years of separation via Skype.  “As I sat listening to her and watching her.  I ended up drawing from that emotional place inside of me. I knew her story, her life and how hard it has been for her.”  The lines in the subject’s face reveal deep emotion and the  light that reflects upon her friend’s face glows radiantly despite the melancholy feel of the piece.


"Good Morning Heart ache" by Toni Hatchett
“Good Morning Heartache” by Toni Hatchett.  Photo by Sayyah Hart-Bey for East City Art


Toni started her art business “ Portraits by Toni” in 2004.  Mostly,  she paints what inspires her, like jazz artist, singers and African warriors but mostly Toni does commission work from customer photographs.  Her clients appreciate her ability to understand the depth of her subjects.  However, Toni mostly enjoys the freedom of creating from inspiration “I just draw what I feel and someone out there is drawn to it and buys it.”

Toni’s home studio is peaceful, quiet and serene.  Inside, the walls are covered with her artwork. An amazing painting of an African warrior with fearless eyes from the Nilotic ethnic group of semi nomadic people of Kenya and Tanzania takes the spotlight of the studio; it is replete with the distinctive head dress and markings of the nomadic warrior and cattle rustler tribes that inhabit the African Great Lakes region.

“Maasai Warrior” by Starling E. Hatchett . Photo by Sayyah Hart-Bey for East City Art


I ask about her travels to Africa and I am surprised to discover that she has never been.  All of  the pieces that line her studio wall and that reference the continent were drawn from memory.   Toni explains that her grandfather was enamored with the nomadic lifestyle and traditions of the  Maasai people whom he encountered in Kenya and he would often paint portraits of them.   Toni lost her grandfather late last year and says that the piece “Maasai Warrior” reminds her of the beloved man who taught her everything she knows about art.  Her grandfather traveled around the world sharing his song and returned home with a heart filled with the treasures that he gave generously not only to his granddaughter but to the world.

For more information about Toni Hatchett contact the artist at  Portraitsbytoni@hotmail.com