Arts & Culture

Young Ethiopian artist adopted by Tumwater couple creates art that reminds him of home

Black Hills High School graduate Yitagesu Dowty with one of his drawings.
Black Hills High School graduate Yitagesu Dowty with one of his drawings. Courtesy photo

The abstract art on the walls of Our Table restaurant has a story behind it — a story as colorful and attention-getting as the pieces themselves.

The artist, 20-year-old Yitagesu Dowty of Tumwater, spent the first 11 years of his life in his native Ethiopia, where he suffered the loss of both parents, and experienced poverty, hunger and orphanage life.

He has just one memory of his mother, from the time when she was in the hospital before she died, but remembers his dad taking him to get food and buying him shoes.

“I used to have a picture of them,” he told The Olympian, “but my dog chewed it, literally.”

After his father’s death, he lived with his grandmother for a time, until a teacher suggested he might be better off in an orphanage, where he would be well fed and have the opportunity to go to school.

“I loved my grandma,” he said, “but I was really struggling living there. We were sleeping on the ground, and sometimes we didn’t even eat.”

After a few years living in the orphanage, Dowty (whose first name is pronounced “TAG-eh-soo” by family and friends) moved to the United States in 2010 when he was adopted by Pete Dowty and Cinde Donoghue of Tumwater.

He was the fourth of seven Ethiopian children the couple would eventually adopt.

“That wasn’t the plan, but that was the way it worked out,” Pete Dowty told The Olympian.

He and Donoghue had both worked in Africa as part of their graduate studies in environmental science, and in 2007, when they adopted their first two children, biological brothers, Ethiopia had one of the largest populations of orphans of any country in the world.

According to a 2006 article on unicef.org, 4.6 million children were missing one or both parents that year.

The couple adopted a third boy in 2008, and that’s when they met Yitagesu. They kept in touch with him and adopted him in 2010. They later adopted three biological relatives of the first two boys they adopted.

Though he was 11 when he arrived in Tumwater and knew little English, Yitagesu Dowty adjusted quickly. “It wasn’t hard for me to be part of this culture,” he said.

He was surprised that the United States wasn’t what he’d seen on television and in movies.

“We saw America as a lot of rich people,” he said. “They are healthy. They have good jobs. When I came here, I saw it was the same. There is poverty. People here have the same struggles we have.

“I’m not saying America is low,” he added. “It’s a good life. I like it here.”

It was in the United States — specifically at Black Hills High School, from which he graduated in 2018 — that he found his calling to make art.

“I started drawing, and somebody told me that I should it this more often,” he said. “I liked what I was doing and how it turned out.”

He found that he also liked the way he felt while drawing.

“It helped me to calm down, to focus,” he said. “There is a pattern. As I’m drawing, I don’t know where I’m going, but once I’m done with it, I have a feeling for it. I see myself in it.”

His art, done with pen and markers, has adorned the walls of Our Table since December, thanks to a little help from Deb Nickerson, the librarian at Black Hills High. She dines often at the restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch, and thought Dowty’s pieces would fit well with the colorful diner-style décor.

Nickerson got to know Dowty during his high-school years and the two have kept in touch.

“We go out for coffee or breakfast every now and then,” she told The Olympian. “He’s a special person. He has such a good heart and an effusive personality.

“I want to support him,” she added. “His art really comes from him and he has to do it. I want to help him pursue it, at least to get a start. It’s a difficult path.”

Dowty is busy with a job at BoomShaka Olympia trampoline park, but art continues to be his focus and his goal.

“I would like to save money and buy a car and probably move to a different city doing what I love to do and find a higher purpose for it,” he said. “I’d like to maybe design clothes and shoes.”

He also dreams of one day moving to Ethiopia, where he visited a half-sister and other biological relatives on a 2014 family trip.

“One day, I’m going to go back and live down there,” he said. “I have to. I want to spend my old age there.”

Art by Yitagesu Dowty

  • What: Our Table restaurant displays the work of Dowty, 20, who makes abstract drawings to express his feelings and emotions and colors them in a bold palette that reminds him of his native Ethiopia.
  • When: The work can be seen during restaurant hours, which are 9 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.
  • Where: Our Table, 406 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
  • More information: 360-932-6030, ourtableolympia.com
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