In Holly Springs, turning poverty’s lessons into art

akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 2, 2013 

  • See the art Jonathan Daniel will speak and demonstrate his wire art Saturday at the Holly Springs Community Arts Festival. His presentation will come during a gala fundraiser that starts at 6 p.m. at the Holly Springs Cultural Center, 300 W. Ballentine St. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Info: 919-567-4000.

— Jonathan Daniel was born into cruelty and poverty in Africa.

But if his beginning was unhappy, he hasn’t let it linger.

People ask: What’s the secret? What’s Jonathan like behind the closed doors of his Holly Springs home?

And his wife of 16 years tells them: “You don’t see a version of him that I don’t see every minute of every day.”

The 47-year-old is earnest and focused, Robin Daniel said, whether he’s roiling up an auditorium of middle-school students during a presentation or bending metal wire into another intricate piece of art.

His craft has gained regional fame, and this week, Daniel will headline the first Holly Springs Community Arts Festival.

But there’s a part of him that’s not obvious in his exuberance.

It starts with the story of his name.

Born into cruelty

Daniel was known in youth as “Penga Penga,” or “Crazy Crazy,” a moniker he shared with the British plantation owner who kept his family in wage slavery.

He grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His parents were illiterate and hopelessly indebted to the plantation. Their country was wrestling for and with its new independence from the United Kingdom.

On the day of his birth, his mother was beaten close to death by the tobacco farm’s owner, who thought she wasn’t working hard enough, Daniel recalled. She was so bloodied that the other farmhands began to prepare her body for burial, she later told her son. But from the savage beating came the miracle: The mother-to-be awakened and the boy who would become Jonathan Daniel emerged, according to the family story.

As tradition dictated, he was given a name to mark the occasion: “Penga Penga,” the same thing they called their cruel overlord, Daniel said. He wouldn’t learn the meaning of the name until he was 12 years old.

As a young man, he said, the newly learned story of his mother’s near-fatal beating piled onto years of poverty and institutionalized racism. He assumed his new name, Jonathan Daniel, and a jaded new outlook on life.

“I became the bitter, angry child,” Daniel said. “... I was very, very prejudiced. I could not look a white man in the eyes.”

No time for sorrow

Daniel lived illiterate and unschooled until his teenage years. His 4-year-old son, Tembo, will likely attend Wake County schools, where Daniel sees kids paralyzed by comfort when he visits to share his art. “I come in with the poverty streak of thinking,” he said. “You think you’ve got it worse, listen to me. And if I could come out from what I was under, imagine you, who have already started well off, imagine what you could do.”

As a child, Daniel taught himself to bend metal into rudimentary toys. The craft set the stage for an unexpected livelihood.

His toy-making took off in Florida, where Daniel moved in his 20s with the help of missionaries and friends. Training to become an aircraft mechanic, he found his metal-wire creations were in demand.

Twenty years later, his workshop walls are lined with his handiwork, all made with metal and bare hands. The smallest metal lizard might take two hours of wrapping and bending. The wheel of his life-sized motorcycle took 30 hours.

For Daniel, art is the anchor for dreams that constantly tug at him. Each twist of the wire, he hopes, is a step closer toward a big break: He’s convinced that the most elaborate of his work could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions to the right buyer.

“How do I get my name out there to those people with the money?” he asked, sifting through his dozens of completed pieces. “I want them to watch with me. Let me show you what I’m going to do with that money.”

What he’ll do, he said, is reinvigorate his homeland.

Big ideas

Today, Daniel is among the few living men who worked on the farms of his youth, he said. Most went to an early grave, but his family survived intact, including eight younger siblings.

He credits this success to the missionaries and foreigners who opened the door to the U.S.

To continue their work, Daniel and his wife run a nonprofit that schools and supports orphans and widows in a country where the poverty rate runs above 70 percent. In some years, the charity has fed up to 2,500 people annually.

The economic downturn hurt the nonprofit’s finances, Daniel said, and the group has scaled back operations in the face of new Zimbabwe government rules. But they’re hoping now to regroup, with a focus on building infrastructure, from wells to schoolhouses. .

“If I had money, I could mobilize something bigger,” he said. “We could challenge with something very simple. ... We’re going to go to your village and we’re going to start with your school. We can make a change in Africa, and then start taking that model everywhere.”

Given a chance, Daniel spools out even bigger dreams.

He hopes to start a student exchange program. He wants to build a model village in the Triangle, done in the style of his father’s Chikunda roots. And while they’re at it, he and his wife have been ramping up an organic chicken farm in Holly Springs, which can host 1,600 hens at once.

Daniel’s prone to over-ambition, maybe, and to forgetting his appointments. That’s why his wife takes the managerial role, reminding him where he’s supposed to be each day.

In return, Robin Daniel said, he puts some lift in the world.

“You can’t rain on his parade,” she said. “He’s too busy leading the parade to recognize there’s a cloudy sky.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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