ST. PETERSBURG — Eluster Richardson's start as an artist came with a great deal of pressure. As a precocious third-grader, he enlisted his older sister to draw a class project for him.
When he handed in the assignment, the teacher gave him a stern look and asked whether it was actually his work. "Yes, ma'am," he answered timidly.
She said she would hang on to it and asked whether he could replicate the piece. Nervously he began to scribble away.
The teacher was sold, and he was shocked to discover that he was as good at art as his sister. Later he made his first art sale with a painting to his seventh-grade principal.
Richardson, now 57, is having some of his work displayed at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
Most of the pieces will have a family theme. He draws on a tradition of art in his family.
Richardson's 94-year-old mother, Amanda, still makes handmade patchwork quilts. A number of his paintings involve her or his daughter Jasmine, 17, modeling her quilts. The blankets have rich colors in mauve-blue and bright red.
"Watching him paint the family really draws everyone together," said his cousin, Jeffrey Moore, 48, who lives in Lakeland. "Throughout the years we've enjoyed it at family reunions and other get-togethers."
Richardson, who specializes in watercolors and oils, said that one reason he tends to use family members as art subjects is that he knows their personalities and the intricacies that contribute to capturing a particular mood.
For instance, the painting Humm captures his mother sitting on a sofa in his house with her chin in her hand.
"I know that it was one of those 'I wonder' moments," Richardson said.
A piece called Attitude captures his daughter during her tween years.
"You know how kids at that age want to be cool. This is that," he said.
In it she wears a pair of pink sunglasses tilted down over her nose with her normally straight hair combed out into an Afro.
He also paints a variety of landscape portraits that show forestry and wildlife in his native Tallahassee.
Richardson admires artists like the late Norman Rockwell.
His tribute to Rockwell is a painting of two children of family friends as they washed off a soccer ball.
"It looked so much like one of his works," he said, referring to Rockwell. "I just had to start painting as they went along."
Richardson's favorite work was painted this year for an exhibit themed "Soul Mates" in Tallahassee.
He plays a few tricks on the eye in the painting, drawing the observer in a style similar to Diego Velazquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. The oil painting shows Richardson, embedded in the painting, working on a portrait of himself with his wife and daughter looking over his shoulder.
"That's my pride and joy," he said.
An oil painting could take him days or weeks to complete.
Watercolors require far less time.
He has a fairly set routine to produce his art, painting in the early morning, taking his daughter to school, then painting until noon before delving into paperwork.
"It's a business, after all," Richardson said. Then he might paint from 8 to 11 p.m. or midnight.
Richardson initially pursued a major in art in college but changed course and chose the more lucrative field of engineering.
He retired five years ago as a telephone engineer for Sprint.
Terri Lipsey Scott, chairwoman of the board of the museum, said she was excited that people will be exposed to Richardson's work here in St. Petersburg.
"It's such an asset to the community and the museum that we were able to invite him here," she said. "His work is so personal. For me, the attractive part is the dynamic colors and the intricate detail."
Twenty-six pieces of Richardson's work will be on display for six weeks starting with a reception for the artist Friday.
Austin Bogues can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8872.