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  1. Hillsborough

After trading a pen for a paintbrush, Ladale Lloyd still telling poignant stories

Ladale Lloyd left journalism in 2001, but he never gave up storytelling.

For years, the Alabama native was a fixture at local courthouses, covering trials and political figures as a crime beat reporter for the Tampa Tribune.

But at night — from 8 p.m. until the wee hours — he brushed colorful oils onto white canvasses, producing portraits of people and animals and landscapes featuring salt marshes and park settings.

And after years of juggling this schedule — coupled with shifts in the news industry — Lloyd said he had to make a change.

"I enjoyed journalism," he said. "But I was covering crime, people doing horrible things to each other. I wanted to have more of a voice. I think the art allows that."

Almost 20 years after trading a pen for a paintbrush, on a recent afternoon in his home-based studio, Lloyd is repairing the top left corner of Josh Tarbutton's portrait. The painting was damaged slightly when being framed.

It's part of Unstolen Dignity, a collection of 25 paintings of former slaves that Lloyd hopes becomes a traveling exhibit.

While slavery is the common denominator among them, it's important to remember that the experiences of each person is different, Lloyd said.

The portraits for Unstolen Dignity are created using photos and narratives of former slaves, collected in the 1930s via a project sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. The photos are black and white; Lloyd uses clues in the narratives as well as the research from the era to determine how to transfer the photos to canvas.

For Tarbutton, that means being dressed in a navy overcoat and white shirt. But the 100-year-old Mississippi man's facial expressions — piercing brown eyes, a slight smirk — are a direct copy from the picture.

Spence Johnson was a free-born Black living in a Native American community when he and his family were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Meanwhile, Mandy Hadnot's master was like a father to her, Lloyd said.

Slavery can be an uneasy subject, but Lloyd said he was pulled to it after witnessing an excavation of the unmarked graves of enslaved Africans while visiting the nation's capital.

"I thought how undignified that they didn't give them the courtesy of marking their gravesites," he said. "They just buried them like they were nothing. It was very disturbing."

Lloyd focuses solely on recreating the person in the photo; the backgrounds — cabin walls, rocking chairs — are left behind.

It's a switch from his journalism days, when Lloyd would meticulously recreate an entire scene to pull readers into a story.

"In this case, I want the story to come from who they are as opposed to the environment," he said.

The goal of Unstolen Dignity is to recognize those whose dignity had been tarnished, Lloyd said.

"That's the whole point: to reaffirm their dignity," he said. "I'm portraying them in a positive light. They're dignified, strong human beings."

Learn more about Unstolen Dignity at www.ladalelloyd.com.

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