Ibiyinka Olufemi Alao is used to traveling all over the world, a requirement of his post as Art Ambassador of Nigeria. He returns to his home country in winter, as it doesn’t get below 60 degrees there, and between assignments, in order to recharge a bit. But Alao has found, somewhat to his surprise, that the pace and the creative energy of the Midcoast has allowed him to recharge here, as well as work on his color-rich paintings.

“This is just delightful to do and is turning out to be a good decision,” he said.

Thanks to a grant and the support of local artists such as photographer Joyce Tennesen, Alao is living, painting and showing his work in a home-turned-gallery on Route 90 in Rockport this summer. He also is sharing his art and his positive vision for the future with young people. When he first arrived in the area, after a residency in Missouri, Alao spent time with the teen students of Rockland’s Watershed School and Regional School Unit 13’s Alternative Education program. Then he was interviewed and filmed by students at the Maine Media Workshops. Last week, he visited with elementary school age children of Belfast and Searsport.

Next up are a couple of library presentations. Alao will present his art work and share his approach to art and to life at Camden Public Library Wednesday, July 27 at 2:30 p.m. in a program that is part of its summer Cultural Journey theme. On Thursday, Aug. 11 at 6:30 p.m., Alao will be in the Friends Community Room of Rockland Public Library.

Alao’s presentations mix long-time tradition and the 21st century: he wears the traditional garments of his Yoruba background and plays a djembe drum, but he shares his prolific body of work via a PowerPoint slide show. His artwork employs the bright colors and traditional scenes of West Africa; his stories also reflect this cultural heritage but with an eye to the universal and a passion for peace. He believes in the power of art for both personal redemption and as a form of diplomacy.

“True Miracles,” a large acrylic and tempera painting that Alao uses as an object lesson in his work with young people, is a good example. The painting depicts the oyster’s ability to turn an irritant into a pearl, something Alao’s father told him and his elder sister about when the artist was 10 and the family traveled from their inland home to Lagos, on the coast.

“He picked up an oyster shell and told the story, about how the oyster deals with the irritation and uses it to do the loveliest thing. It is a story about patience,” he said.

Alao said when he asks younger students what their irritations are, they usually say their brothers or their sisters. He points out that they cannot escape their siblings anymore than the oyster can get rid of its irritant, so they must use patience to transform their situation. He laughed when he thought of the problem on a larger scale.

“A mighty God sees us when we do things wrong but he doesn’t destroy us; he is making pearls of us,” he said.

The metaphor also carries over to another key concept Alao tries to share, that of looking at one’s greatest weakness to become true strength. Art literally taught Alao this lesson. He described himself as a student who had trouble speaking before the class and expressing himself in public.

“My parents and teachers would tell me if I could not talk about something, I should draw or paint about it … art has healed me; I know what that power has done in my life and I’m glad to share it with people,” he said.

Alao trained as an architect at the University Of Ile-Ife, a six-year course that led to his working in an architectural firm. But he was always painting, often surrounded in his father’s home by young children, some of whom were refugees. One day, in an effort to keep them focused so he could work, he told them about an international art contest publicized in the newspaper. They took the bait but also insisted he enter his own work in the adult division.

Alao’s entry was a painting titled “Girls and a Greener Environment,” which depicts the life and values of a girl from infancy to womanhood. It won the right to represent Nigeria in the United Nations International Art Competition, where it placed first among 61 countries. This led to Alao’s appointment by the Nigerian Embassy to be the country’s Art Ambassador. Among other things, the job has him speaking English much of the time — the last of the 14 languages he has acquired and one that pulls him up short from time to time.

“My English teacher told me what a vegetarian is. When I heard about humanitarians, I could not understand why people thought they were wonderful,” he said with a laugh.

Alao’s good humor and genuine enjoyment of meeting all kinds of people helps him make warm connections that enlighten both sides. He uses the mirror as a metaphor for this approach to life, one he thinks can make a real difference in the world. When one looks in a mirror, he said, all one sees is oneself and what is behind him or her.

“It is more healthy to not look in the mirror all the time but to look out the window — look forward, with hope,” he said.

Alao said he defines an artist as a person with a hole in his heart, a hole that is the size of the universe, “and when I am painting, I am trying to fill this hole in my heart.” Other people may try to fill that hole by being a builder or some other profession. Discovering one’s weakness, he said, is an opportunity to feel that hole and decide how to fill it — a process that makes us who we are.

Alao share his stories in his effort to use art as a tool for diplomacy. Forgiveness and redemption are not just vital for individuals but powerful allies for peace in this world. It is hard for a sovereign nation or ruling group to embrace these qualities, he admits.

“To learn to forgive is not very popular, but it does save lives. More people would be alive in Rwanda if they could have forgiven,” he said.

In Yoruba culture, art is considered to be frozen music. He always encourages the young people with whom he creates art to also write about their works so they may be more easily understood.

“You have a life in your heart and when you paint and write, you put your heart across … I really find joy in being an agent to share this story and how to use art for healing,” he said.

For more information about Alao and his work, visit ibiyinka.com. His tempera and acrylic paintings, which are sold to support his art diplomacy work, may be seen at the studio on Route 1 by chance or appointment; call 417-459-3403 or send email to ibiyinkacla@yahoo.co.uk. Alao is available for presentations and workshops while he is here, through mid-September.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to dernest@villagesoup.com.