Soft jazz music plays inside Angel Falls Coffee Company on West Market Street while young baristas help the growing line of customers get their early afternoon caffeine fix.
Local artist Elly Dallas sits in the back of the coffee shop. The tall wooden chairs and tables make it hard to see her petite frame in a large wingback chair.
She stands up and holds a black folder. We exchange “nice to meet you”s and casual smiles and walk over to the counter, where Elly pulls out her Winnie the Pooh coin purse from her small bag and orders a hot coffee.
“So, how did you become an artist?” I ask as I lean in towards Elly, trying to hear her over the music while I take notes.
“Growing up, I was really quiet and shy,” Elly says. “So, ever since I can really remember, that was kind of how I would communicate, or was my safe place to go.”
Elly says that her stepmother was the first person to encourage her drawing.
“I remember her hanging up my drawings at her apartment,” Elly says. “So, I must have been probably four or five.”
I nod and ask, “How would you describe your style of art?”
“I would describe it as radical storytelling,” Elly says. She also wants her friendly, accessible style to encourage other people to tell stories.
Elly graduated from Kent State University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and printmaking.
Since then, she has become a self-described zinester and “printcess.”
Her Instagram, @tenderspeck, includes comics of people in Elly’s life with smart captions, such as her grandmother transforming into a “meninist” who keeps telling Elly “not all men,” black-and-white portraits of the children she nannied, and homemade collages that are reminiscent of the 1990s.
“The stories and graphic novels that I read and zines that really resonated with me are just people telling stories that are often taboo to talk about,” Elly says.
The comics Elly publishes on Instagram are a mix of unapologetic feminism, quirky humor and intimate memories from her life that she describes as “diary comics.”
One shows a man’s hand grabbing a woman’s bare thigh with the word “no!” written all around the border. Another is a drawing of stained period panties with the caption “good times.”
“There’s a lot of times I’ll be making something and be like ‘This is so stupid, nobody wants to read this,” Elly laughs. Then she turns more serious. ‘“But, I’m like ‘I need to make it. There may be one person it stands out to. I’m just trying to help other people heal by sharing my healing process.’”
“I really like the photo on your Twitter of the little girl laughing,” I say.
Elly’s smile grows larger and her eyes brighten.
“That’s Mariah, the girl I used to nanny,” Elly says.
After graduating from Kent State, Elly moved to California in 2015 to work as a nanny in the Bay Area.
While there, she created a collection of comics about her life as a nanny called “Nannyville,” which is now part of the Zine Collection at the UCLA Library.
Elly often says that her experiences working with children have been the most eye-opening in terms of self-love and making real social change. One of her favorite things in the world is making art alongside kids, hearing their stories and learning together.
Elly is a member of Coloring Squad Girlz with Eden, Miriam and Chloe Jowhar-Schmidt. The group not only colors together, but also goes on adventures around Akron and talks about their lives.
“We call Coloring Squad our feeling good squad,” Eden says.
Elly is now working on her masters’ degree in education at the University of Akron.
She is also a 2018-2019 Akron Soul Train Fellow. Akron Soul Train is an artist residency village that supports local and regional artists. As an AST fellow, Elly is responsible for leading a community program this April and presenting a final exhibition to Akron.
“I have ideas for having community days where there is some kind of art project,” Elly says. The art project would be free for participants. Elly would take pictures of the community at work and later draw the photographs, in self-referential pieces that she hopes to give back to the community.
“I’m definitely trying to do a timeline of how I’m going to spend the entire month because I’m nervous for it to get here and be like ‘Oh, shit, what am I going to do,’” Elly laughs.
“So, why is it important for people, especially young people, to be engaged in art?” I ask.
“Art-making is one of the first forms of communication that we express ourselves through, before we can even talk,” Elly says. “It’s like the first way you start to learn fine motor skills and skills that will be with you for the rest of your life, like problem solving.”
After a few more minutes, Elly reaches into her black folder.
“Do you want to look at the artwork?” she asks.
Elly holds a small booklet in her hand.
“So, this one is a coloring zine that I made for class,” Elly says.
She pulls out a few small black-and-white drawings and hands them to me. One is an image of a baby’s onesie with the caption, “Stop teaching me things I’ll have to unlearn late in life.”
I thank Elly for the artwork and for meeting with me. “I was going to meet Coloring Squad after this,” Elly says as she looks down at her phone and takes a sip of her coffee. “Did you want to meet them?”
“Sure,” I say as I grab my drink and bag.
Meet the Coloring Squad Girlz
Elly Dallas, Eden, Miriam and Chloe Jowhar-Schmidt color together and go on adventures around Akron
French fries, donuts and adventures are a part of Coloring Squad’s mission statement.
The group includes local artist and University of Akron student Elly Dallas, 28, along with sisters Eden, 16; Miriam, 14; and Chloe, 11.
The four met after Elly asked her former coworker Zakiyyah Jowhar-Schmidt if she could come over to her house and hang out with her kids.
“One day [Elly] just showed up and brought a bunch of coloring stuff and was like, ‘You want to color?’” Eden laughs. “I remember Chloe was like, ‘Why is she here?’”
The Coloring Squad officially formed in 2016.
Elly says she remembers the Jowhar-Schmidt sisters using a typewriter to write down what they did for the day. They decided to name the group the Coloring Squad and come up with a mission statement.
“I think the main thing was, we’re supposed to talk about things and eat a lot of food and color a lot,” Eden says.
Chloe adds that Coloring Squad is about French fries and adventures. The group hangs out at places like the Akron Art Museum and Hardesty Park. And the Coloring Squad likes to do good.
“We made cards for the Akron Children’s Hospital,” Elly says. “We hope that we can do that again.”
Eden says her favorite thing about Coloring Squad is its inclusiveness, which has helped her socialize with other people.
Before enrolling at Firestone Community Learning Center, Eden was homeschooled with her sisters.
“I didn’t really do much when it came to communicating with other people,” Eden says. “So, when Elly started hanging out with us, it was a big difference.”
Elly says her favorite part about Coloring Squad is having a second family.
“I’m their sibling, which is the best feeling ever,” Elly says. She also thinks it’s cool seeing childhood through the eyes of homeschooled kids. “I got to go on homeschool adventures with you guys, and that’s been really cool, to see what you guys do with other families,” Elly says.
Even though the Coloring Squad Girlz are different ages, being part of the group has given each of them more to talk about.
“It’s cool to be reminded of things you go through at certain ages,” Elly says. “I think as an adult you forget that. It’s nice to be like ‘Yeah, we do go through the same things.’”
For Eden, Coloring Squad is an outlet for her to express herself. “I used to be really quiet and not really talk about stuff,” Eden says. “So now it’s a different thing. It’s like a little family.”
Elly hopes that Coloring Squad inspires other people to rely on each other and share their feelings.
“It’s important to talk about stuff that you’re going through, make art and feel better,” Elly says.
“We call Coloring Squad our ‘Feeling Good Squad’,” Eden says.
“‘Talk about Your Feelings Squad’, ‘Eat Donuts Squad’,” Elly laughs.
Elly also says that Coloring Squad’s age difference makes the group cool and unique.
“Maybe people wouldn’t form a group because of age (differences),” Elly says. “Like, what if I wanted to form a coloring group with an 80-year-old? Age shouldn’t matter, because coloring is universal. You don’t have to be a certain age to color.”
All are welcome to join Coloring Squad and connect with them on their Instagram, @Coloringsquadgirlz.
Jillian Holness is a recent graduate from Kent State University’s School of Journalism.