“Sister, whatever you love to do, just do it,” Daniel Horton said as he drew a cigarette from his mouth with a paint-stained hand. Between puffs of sweet-smelling smoke, he would arrange and rearrange the recycled wood scraps-turned art that decorate his Bardstown Road storefront, Songs for Seba.
Inside the pale green shotgun house that served as his gallery and workshop, the air was heavily fragranced with Nag Champa and acrylic paint, while reggae drumbeats bounced off a rainbow-splattered boombox. The walls were lined with t-shirts, dresses, posters, mugs, and scraps of wood – all splashed with color and phrases.
David is not only an artist, but a poet as well. He spends his days crafting idioms that read equally as proverbial as they do new age, such as “love so imperfect, it’s true,” “my comfort zone, my familiar zone, and then there’s that universal zone,” and “take care of you,” which are then painted on his various paraphernalia. David’s smile is luminous when talking to passersby on the street; his eyes are intent and engaged in the karmic event that is meeting other “beautiful creatures of life.” But when he is painting, his eyes glaze and travel to some far off place, voyaging to the same distant location as when he talks about Seba.
Daniel Horton was born in Monrovia, Liberia, but his grandparents were Baptist missionaries from Atlanta, Georgia. Daniel moved there in 1985, to live with his family and his daughter, Seba.
Then he moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1989. But this time Daniel was alone.
“I am going to go deep here. I moved here in search of myself. I come from an alcoholic family. I couldn’t stop drinking, so that means that everything that I did, I didn’t finish it, or I got really bored with it, and I couldn’t put my finger on it – why was that so?” he reminisced while a homeless man biked, then limped, up to the store. Without thought, Daniel handed the man a folding chair and a coffee mug. “We often congregate together,” he explained, then continued.
“And so I started experiencing what I have learned is called a geographical cure. I moved from place to place, but everywhere I was going I was taking me,” he said. The move helped Daniel overcome his alcoholism, but sobriety made him acutely aware of personal regrets.
So he started to make amends with his past by making a stop at the Hallmark Store, buying up father-to-daughter cards to send to Seba. As time went on, he started shopping at the craft supply store, buying construction paper and crayons, to create his own cards with original art and poetry – his “songs for Seba.”
Daniel began selling artwork out of his backpack during his weekly walk from his home in Old Louisville to 4th Street, where he worked at Café Kilimanjaro. Daniel would clean the restaurant on Sunday afternoons for two to three hours for $20. A year later, Daniel was still working at the café and the owners suggested Daniel get his peddler’s license, and allowed him to set up a booth to sell his work.
“And a year after that, there was a shop adjacent to the café and they gave me a shot at it. I was in that shop for nine years,” Daniel said.
Shevvy Baker has worked for 21 years in The Watch Store on 4th Street, which neighbored Daniel’s shop before it was bought out by a sushi chain. “He sold all kinds of stuff, and I bought all kinds of stuff from him – like those little painted animal statues,” Shevvy said from behind a glass counter filled with golden trinkets. “He would come in here and talk for hours, and sometimes would bring in jewelry for me to restring. Daniel was always so pleasant. I still see him sometimes. He always stops by at least a couple times a year.”
When Daniel was in the process of searching for a new store, a customer came in and said he had seen the right spot for him – a pale green shotgun house on Bardstown Road.
ACS Computers is immediately to the right of Songs for Seba. The windows are filled with computer monitors, which seem to be lined up with fussy precision – a contrast to Daniel’s outdoor racks of tie-dyed t-shirts that languidly wave in the breeze toward Bardstown Road. In addition to selling and servicing computers, ACS also houses Stacey Property Management, the firm that leases the building out of which Daniel works.
David Stacey, the sales manager, had a professional demeanor and perfect posture. He gave monosyllabic answers between tense strokes of his beard until Daniel Hornton was mentioned. “Daniel is a good tenant,” Mr. Stacey said as his face and body both softened. “He helps us out here with some handiwork sometimes. He’s a real simple guy.”
Immediately to the left of Songs for Seba is The Dragon King’s Daughter, an Asian-fusion restaurant named for the first woman to reach enlightenment. Daniel has worked jobs there too – helping in the kitchen and washing dishes.
Joe Deaton is a waiter at The Dragon King’s Daughter, and when asked if he knew Daniel, Joe smiled broadly and held up his hand to pause the conversation so he could deliver water to a table. When Joe returned he mentioned that he is part of a new garage-pop and blues band called “The Spurts.” Joe had approached Daniel about using his storefront as a venue, and within minutes Daniel had worked out where he would move his artwork and merchandise so the band could play that evening.
“He typically prefers reggae, but he really liked our stuff. He was really supportive,” Joe said, adding that they’ll be having another show outside Songs for Seba later this month.
When talking to Daniel’s neighbors, one realizes that he seeks to be more than just a passive presence in his community. “I’ve learned in life to be an asset in some way – to go and be of service and to give back. I’ve learned it’s very important to come into the neighborhood and bring positive energy, positive vibes and positive words. I’ve learned that, or rather yet, I am still learning.”
So Daniel Horton continues to paint. He continues to write. And he continues to bring good energy to the people around him. When asked if he still writes cards to Seba he flashed a grin and laughed, “Seba is 23 now; it’s time for her to start sending me cards.” And with that, he lit another cigarette.
Photography courtesy of Daniel Horton| Andy Linss Photography