KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Driving east on 31st Street in midtown Kansas City, Mo., you can't help but smile. On the concrete wall of a plain, single-story building is a large and simple cartoon drawing:
A child's round face with a sideways grin, big eyes and a forehead curl, all topped by a high-arcing Afro.
It's a curious, pleasant surprise — and little more to many passersby. Maybe a random bit of cheery wall art in the urban core.
In fact, the face has a name, Olu. Olu is the star of a newly published storybook, and in the story, Olu is learning about dreams.
The child character is the creation of Kansas Citian Shane W. Evans, an award-winning illustrator who isn't too grown up to talk about dreams. The building, once ramshackle, is his Dream Studio, part gallery, workspace and arts venue for the community.
Evans, 37, knows about dreams, and he knows about patience.
He first dreamed of his own studio when he was 12 years old. His book, "Olu's Dream," released in August, was more than 10 years in the making. It's the first book he has written as well as illustrated.
Evans remembers Olu's origins clearly.
"I knew he'd have an Afro and that curl," said Evans, sitting at a low desk at the center of Dream Studio.
"Superman had that curl, and I've been a Superman fan, for sure. I wanted his eyes to be expressive — big, deep eyes you could jump into."
Life sometimes builds to a moment of departure, a launch. With his Dream Studio in place and Olu on the scene, Evans appears to be at that moment.
A visit to Evans' Dream Studio starts with Sherri White, a "dream team member." White first became acquainted with Evans several years ago when her son Yakini, now 9, fell hard for "Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales." Evans collaborated with Shaquille O'Neal on the book of fractured fairy tales.
"We read it three thousand billion times," White said. "I'd say, 'Don't you want to read something else?' The answer was always, No, 'Shaq and the Beanstalk'!"
Just inside the studio, White points to a counter filled with children's books, more than 30 titles illustrated by Evans, including award-winners such as "Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper's Daughter," honored by the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.
Evans is particularly proud of his illustrations, done as oil paintings, for several children's books on the history of slave resistance and civil rights with writer Doreen Rappaport, proud particularly because of the challenging topics and the young audience.
To illustrate the idea of a lynching, for instance, he turned the victim away from the reader.
"It's a chilling image," Evans said, "and seeing his face would have been too much."
Original paintings of some of his book illustrations are displayed on the studio's back wall, and the east and west walls display noncommissioned paintings by Evans, who counts artists from Picasso to Maurice Sendak to Kadir Nelson, a contemporary artist and friend in California, as his inspirations.
Unexpected is an abstract piece in oils, oil pastels and strips of copper, a work he said he felt compelled to create after returning from a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa.
"I was remembering the sights, the smells, the way people moved in the streets, the feel of the weather," he said. "All of that is in that piece."
"I just loved the warmth of it."
If a person can have a theme, Evans' theme is dreams. All children are dreamers, he said, and the lucky ones have people in their lives who feed and direct those dreams. Evans' parents took him to concerts and art shows and to that artist studio he dreamed about from age 12.
But "dreams" isn't his only theme. Another is multiculturalism. Evans' father is African-American and his mother is of Italian descent. His wife, Yukie Heard, is from Japan.
And another: community.
"Once you start to live your dream," he said, "then you have to honor the fact that you have to help others live theirs."
On a chilly Friday morning in October, 36 fourth-graders arrived at the studio from Gordon Parks Elementary School.
This is one of the ways Evans opens Dream Studio to the community. He also hosts performances there, keeping admission prices low. Some are free. Cora Coleman-Dunham, a drummer for Prince, and singer-songwriter Anthony David have performed.
"That was a shell of a building," said Alice Piggee-Wallack, pastor of the neighboring True Light Church of the Nazarene, "and now it's a warm gathering place.
"Shane has brought something to the neighborhood we didn't have before, a place to go for entertainment, and it's intergenerational."
After the Gordon Parks students filed in, Evans emerged from his corner workspace, separated from the open gallery by a wall of burlap bags and metal shelves, hung vertically.
Tall and bearded, Evans wore his signature attire — jeans, T-shirt and jacket, a multicolored scarf, black ball cap featuring an Olu face, the bill of the cap not quite straight ahead.
"Who had something delicious for breakfast this morning," he asked as an ice-breaker, after directing the youngsters to give themselves a round of applause for getting situated on the wood floor as requested between two black poles.
"Cereal and toast!" came the first response.
"I love cereal," Evans said. "I'm tuned into your cereal vibe."
As the answers grew increasingly imaginative — "steak and eggs!" — Evans redirected the conversation. He told the students that their school was a place for dreamers and learners, and he supplied a quote from Parks, the renowned African-American photographer: "I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to achieve."
Evans introduced himself with a short slideshow biography that began with a photo of the artist as a young boy, Shane looking sharp in his plaid vest, matching slacks and a late 1970s Afro.
"I call this piece 'Style,'" said Evans with an Olu-like, sideways smile, "because that's what I'm all about there."
Visitors to Dream Studio receive a "dream sheet" to fill out, blank except for the words "i dream..." at the top. After the students received theirs, Evans showed drawings of Olu and told a little of Olu's tale, how a little boy who lives in London discovers a fantastic dream life — monsters, space travel, a whale encounter — only to awaken a bit confused that it wasn't all real.
Olu's dad is African and his mom is Asian. In the story, his dad tells him his dreams aren't just for sleep: " ... little one, you can dream during the day and use that imagination whenever you play."
To the students' surprise, Evans pulled out a guitar and asked, "Are you up for some singing?"
Soon they knew the chorus of the theme song that Evans wrote for Olu.
"Dream, Olu, dream,
be all that you can be.
And when the sun does rise,
bring these dreams to life."
Later, after Evans signed one of his books for each of the kids as they headed to the bus, he explained that singing and songwriting have become a powerful avocation for him.
And how it all started with Taye Diggs.
Evans and Taye Diggs, an actor on TV's "Private Practice," became friends growing up in New York state.
They attended an alternative public school, the School of the Arts, in Rochester, and senior year Diggs persuaded Evans to try out for "West Side Story." Until then, Evans had stuck with the visual arts.
Diggs auditioned for the part of Bernardo, which he got. Evans figured he'd be lucky to get anything. He hadn't prepared a song for the audition and was told to try "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
Soon the organizers were shoving "West Side Story" music at him. He walked away with the lead, Tony.
"Nobody had an idea I could sing," Evans said. "And I'm not sure I did."
Evans and Diggs both went on to Syracuse University and put together a college band, "Zoo Trip." Later, Randy Jackson, pre-"American Idol," worked with Diggs and Evans on an album, although it was never produced.
"There are things you can sense are going to come to fruition, and other things you just enjoy the process," Evans said.
For Evans, the process of becoming an artist began early in life. His parents split when he was about 9. He lived with his mother in Buffalo, N.Y., and she decided that for the fifth grade he should go to the public visual and performing arts academy. The school required an interview and artwork samples.
"We put together a little brown portfolio with a handle and everything," Evans said. "I remember seeing the reaction in the woman's face. She said, 'This kid is talented.'"
Evans' mother, Marie Askins, said she noticed his artistic talent when he was quite young, about age 5. He sketched from memory and sight, she said, and at the time of his fifth-grade interview particularly liked drawing dogs.
Even she hadn't considered what other creative talents he possessed.
"Now I know he's not only a wonderful illustrator but also a storyteller," she said, "and he writes amazing songs."
There was another learning process going on, although Evans was hardly conscious of it. He and his mom had moved into a predominantly black community in Buffalo, but the school itself was mixed.
Despite his background, the issue of race didn't come up at home. He paid it little attention at school.
"Someone at school would say, 'How is that your mother?'" Evans recalled. "And I would say, 'I don't know. That's my mom.'"
By college, of course, he saw the divisions clearly. He learned about black pride and black power. Still, he felt a different sensibility. He wanted to talk about the world as multicultural. He wanted to focus less on race and skin color.
"And multiculturalism to me doesn't mean two people with different skin colors coming together," Evans said. "It means two people with different stories coming together."
Exhibit one, perhaps: It was on a trip to Japan shortly after college when he met his future wife, a Japanese student.
She later moved to the United States, and their relationship would be on-again, off-again — until it was on for good when they got married in 2006. They held a formal ceremony a year later at the opening of Dream Studio. They live in Hyde Park with their 11-year-old daughter, Yurie.
His wife, Yukie Heard, is an accountant.
Artist and accountant?
"It's a perfect balance," Evans said. "And she's an accountant with a creative spirit."
On a Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, Evans had back-to-back local appearances a day after returning from New York City, where he was asked to talk with after-school educators.
First up was a meet-the-artist event at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Evans explained to museum visitors and art students that he came to Kansas City after graduating from Syracuse University in 1993, recruited here by Hallmark Cards.
He worked at Hallmark for seven years, designing and illustrating cards, and learned valuable lessons about the creative process and the business of art and information, he said. That experience served him well as he quickly found success in illustration and a career in children's book illustration.
At Kemper, Evans showed slides about a favorite — and, he said, vitally important — topic: travel.
Since visiting Japan in 1995, his goal has been to travel outside the country at least once a year. He has taken trips to China, South America and the Caribbean and shown his work in Paris.
"Only when you travel do you really start to see yourself," Evans said.
His most transformative travel, he said, has been to Africa. His art, in fact, reflects a pre-Africa period and post-Africa.
Evans was invited to help lead a workshop for children in Burkina Faso and has been to Lesotho in southern Africa as part of a medical mission for children with HIV/AIDS. In January, he will accompany another medical mission to Mali.
"I remember talking to an African artist," Evans said, "and he was in the zone, creating. I asked him what he was thinking about. He paused and looked confused by the question. Then he said one word: 'God.'"
It's hard to explain without sounding cliche, he said, but his African experiences freed his mind for creating new art and broke down boundaries built up by years of formal education. His work grew less representational, more abstract.
"I got some energy back," he said. "I started to remember what it was like when I was drawing things when I was 5.
"Being a kid again. Dreaming again. Expressing myself."
After Kemper, Evans hurried the few miles up Main Street to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. When he arrived, the American Civil Liberties Union awards ceremony in the J.C. Nichols Auditorium had already begun. Evans was to receive the area chapter's 2009 Volunteer of the Year award.
More than 200 guests packed the steep auditorium. After his award was announced, Evans, guitar case in hand, didn't step to the stage podium with an acceptance speech but moved instead to the center of the stage. He sat on a stool and opened his guitar case.
"First of all," he said, "thank you. A simple thank you. I'm fortunate to be a part of changing the community."
Evans strummed his guitar and asked, "Can you hear that up there?" He told those gathered that he had a song for them called "Seeing," which occurred to him during one of his African trips, to Botswana.
"When a thousand legs move together,
we can move mountains aside.
When a thousand souls move as one,
we can shift the tide.
We don't have to speak a common language.
We already do.
So let's stand together,
For the chorus, he said, "I'm going to ask you to join in." And they did, some 200 strong.
"Singin' bout soul freedom as one
Singin' to all God's children at once
As you listen to soul freedom you'll hear,
We're not all divided
When we conquer fear."