I really got to know artist Eliaichi Kimaro (everyone calls her Eli) on a fantastic women’s weekend in the tiny town of Twisp, Washington. A group of Seattle artists were showing their works at the Confluence Gallery, and I was lucky to tag along for opening weekend. We all shared a house, and each morning when I rose early, Eli would already be deep into her daily meditation and journal routine. Her zen-elegance has a way of seeping into you, along with a voice that’s smooth and rich, which makes her stories come alive.

She grew up just outside of Washington D.C., where her parents worked as diplomats. Her mom is Korean and her dad Tanzanian, and I try to imagine how those cultures blended and shaped Eli. She was fortunate as a kid to spend every other summer on a family coffee farm 4000 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro. After high school, she spent a year at the New England Conservatory, continuing her studies as a classically trained violinist. She ultimately decided this was not her path to follow, but the experience shaped her deeply. “Every creative pursuit I’ve taken on since then has been self-taught,” she says. “The drive comes from me and evolves in the direction I’m interested in.”

At the University of Western Ontario, Eli studied psychology. She met her husband-to-be Tom in 1989 while visiting friends at Tufts University. After graduation, she moved back to Washington D.C. and then to Seattle, where she worked as a crisis counselor for 12 years. It wasn’t until 2002 that she and Tom decided to marry.   

In  2003, Eli and Tom made a big leap, quitting their jobs to go to Tanzania. Their initial intent was to make a family movie. “If Tom and I had kids, what had I retained from my childhood summers in Tanzania with my dad’s family, and what did I actually know about what it was to be a member of the Chagga Tribe?” she asked at the time. Eli wanted to preserve the tribe’s culture, stories, and indigenous language that is slowly disappearing. She had no idea that 80 hours of raw film would turn into a 7-year journey of creating an award-winning documentary, “A Lot Like You.” As she puts it, “Because really, what did I know about filmmaking? Nothing.” She learned by taking weekend filmmaking classes at Seattle’s now closed 911 Media Arts Center, where she met editor Eric Frith, who then introduced her to composer Pete Droge, both of whom collaborated with her on “A Lot Like You.”

The film touches on many issues, including gender-based violence, cultural identity, and the power of personal storytelling. Eli was asked to speak about it all over the world. She eventually created a TedXSeattle in 2016, “Why the World Needs Your Story.” It was then she realized, “I’m not a musician, then a writer, then a filmmaker. I’m a storyteller!” she says. “Different mediums show up at different times because they’re the best medium to tell the story.”

Her latest medium? Painting. Before she was born, Eli and Tom’s daughter Lucia inspired the documentary, but her influence didn’t stop there. Lucia’s artistic leaning encouraged Eli to further expand her creative horizons. Together, mother and daughter played around with all kinds of art. They made collages and experimented with making cards together and eventually explored full-on painting. Just like when she wanted to make a movie, Eli started taking classes and now finds herself selling her paintings!

“Being creative is not a secret talent, held by only a few,” she insists. I’m not sure I believe her, but the greatest lesson I learned from Eli is that if you take away all your expectations, inhibitions, and guardrails, you will find a way to tell your story. (To learn more about Eli, visit EliKimaro.com.)

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