'Eternity in Our Hearts,' an exhibition of paintings by award-winning African artist and Arts Ambassador for Nigeria to the United Nations, Ibiyinka Alao, opens Feb. 21 in the ballroom of the Mauch Chunk Museum.

The exhibition, which will run for two to three weeks, is free to the public and is open during regular museum hours, which may be extended during the exhibit.

The exhibition will draw from the 80-piece collection of Alao's works, a selection that blends African themes in an often dreamlike landscape, rendered with architectural precision.

Alao's painting Girls and a Greener Environment placed first out of 300 entries from 61 countries in a United Nation's International Art Competition, and in recognition he was made the arts ambassador for Nigeria to the United Nations. Since then, Alao has traveled the world, exhibiting his art and lecturing on art, contemporary life in Africa, and world peace.

Alao has overwintered in Jim Thorpe, finding the town to be a comfortable size of a few thousand people, about the same size as his hometown of Ilorin, Nigeria where, "Everybody knows everybody," he said. Jim Thorpe also serves as a quiet place to paint and a central location to set out from to deliver his message to the greater Lehigh Valley, giving presentations to schools from Bethlehem, to Hazleton to Mahanoy City.

Many of these schools, which include St. Joseph Regional Academy, Jim Thorpe Area High School. L.B. Morris and Penn Kidder elementary schools, as well as schools in Hazleton, Nesquehoning, and Shenandoah, and the SHINE Program, have been invited to the exhibition, which for the students will include storytelling, dance, drama, and music with African drumming.

Alao will discuss "art as frozen music," art as a tool for harmony and peace in our world, and the message and mystery of art. Schools coming to the exhibit will be invited to tour the Mauch Chunk Museum's collection exploring the history of Jim Thorpe.

At the age of 7, Alao became fascinated with art, exploring the medium by creating a landscape in watercolor.

"I was trying to understand how things can go farther and farther into a picture," Alao said.

Painting supplies were hard to come by in his hamlet of Ponyan, a remote village which had neither piped water nor electricity, or even in the nearby town of Ilorin. But his father would travel, and when his father visited Lagos, the largest city in and the former capital of Nigeria, he would bring back art supplies for young Ibiyinka.

When he wasn't able to obtain art supplies from the city, Alao would paint using traditional colors made from crushed stones and plants. Because these natural colors were more like dyes than pigments, Alao's paintings would tend to soak into the paper and he wasn't able to get the separation of the bright colors that he wanted.

"In my language the word for 'artist' also means 'madman'," Alao said. "There was this idea that if you painted, automatically you were thought of as mad. No one wanted to be thought of as a crazy person. I painted only because my father liked it. Any time I made a picture, he would compliment it."

Ten years ago, Alao, who had graduated from the University of Ife in Nigeria and was working as an architect, saw a newspaper announcement of a worldwide competition open to all artists to submit entries that explore any of the themes of the United Nations, such as peace and the environment.

"I decided to enter and try my luck," Alao said. "I was allowed to enter one painting, and it won first place in Nigeria. Then it represented Nigeria among 61 countries. It was judged to be the first and I received the award and was appointed as an ambassador."

The largest painting on exhibit, 18 feet long by seven feet tall, is The Eagle, a multicolored geometric landscape above a semitransparent eagle.

"The painting is about building confidence," Alao explained. "When the eagle is flying for a long time, it gets tired and goes to the top of the mountain the highest point it can find. It prunes its feathers, remaining there a month or more until it grows new feathers and can soar. We have a proverb, 'You shall renew your strength and soar like the eagle.'

"Animals realize this. Humans when they are tired tend to want to keep flying on tired wings until we fall and die. As the eagle found the highest point of the mountain, we have to find our highest point of our personal mountain. For some people, it is traveling, for others it is adventure, vacation, reading or spirituality," Alao added.

"I feel really good about this exhibit because this is one of the first that I have been able to plan," Alao said. "An artist has a way that they feel their work should be exhibited. I feel blessed to be given the chance by the Mauch Chunk Museum."

An artist's reception with a presentation of 'Eternity in Our Hearts' by Ibiyinka Alao will take place Saturday, Feb. 25 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. in the ballroom of the Mauch Chunk Museum, 41 West Broadway, Jim Thorpe.

For information about the exhibit or to make reservations for the reception, call (570) 325-4436, or email ibiyinkacla@yahoo.co.uk [3].