BHM Portrait Series, Part 3: Vessna Scheff

I’ve always wondered, what does it mean to be an “old soul”? Is it supposed to be a compliment? Does it mean you’re old-fashioned? Or does it, in some way, imply that you’re backward thinking? Meeting Vessna and getting to know her finally helped me to understand this adage.

I met Vessna exactly a year ago while photographing my friend, Lisa Chosed’s performance at Philadelphia’s Chhaya Café. As soon as Lisa finished her show, I packed my gear and was about to head out the door when I heard a voice that stopped me in my tracks; it was Vessna Scheff. I turned around, came back into the cafe, took out my camera and started taking photos of her and her bandmate Koof Ibi a.k.a Koofreh Umoren. Vessna’s understated, silken, smooth voice was like butter melting on warm toast, unlike anything I’d heard in a long time. Needless to say, I stayed for the rest of the set, until I had a chance to be introduced to her.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Vessna, if she would like to be a part of my Black History Month portrait series, I was glad that she eagerly agreed. She also graciously extended an invitation to her lovely home. Not only did this give us an opportunity to talk, but also allowed me a glimpse into her creative process while I took photos. When I arrived at her home, she was making some tea and offered me some as well. She then quickly sliced up an apple and laid out some cheese so that we could munch as we spoke. Born and raised in San Francisco, Vessna is a California native who worked as an art teacher at a charter school. I listened to her with amusement as she described how she taught children to draw, paint and colour, but never had an actual classroom. Instead, she had to go around classrooms with a little cart that carried all her art supplies. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to a dumpling cart in a dim-sum restaurant, we both threw our heads back and laughed! About a year and a half ago, she decided to leave her teaching job in San Francisco and move to her uncle’s home in New Jersey to pursue her passion for music. Although its been only a year and a half since Vessna started playing the Philly music circuit, she has already had considerable success and recognition amongst both her peers and audiences. Vessna’s music is a unique combination of her mellow voice, the diminutive ukulele and the tenor of Koof’s trumpet with a mute. One would have never imagined these two instruments coming together but Vessna & Koof are able to meld them successfully to create something that makes you want to close your eyes and let the music completely wash over your senses.

When she’s not playing music, Vessna is busy painting, reading or writing songs. In addition to being a very talented musician, Vessna is also an amazing painter. Mainly using watercolours, her art depicts reality with a sense of fluidity that’s hard to express through words. Walking into her room, one can’t help but be encapsulated by her creativity. Vessna tells me that her most recent project is one where she’s been reading autobiographies which she then expresses through her art. She mentioned this as I noticed a sketch of Assata Shakur on her desk. Watching the myriad of paper, paint brushes and colour boxes in her room, I couldn’t help but think that Vessna is the type of artist who surrounds herself by her work at all times, almost like an actor that never leaves character. Her dedication to her craft is truly inspiring.

Downstairs, just outside the kitchen and above the dining table I noticed a wall covered in maps. Vessna mentioned that she loves to travel and also enjoys cooking. She and Koof had recently been to Switzerland where they played music at some of the local music venues. Although we didn’t talk about it extensively, I can already imagine her playing music and exhibiting her art at venues across the world.

At 26, Vessna is an inspiration not only to me, but also to the many artists and friends that surround her. It isn’t often that one comes across an artist who’s talented on so many different levels, but what is truly unique and admirable about Vessna is her grace and utmost sincerity towards her craft. Vessna is truly an old soul in a young body, I now understand what it means to refer to someone as an “Old Soul”.

I wish Vessna continued success and look forward to following her work around the globe. I strongly encourage you to do the same.

IG: @vessnascheff
FB: @vessna.scheff