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Rising Stars: Meet John Kennedy

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Kennedy.

Hi John, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I’ve always enjoyed art, but as a kid, it was not exactly encouraged in our family. Not that it was discouraged, but my dad owned his own business, and it was sort of pre-determined that I would work with him after high school.

Something more practical. I worked with him in the family business until he passed away, and I stayed in the same industry for the remainder of my working career. I retired as Vice President of Operations for an international manufacturer of capital equipment a few years ago. It was a good career, and I have no regrets.

I started painting about 22 years ago. I had just met my wife, she was a seatmate on a flight from Milwaukee to Detroit, and we got to talking. It turned out that her father had worked for the same company that I was working for before he passed away. I had heard his name around the shop, so we had a connection. Later when we were just dating, she informed me that she was taking a watercolor class in Beaver Dam Wisconsin, and if I wanted to see her that weekend, I’d need to take the class with her. In love I was, so I took the class, and found that I really enjoyed the medium.

After we married, Cindy and I painted pretty much every week together. Though she enjoyed it and made some really nice paintings, it was never her passion like it was mine. I’ve been painting ever since.

This is a long story to tell about how I got to where I am today. Cindy passed away unexpectedly almost 3 years ago on the eve of my retirement. It was the most difficult time of my life. Art was not so much a comfort as a necessary distraction for the first few years. But it slowly again became my passion, and I decided to try to connect with the art community in Billings. My first connection was with the Billings Arts Association, and though at the time it was hobbled by the pandemic, it did give me the opportunity to meet other artists and get more involved in the art scene here.

My first love is painting. My business background in an industrial setting instilled in me a love of structures and architecture. I recently started an Urban Sketching group in Billings. I’ve always enjoyed sketching and have been following Urban Sketchers on YouTube for a few years. I thought I’d be lucky to get one or two people to sit with me on a street corner in downtown Billings, but we’ve had up to a dozen people sketching with us around the city.

This year I also took on the role of the Executive Director of the Billings Arts Association, and I am loving every minute of it. The connections and friendships I’ve made with my Urban Sketching group, Arts Association members, and the vibrant art community here in Billings have been amazing. Even two years ago I would never have thought that my life would ever become this fulfilling. None of it replaces what I had with Cindy, but once again I do feel a sense of purpose in my life.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Artfully, when I sold my first painting on eBay, I was convinced that this was something that would get big. For a few years, I sold quite a bit, but after a while, I could see that my focus was on satisfying people who were buying my art by painting “more of the same.” I came to the realization that the joy was being sucked out of the process. I stopped selling on eBay and started just making art for the sake of making art, and the joy came back.

Like many artists, I had lots of ideas that didn’t pan out. But art was a hobby, and I had a career to focus my attention on, so nothing was life or death.

Personally, it has not been easy. I lost my second wife to Cancer at a very young age. Then losing Cindy, my wife of 22 years, 3 years ago was devastating. I found myself suddenly older, alone, and retired.

The struggle with art while I was working was just making time for it, and when I did it was a solitary activity. Now I found myself with nothing but time. Getting interested in anything was difficult.

For me at least, art is no longer solitary. Sure, there is studio time alone, but I’ve found an incredibly talented and welcoming art community in Montana. Art allows me to connect with myself and with other artists. It is a place where what I see and what I paint to act as a conduit to examine what I think and what I feel. If I can share something that I created that touches someone in some way, I think that connects us. What I really want in my creativity, in my art, my writing, and my life, is to connect with people who share some common values.

It is both inspiring and daunting to be surrounded by so many great artists, here in Billings, in Montana, and in the world. Just looking at the work of so many great artists fills me with ideas and motivation. But when I create, I have a tendency to judge what I do against what I see, and often find myself coming up short. I don’t suppose this is uncommon. But I have to reflect on the thousands of hours of work artists have poured, painted, or molded into their craft to get where they are, and that keeps me motivated.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
My studio watercolor is realistic, though not anything near photorealism. I most enjoy portraits and figurative works but do a lot of still life, landscape, Western Art, wildlife, and equine art. I try to be true to the scene.

Urban sketching is done with a pen or pencil, and I may or may not use a watercolor wash. Most of my sketches include a written reflection of what I was thinking or what I experienced that day. That to me gives life to the sketch, and I often take time later to expand it into a more detailed essay.

My writing is primarily essays that I normally publish in my blog, my reflections on life. I sometimes think I am too honest about what I say, but at this point in my life, I have no desire to pretend to be something or someone I am not. My reflections that annotate my sketches or show up in my essays are often deeply introspective, but it is who I am.

The story is important in all my art. The works I am most proud of are the ones that take me back to my thoughts when I was painting them. That has a story.

Art makes me look at the world differently. A few months ago, a couple of workmen were replacing siding on the upstairs of the house across the street. I could see them through the window of the room I use as a studio. I took a photo and painted them. An absolutely useless painting of two guys on a roof with zero commercial value, but it was fun to do. The point is that art makes you look at things you might otherwise ignore. In this case, it was the interesting shadows cast on the building from the harsh sunlight that inspired me to paint the scene.

Ask a non-artist, to draw a glass, likely it will likely be only a colorless outline. It is amazing how many different colors can be reflected off the surface of a shiny apple, refracted through a clear glass, or poured into a shadow-streaking sidewalk pavement. The shapes, variations, movements, and emotions of people’s bodies and faces. I see it all as beautiful. This enhanced perspective on life, on beauty either natural or manmade, is in itself enough argument for me to continue to explore my creativity. And the humility one feels with the effort it takes to recreate in a meaningful way that God (or a higher power) has seemingly thrown together so casually. It cannot help but make me feel small in this big world.

To look down a city alley and see a tangle of buildings, dumpsters, and swinging power lines is for me a wondrous sight. Most people would look at that scene and say it was ugly, but peering down that alley I saw something different.

Once I started painting, I started seeing everything differently. The way I look at people and buildings and scenes.

Shapes, shadows, and features make everything more interesting to me. It might seem like a small benefit, but for me it is huge. To be able to see beauty where others may simply look the other way is a gift.

A gift of seeing the world more fully. It would be terrible to not take advantage of that.

That’s why I try to make art.

We’d love to hear what you think about risk-taking.
There are physical risks and emotional risks. I won’t pretend my life has been a high-wire act without a net. I spent my life in manufacturing and retired as Vice President of Operations for an international manufacturer of capital equipment. During that time, not a single person I worked with knew I was an artist. In business, in my day at least, that was not considered a valued hobby or pastime. They wanted to hear that you golfed, hunted, played the stock market, or were a fanatical follower of the local sports team. No, no, no, and no. So only after my retirement did I share with them what I had been doing with my sparse free time over the last 22 years. Art making.

There is a risk of “coming out” as an artist, at least there was to me. Would they laugh at me, would they think my “hobby” silly or my skill “amateurish.” It is the same with Urban Sketching, you are sitting out in public, and it is inevitable that people will wander by to see what you are doing. What will people think, what will people say?

But my coworkers were stunned. They were completely supportive and complimentary. On the street, people are unfailingly kind and generous with compliments. Saying out loud that one is an “artist” is a big step and one that took me many years to take.

Another risk I took in retirement is venturing into art instruction. I’ve started giving workshops on sketching and architectural sketching. In my job, I’ve stood in front of a hundred people at a seminar and given technical presentations about our product and its application. I’ve held training sessions for new employees so that they fully understood the nature of our business. But standing in front of a group of art enthusiasts, explaining how to make art? For me, that was a pretty big risk.

Now, though, art is an important part of my life. I live it and I breathe it. These artistic risk-taking experiences have taught me a valuable lesson I wished I would have learned 50 years ago. Be true to me, be true to who I am and what I feel and value in life. There is still some risk that someone thinks I’m a goof, and perhaps in some ways I am. But I’ve found that the greater risk is not being honest about what matters, about who I am and what I feel, and what I value in my life.

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