KO Lewis of Owensboro using artwork to inspire others, conveys messages of social justice

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KO Lewis | Photo by Jamie Alexander

Owensboro resident Kenneth Oliver (KO) Lewis has been inspiring people with his art for quite some time. His works convey messages of social justice and feature personalities he admires and whom he turns to for inspiration.

Born and raised in the western part of Louisville, Lewis moved to Owensboro after high school to continue his education at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He grew up playing soccer and has always loved painting and drawing. Lewis was therefore delighted to find a school where he could pursue his playing career and nurture his passion for art.

“I wanted help going to school, but I also wanted to focus on the things I love,” Lewis said. “KWC was one of the places that had a legitimate art program and wanted me to play football. I wasn’t just another number on the team, and it was close to home.

His first big break came when duPont Manual – a magnetic art school in Jefferson County – accepted him into its program after a rigorous application process. Despite quality art and writing submissions and an intense interview, the school initially refused her acceptance. Her mother, however, had other plans.

“My three older brothers went there – they finally let me in after my mom explained how badly I wanted to be there,” he said. “It was a 45 minute bus ride, but going to this high school and participating in their programs was a huge part of my success. It reinforced my desire to continue working with art after education.

Lewis’s portraits highlight and reflect prominent figures in the social justice movement, past and present. He has recently progressed in his creative process by adding words to portraits that better convey the message of art.

KO Lewis
Painting by KO Lewis | Photo by Jamie Alexander

“When you create art, you have to do it for yourself first – it only builds the passion,” he said. “I hope others can see and be drawn to my vision and my passion. It’s my way of communicating to the viewer what inspired me and how they shaped and shaped my way of thinking about things.

One of his most beloved pieces was a large acrylic portrait of Muhammad Ali with a phrase printed several times. The real ‘aha’ moment came when NFL safety Kenny Vacarro attended an art festival where Lewis sold his work and continued to do double takes with the particular piece.

He said Vacarro wore sports clothes and had large hands; he knew he looked familiar but couldn’t determine how he knew him. He initially thought he was a boxer, but after some discussion he realized he was a star defensive back for one of his favorite teams, the Tennessee Titans.

“It was a major fanboy and starstruck moment,” Lewis said. “Having this answer to him in an artistic setting made him feel good. He was with his beautiful family and my wife soaked up everything. He ended up buying this painting for $ 4000 for his house.

Amazed at Lewis’s ability, Vacarro then asked him to paint a portrait of famous rap artist Nipsey Hustle. Before being assassinated, Hustle was well known for his ideology of “building” and reinvesting in the neighborhood, a concept which is also dear to Lewis.

Lewis dedicates his days to being an educator, growing from the ranks of outstanding education instructor to administrator during his 13 years with Owensboro Public Schools. Growing up in an area loaded with trouble and trauma, Lewis can often connect with struggling students on a deeper level than most.

“My goal is to be a mentor and break down barriers; I want to build relationships and create ways for teachers to communicate with children, ”he said. “We need to eliminate the implicit biases, be vulnerable and figure out what is best for the child rather than dwelling on the negative. We have to approach each day with opportunities because when they leave us there may be no one else for them. “

KO Lewis
KO Lewis | Photo by Jamie Alexander

Lewis’ journey as an artist and educator is closely linked. He enjoys the process of getting someone to try and see a better version of themselves, much like the people he paints for him.

“I say it’s the same because I always come back to the same people that I paint – I don’t know them personally, but their words had such a strong impact on me. I use their inspiration and focus on creating a better version of myself, ”he said. “When I work with young people, I want to meet them where they are, focus on their strengths and amplify them. I want them to know that they have the capacity to be whatever they want to be regardless of obstacles.

Lewis said he was not alone on the trip, attributing much of his success to his wife, Erin. The two have a daughter together – Eva – whom he considers the source of his engine.

“We created a lifestyle and a home we could be proud of by adopting Eva; they keep me going and I love them so much, ”Lewis said. “Since I got Eva, I paid more attention to female figures and painted them more frequently. Women have had a strong impact on my life, and I want to represent it in my art. “

Some of Lewis’ most notable works include Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali. He said their words and the words of many others guided him through difficult times to create the person he is today.

“We have all of these things that we run that we focus on that give us that extra boost,” said Lewis. “I love to listen to the way someone says something – it can bring out the soul of their words. You might not see it in my painting, but I hope it captures your attention and that the words will resound.

Editor’s Note: This story was written by John Kirkpatrick and originally published here for Living in Owensboro.

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