Standing in front of his canvas, paint stroke after paint stroke, Robert Ketchens, an artist from O’Fallon, Illinois, is praying for an accident.
“I want to be alert to the possibilities of the painting telling me which way to go,” said Ketchens.
After decades of painting portraits, Ketchens knows the right accident can become the magic.
“Right now I’m looking for more feeling and emotion. Sometimes a stroke or two will be enough to say ‘hey, this is it. Don’t change a thing,” Ketchens said.
Like many artists, photographers, singers, and playwrights, Ketchens was inspired by the 2014 events in Ferguson, the police shooting of an unarmed teenager and the months of unrest that followed. For the past three years, Ketchens has been a regular visitor to Ferguson.
“Something catastrophic that happened here couldn’t be ignored,” said Ketchens. “The press comes in sometimes and shoots what’s going on and then they leave and it’s forgotten. So for me, what’s important is what’s left behind and a lot of times what’s left behind is the young people.”
A dozen portraits of young people fill Ketchen’s home studio, young people he met during his numerous trips to Ferguson. “When I’m looking at these kids I’m thinking about the prospects of their future.”
Ketchens pointed out a portrait of a young man he painted. “This young man here had a lot of anger issues and fortunately he fell in love with art. A friend of mine who is a local artist is teaching him now at the Black Rep.”
Recently at the Ferguson Municipal Library, Ketchens met a 12-year old ray of sunshine named Isabel Miano.
“I work with kids quite often during the summer programs so it kind of comes naturally to me,” said Ketchens. “Kids like to talk about themselves.”
Especially when they meet a good listener. While Ketchens asked what kind of music Miano liked, and where she would travel if she had a plane ticket to anywhere in the world, he sketched and took photographs to capture Miano’s personality. Miano’s portrait will be his 11th, almost enough for the exhibition he has planned.
“My goal is to get between 14 and 16 pieces which are a nice series to show.” Each of the subjects receives a digital copy of their artwork.
It’s been said that a great portrait is more a portrait of the painter than the painted. “I know if it wasn’t for an older gentleman who took an interest in me and the art that I had inside of me I probably would not have been an artist, who knows?” said Ketchens. “So that’s my way of giving back.”