Kenneth Blane found some protection from his older sisters, but not enough to keep him out of trouble as a kid. His bumpy road to self-discovery included run-ins with police, struggles at school, federal prison and what looked like a dead end.
Art, it turns out, has been the light on that otherwise dark path.
For the past decade, Blane, known most of his life in Newport as Kenny, has used his untrained artist’s eye as a refuge and a vehicle to turn his life around. As if scripted, it all came about practically by accident, but it has evolved in a way that takes advantage of Blane’s enthusiasm and innate skill.
“When I first started painting in Newport, I would go to a site, usually a famous site in the city, and I would just start painting it,” Blane recalled in a recent interview. “I would go to a place where there would be a lot of people around, like different parts of Thames Street. People would stop and watch. Then someone would ask if they could buy the painting or if I could paint something for them.”
As if destiny had rescued him from a life of trouble and crime, Blane just kept painting. Friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends started asking him to do portraits of loved ones. That became another source of income for him. Then he started doing paint parties for kids, at senior centers, wherever he could book them. That became another source of income. In his most recent evolution, he has been working for a company that operates parking lots in different parts of the city, and his employers are happy to let him paint while he works.
“It’s all pretty amazing,” Blane said. “I just love painting. You know, it’s amazing that I can do this.”
If he amazes himself, he might be amazing folks who knew him when he was growing up in Newport even more. Blane’s childhood was anything but idyllic. His parents split up when he was very young; his father moving to Florida. His three older sisters all moved away when he was an adolescent. His mother suffered with mental illness and was in and out of hospitals, which often left him at home alone for days at a time.
“She was a single mom with a lot of problems,” Blane said. “I had no guidance. My oldest sister helped me a lot, but when they moved away, I was on my own. I was in the streets getting in trouble.”
At home on a small street off Marcus Wheatland Boulevard, a mostly segregated neighborhood west of Broadway, Blane did what he could to make sense of a confusing life.
“I was left alone with her, and episodes would happen,” he said. “She was on different medications, and there were times when she felt better and thought she was O.K., so she stopped taking the medication. She thought she didn’t need it. That’s when an episode would happen.”
Looking back at it now, Blane says the chaotic situation seemed normal to him because he knew nothing else. “It heavily influenced me,” he said. “It’s why I got in trouble. I was alone at a young age. It was normal to me. I was cooking, making my meals, going to school. It was pretty rough. It was easy to get into crimes with people in the street. It was quick money, and I had no guidance.”
While he was at Rogers High School, police would catch the teenage Blane doing something wrong and would bring him home. At a certain point, his mother couldn’t cope, so she sent him to live with a sister in California. She set him up in his own apartment to try to get him on the right path, but he dropped out of school in his junior year.
“I was 17-years-old and in my own place and owning my own car,” Blane said. “I thought I had it made. I didn’t need school.”
Not surprisingly, he got in trouble again and was back and forth to court. He remembers having criminal thoughts all the time, and he felt stuck in a bad situation. And it got worse. Arrested on a drug charge, he spent more than five years in federal prison. But it was there that he learned something about painting.
“I would go to the art studio and play chess with a guy but I always paid attention to the painters and watched what they did,” he said. “When I got out, a friend in Connecticut had a barber shop and let me stay there. I slept in the back of the shop. One day he was cleaning things out and found a bag with paints, canvases and brushes. He was going to throw the stuff out, but I told him I wanted it. That night I painted a picture of two boys. When I was doing it, I couldn’t believe what was unfolding in front of my eyes. I always knew how to draw, but I knew nothing about painting.”
His friend saw the painting the next day and was shocked. “Wow!” the friend said. “You did that? This is your calling.”
He hung it in the shop, and later that day a customer asked if he could buy it. Blane recalled that the man asked how much he wanted, then offered $200. “It blew me away,” he said. “I think I had about $40 to my name. That changed my life.”
Blane eventually moved back to his old neighborhood in Newport and painted while working at other jobs. He had a gallery on Thames Street for a time before he started going out to monument sites, the waterfront, and historic sites where people could see him working.
The painting parties happened without his intention, and they turned out to be lucrative enough that he has booked them regularly for business events, children’s parties and adult groups.
Painting has become a near obsession with him. Often using photographs as a model, his distinctive style can best be described as primitive, but there is more to it than that. Hardly classically trained, Blane has an instinct that gives his paintings a subtle energy. A street scene shimmers with color that transports the ordinary to a unique place with sincere feeling. His portraits seem to have a tenderness even when he is painting someone he has never met.
“It’s kind of sad, but people ask me all the time to paint a loved one who has passed,” he said. “They just seem to appreciate it so much.”
Thankful that he has found the “guidance” he lacked early in his life, he pursues his art with an attitude that says, “If I had known then what I know now.”
His success inspired him to create an organization designed to mentor young people as a way of showing gratitude for his own redemption. The Kingsmen emerged from an online meeting in 2018 that Blane invited 100 friends and acquaintances to attend. He told them he wanted to hold a meeting to discuss something important. Fifty of those 100 showed up asking, “Why you got me here?” he recalled.
“The pandemic slowed us down, but we’re getting back into it,” he said. “We can still do things. We have raised money to help the homeless and for many other causes.”
In many ways, Blane’s story as he moves into his 50s illustrates arguments that have been made about facing the difficult aspects of American history, the legacy of slavery and its effects on generations of African Americans. Mental illness borne of trauma, economic hardship and prejudice all had a hand in Blane’s early life.
His connection to his childhood home, while not necessarily evident in his art, is evident in his work with the Kingsmen and other activities, such as Newport’s Middle Passage Monument Project, an effort to raise funds to erect a monument in a small park in the oldest part of the city led by former Rogers High School Principal Victoria Johnson.
“I would do anything for her,” Blane said. “She’s such a wonderful woman. I don’t like to exhibit my art outdoors, but I did that to help them raise awareness of the project. I’m going to do that again when the committee that holds the Rec Reunion has their event.”
The Rec, the recreation center that became the focal point of what was then known as the West Broadway area, dates back to before Blane’s childhood. Anticipating this year’s reunion, he has been painting scenes from the neighborhood to display.
“I’m living my life,” he said. “I do the parties and the portraits. I’m trying to find someone to help me sell my art to free up more time to create. I am enjoying my life and trying to help my community.”