December 11, 2017

Painting KC: From homelessness to successful muralist

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Alexander Austin always wanted to be an artist. He started out sketching comic book characters, such as Spider-Man and Superman, and in ninth grade he scored his first commissioned piece. One of his classmates paid him around $15 to draw a portrait for a girlfriend.

"It was a very small commission," Austin said with a laugh.

But Austin's latest commissioned piece for The Cordish Cos. comes with a heftier price tag: $65,000. The Baltimore-based developer hired Austin to paint a mural that's about 25 feet tall and wraps around the North and West sides of Two Light, a high-rise apartment building in downtown Kansas City. Cordish first hired Austin in 2008 to paint the south sides of the Kansas City Power & Light District buildings facing Truman Road and the South Loop freeway. But construction of Two Light obscures the original murals, so Cordish hired Austin to paint another mural, which this time depicts Kansas City Monarchs players and other African American sports icons, such as Wilt Chamberlain. Cordish, along with Phillips-West Public Relations, also recently helped Austin establish a home-based LLC and secure minority-owned business certification.

"It's rewarding to know that I've come that far — from being a homeless artist, a dude out of the projects," he said. "Most of my hometown and my family are all surprised that I didn't end up in some place else — prison, or dead."

The now 56-year-old grew up in the projects in Tallahassee, Fla., and moved to Kansas City when he was 27. He had just finished earning his GED at a vocational tech school in Florida, which included courses in graphic and commercial arts. His graphic arts teacher spotted his talent and suggested he move to Kansas City, home to Hallmark Cards Inc. Austin took his advice, but without formal training, Hallmark rejected him, he said. He lived with his sister in Kansas City for awhile, but later became homeless, finding shelter through couch surfing and homeless shelters. There were times he resorted to staying in abandoned buildings or sleeping in parks. He worked a number of odd jobs, including delivering and picking up samples for a drug testing facility, working at a sewage treatment plant and giving blood.

"Anything to survive, you know?"

To make extra money, he hung out at night clubs and sketched the people around him. He'd then approach them with the drawing, asking if they'd give up a few dollars. It earned him the nickname, "the refrigerator artist."

"I must have drawn thousands of people over the years."

On one fateful day near City Union Mission, live music grabbed his attention and he followed it to the source — the Birdland jazz club in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. He started hanging out at the club and eventually met the owner, who invited him to paint a mural of some of the jazz greats on the side of the building. It sparked an interest, and Austin started taking the bus to scout abandoned buildings to paint. With an owner's permission, he painted figures, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. using just a rag fashioned to a stick, because brushes were too expensive. His murals started garnering attention, which led to commissioned work for the Kansas City Zoo and two greeting card designs for Hallmark.

"It just so happened that murals saved my life. It's what got me the exposure and started to pay me a little bit of money."

His favorite mural soon will be the one stretching across Two Light, partly because it's his biggest to date. But his first favorite is of Martin Luther King Jr. His inspiration came during his homelessness phase and a moment of despair. Feeling lost, he looked up in the clouds and saw one that resembled the civil rights activist.

"That did something. It affected me," he said. "That's what inspired me to paint this mural of him."

It represented his struggle and the struggle of African-Americans, but it also represented hope — the ability to overcome, he said. Spanning more than 30 feet high and 100 feet long, the mural was his largest at the time.

"It represented that I could do something with this talent," Austin said. "It was the validating point, because I had never done a mural that big. It was the validating point of OK, I've got something here. I might be able to make something out of myself and out of my life."

His latest mural and MBE certification will only open more doors, including the ability to be more selective in the projects he accepts, he said. It marks the "next big tier."

"I can legitimately say, 'Yes, I am open for business more now than ever with the LLC.'"

He now wants to travel and take master workshops, and focus more on fine art pieces.

"It's been a rough journey. You sacrifice a lot when you follow your dreams, and hopefully this is where I can really settle down, establish myself as a business owner and get my home-based business going and live a normal life," he said, smiling. "It's time for me to open a gallery and have my artwork for sale."