Photos by Jamie Alexander
Owensboro resident Kenneth Oliver (K.O.) Lewis has been inspiring people with his art for quite some time. His artwork conveys messages of social justice and features prominent figures that he admires and looks to for inspiration.
Born and raised on the west side of Louisville, Lewis moved to Owensboro after high school to further his education at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He grew up playing football and always enjoyed painting and drawing, so Lewis was ecstatic to find a school where he could continue his playing career and feed his passion for art.
“I wanted assistance to go to school, but also wanted to focus on the things I enjoy,” 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 magnet school for art in Jefferson County—accepted him into their program after a rigorous application process. Despite quality art and writing submissions and an intense interview, the school initially denied him acceptance. His mom, however, had other plans.
“My three older brothers went there—they eventually let me in after my mom communicated how badly I wanted to be there,” he said. “It was a 45-minute bus ride, but going to that high school and participating in their programs played a pivotal role in my success. It solidified my desire to continue working with art after education.”
Lewis’s portraits highlight prominent figures in the social justice movement, past and present, and reflect his respect for them. He’s recently progressed in his creative process by adding words to the portraits that better convey the art’s message.
“When you create art, you have to do it for yourself first—it only enhances the passion,” he said. “I hope that others can see my vision and passion and are drawn to it. It’s my way of communicating to the viewer what has inspired me and how they’ve shaped and formed the way I think about things.”
One of his more well-received pieces was a large acrylic portrait of Muhammad Ali with one phrase printed several times. The real “aha” moment came when NFL safety Kenny Vacarro was attending an art festival where Lewis sold his work and kept doing double-takes with the particular piece.
He said Vacarro was wearing athletic gear and had large hands; he knew he looked familiar but couldn’t pinpoint how he knew him. He initially thought he was a boxer, but after some discussion realized that he was a star defensive back for one of his favorite teams, the Tennessee Titans.
“It was a major fan-boy and star-struck moment,” Lewis said. “Me having that response to him in an art setting made him feel good. He was with his beautiful family, and my wife was soaking it all in. He ended up purchasing that painting for $4,000 for his home.”
Amazed by Lewis’s ability, Vacarro later commissioned him to paint a portrait of renowned rap artist Nipsey Hustle. Before being murdered, Hustle was well known for his ideology in “building up” and reinvesting in the neighborhood, a concept that Lewis also holds dear.
Lewis dedicates his days to being an educator, climbing from the ranks of exceptional education instructor to administrator in his 13 years with Owensboro Public Schools. Growing up in an area ladened with trouble and trauma, Lewis can often connect with troubled students on a deeper level than most.
“My goal is to be a mentor and remove barriers; I want to build relationships and create ways for teachers to communicate with kids,” he said. “We have to remove implicit bias, be vulnerable, and determine what is best for the kid rather than dwell on the negative.”
“We must tackle every day with opportunity because when they leave us, there may not be anyone else for them.”
Lewis’s journey as an artist and an educator are intertwined. He enjoys the process of getting someone to try and see a better version of themselves, much like the individuals he paints do for him.
“I say it’s the same because I always go back to the same people that I’m painting—I don’t know them personally, but their words have had such a strong impact on me. I use their inspiration and focus on creating a better version of myself,” he said. “When I’m working 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 what they want to be regardless of barriers.”
Lewis said he isn’t on the journey alone, attributing much of his success to his wife, Erin. The two have one daughter together—Eva—who he considers the source of his engine.
“We created a lifestyle and home we could be proud of when adopting Eva; they keep me going, and I love them so much,” Lewis said. “Since having Eva, I’ve been paying more attention to female figures and painting them more frequently. Women have had a strong impact on my life, and I want to depict that in my art.”
Some of Lewis’s more notable works include Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali. He said that their words and the words of many others guided him through tough times to create the person he is today.
“We all have these things that we run to and focus on that give us an extra nudge,” Lewis said. “I enjoy listening to the way someone says something—it can bring out the soul in their words. You may not see it in my painting, but I hope it will capture your attention, and the words will resonate.”