Alexander Austin has left his artistic mark on Kansas City's architecture for years. His introduction to art as a child was cutting sewing patterns to help his mother, who worked as a cook and took seamstress jobs on the side in Tallahassee, Florida, where she raised Austin and his 11 brothers and sisters. When the crowded house was a whirlwind of commotion, he sat at the big kitchen table, and copied images of celebrities. |
His big break came in 1982, when Austin entered his artwork in the North Florida Fair. Professional billboard artist Alan Pippenger turned a corner and stopped dead in his tracks in front of a drawing of Stevie Wonder that Austin had submitted. "I found myself rooted to the spot I was standing," Pippenger says. "It was a simple drawing, done entirely in pencil, that grabbed me by the throat." Pippenger mentored Austin for three years, letting him fill in lettering for billboard ads, teaching him how to use special brushes.
Austin graduated high school in 1979 then attended Lively Vocational Technical Center, where he studied graphic and commercial art. He got some experience at Lively painting billboards, When Ron Gallimore - the first African-American gymnast to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team - opened a new center in Tallahassee, Austin painted the lettering and two performing gymnasts on a billboard.
In 1987, Austin's sister Adele got sick. She lived in Kansas City, so the aspiring artist moved to Kansas city. Knowing Kansas City was the headquarters of Hallmark Cards and big-name advertising agencies, he brought along his portfolio.
His limited education earned him only rejection. He got evicted from his apartment and was too embarrassed to ask his sister for help and joined the ranks of Kansas city's homeless.
After several months on the streets, he took up residence at the City Union Mission. One evening, Austin followed the sound of live music to the 18th and Vine district. It was an outdoor concert, and local musician Sonny Kenner was jamming a Bob Marley tune onstage.
Austin started hanging out at the Mardi Gras Club near 19th Street and Vine. He camped out in the corner with a pad and pencil and sketched patrons for $10.00. Club owner Charles Allen Sr. noticed Austin's ability and asked him if he'd paint the likenesses of jazz legends on the abandon outside of the building.
Allen gave him a few buckets of black and white paint, but Austin didn't have any other supplies. Instead of a paintbrush, he used a stick with a rag tied around the end. He dipped the cloth in the paint and created pictures from countless dots. The technique, called stippling, was crude, but in 1989 Austin created the images of musicians such as Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Soon after, in 1991, his sister moved out of her apartment in Grandview and let Austin stay for the time left on her lease. Every day, he took the bus up from Grandview and passed a graffiti-tagged building at 5853 Troost. "It just dawned on me: Whoa, you could paint something on that," he says. That night, he drew a composition of what it could look like. He sketched the bold face of a child breaking a metal chain from his head.
The next day he went looking for the property owner, Raymond Streeter, who gave Austin permission to paint it - as long as the mural didn't cost him anything and he warned Austin, pointing at bullet holes in the wall the he had been shot at trying to paint over the graffiti. "All I needed was a gallon of black and a gallon of white paint, and it's on," Austin says. What have I got to lose."
Austin set out a sign asking for donations, and dozens of passers-by gave him money. One of the biggest donors, Austin says, was former NFL player Rosie Greer, who gave the young artist $100. It took three weeks to complete that first mural 10` X 45`titled: Break the Chains of Ignorance! "EDUCATE". Soon after he was scouting the city streets for abandoned and graffiti-tagged buildings. He found a prime canvas near 47th Street and Prospect and, as snow began to fall, standing on barrels, started painting images of Martin Luther King Jr.
He finished the 25` X 70` mural the following summer when he learned that the expansion of Bruce R. Watkins highway would go straight through the MLK mural. He started a campaign to save it. He wrote the lyrics and music to a song he called "Save the Dream." As I look up to the sky, and I see the others way up high/I thought I would paint a picture and I would sing, to stop the demolition of the dream.
On the day the mural was demolished, Austin arrived at 6 a.m. and watched as a large backhoe took the wall down slowly. As the mural crumbled, he vowed to the gathered media that he'd paint another King mural before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. By then, he'd started working a variety of jobs to keep a new apartment on Walnut. To pay the bills, he cut paper in the darkroom of a photography business. His free time was spent at the intersection of Linwood Avenue and Troost, where he stippled a new black-and-white mural of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr 30` X 90`titled: A Brush of Time.
He finished the mural in early 1995. A few weeks later, the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime along with AmeriCorps planned an anti-violence march that ended with a rally at Austin's Martin Luther King mural. The artist walked at the front of the parade, hundreds of participants trailing behind him. It inspired him to start his own anti-crime initiative: Painting for Peace.
Austin transformed the blank side of a building at 27th Street and Prospect with the faces of 100 murder victims and the question "When Will It Stop?" One portrait was his sister Ersalyne Saylor murdered when Austin was 11 years old. The mural 20` X 75`became the focal point of HBO's controversial 27th and Prospect documentary exploring the inner city's struggle with drugs and violence.
He has donated mural to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and Inter Aide international, a traveling mural which has been to Africa, Asia and South America. His philanthropic efforts expand across Kansas city, donating works of art to schools, churches and charities like The Rose Brook Center for Battered Women, working with students at The Paseo Academy of Fine Arts to beautify other abandon buildings in the inner city with workshops at The Nelson Atkins Museum.
His recent donation is a tribute mural 20` X 50` to The King of Pop Michael Jackson at 1809 Troost titled: Shattered! That adorns the signatures of hundreds of Kansas City MJ fans.
In 1994, Austin received national recognition when the Studio Museum in Harlem included his work in a show titled "Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art." Listing him as one of the top 30 African American artist working in the United States of America.
His work has graced the pages of Essence magazine, The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and has been seen in commercials and TV shows like Malcolm and Eddie and American Idol. Austin, never giving up on his dream would finally recieve international attention creating Christmas and mothers day cards for Hallmark Industries. He has since added to his public gallery a painting of the regal Osage Indian at 31st Street and Troost, and a Harry Truman mural in Independence. He does portrait work for clients such as the Metropolitan Bar Association and has completed a mural for Olie Gates the Baron of Kansas city Bar B Q honoring his parents, the founders of Gates Bar B Q. His art is a part of the Sprint collection and hangs in the homes of celebrities like Will Smith and Danny Glover. He has works in many private and corporate collections in and outside of the United States.
In 2007 Alexander Austin received a commission to paint the biggest canvas ever, the sweeping southern facade of the Power & Light District. The mural covering 18,000 square feet, transforming a two-block stretch of blank wall into a panorama that now stands as the gateway to the district.
And last but not least the philanthropic artist has given his unique talent to inspire the lost and discouraged at City Union Mission with his mural titled: Journey of Hope, adorning the wall of the Mission's new Christian life center. It's a kind of homecoming, bringing him back to the place he stayed when he was homeless two decades ago. Dennis Chapman, the Mission's associate executive director of development. It`s a touching and beautiful piece of work. done for free.
Atop of his many awards Austin has received a certificate of appreciation from the Mayor's office, voted 2009 one of the 100 most influential African American in Kansas city by The Kansas City Globe news paper and honored to sit in baseball's Hall of Fame John "Buck" O'Neil's legacy seat at Kauffman's stadium.
Alexander Austin. Artist/Muralist. I feel a calling for my art. An altruistic concern for the social and spiritual welfare of all mankind. A continuous flow of compassion from my inner being, juxtaposed to my brush and perched onto our city walls. I would like to thank you all and hope that I have done a stellar job on the canvas of your hearts as well. Much peace and love. My journey of hope continues.
To see more of my work please join me @ FaceBook.com/alexanderaustin