An Unlikely Canvas

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Painting the town red, along with every other color, is a talent for this artist.

Story by Cheri Woodsmall    |     Photography by Matt Kocourek

As you drive around Kansas City, you can’t help but notice the bright, beautiful murals that are scattered around parts of our town. The buildings are Alexander Austin’s canvas. His work has graced the pages of Essence magazine, The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and has been seen in commercials and prime time shows like Malcom and Eddie and American Idol. We had the pleasure of spending some time with Alexander and learning more about the humble, talented man behind the brush.

Tell us a bit about your background, how did you get started?

It was quite the journey! I grew up in Tallahassee FL. and when I was a young boy, my mother made hats and dresses for her church. I had several brothers and sisters and we didn’t have much money. I would sit with her and help her by cutting out the patterns and I loved it. That’s really what began to make me interested in art. In middle school, I won a national drawing contest. My love of art continued, but my love of school itself did not. I dropped out of school in 11th grade and got my GED and went on to vocational school, taking a commercial arts and graphic design class. After continuing to draw and improve my skills, I decided to submit my drawings in the Leon County Fair. One day I got a call from one of the judges and he was very excited about my work. The gentleman’s name was Alan Pippenger. Alan was a professional billboard artist and he mentored me for about 3 years and showed me everything he knew. That is really when my love of the craft took off.

When I moved to Kansas City in 1987, it was a rough start. I had a small portfolio and took it around to places like Hallmark and a couple of the billboard companies, but nobody would hire me. I stayed with my sister for a bit, but ultimately found myself on the streets, with no place to stay for several months. I remember giving my life to Christ at the Mission one night, and my life hasn’t been the same since then. After spending some time at City Union Mission, I quickly fell in love with the Mission. In 2009, I returned to the Mission for a different reason — to paint a mural on the wall of the multi-purpose room of the Mission’s new Christian Life Center. The painting depicts men going through the progression of struggle and pain to victory. This piece was titled “Journey of Hope.”

After staying in some abandoned buildings around 18th and Vine, I began spending some time in a nightclub doing some sketches for people for cash. Club owner Charles Allen Sr. noticed my ability and asked me if I’d paint the likenesses of jazz legends on the bar’s brick wall. So I painted some pictures of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on the side of the building and that was my first mural.

Where are your murals located? 

Well, of course 18th and Vine, a mural of Malcom X on 25th & Prospect, a Martin Luther King mural on 47th & Prospect, Lynwood & Troost, the Kansas City Zoo and scattered around Power & Light District – the Chiefs and Royals murals are of course two of my favorites! Recently, I painted the Grandmothers of Manheim Park. I am sure there are others, but I can’t place them right now!

Street art is mostly a visually stimulating form of art. To add one more sense to it, what music would you pick to accompany your artwork?

Music is the second biggest love of my life. I love all kinds of music. Mostly R & B, jazz and rap are what I listen to when I am in the zone. I was hanging out at 18th and Vine and jazz became a huge part of my life at that time.

In all forms of art, inspiration is crucial. What inspires you and how does that end up in your art?

Giving back to the community is very important to me and I try to give back to the community with my art whenever possible. One of my favorite projects was working with Lee Jeans on a campaign where we made a quilt out of different pairs of jeans. I used to keep all of my jeans and I gave them to them to some ladies who made a quilt and Lee Jeans heard about it and saw the work at the Mission Art Show and decided to partnered with the Mission and gave back $5 for every pair of jeans that were sold.

I also worked with Google on a mostly black-and-white design that incorporates Kansas City’s history and its Google future. A saxophone blows out shuttlecocks, along with a Kansas City Star business page highlighting Silicon Prairie. Sporting Kansas City, Union Station, a train engine and a fountain are included, as well as a Google fiber running from one end of the mural to the other.

What are you working on now?

I have a show for the City Union Mission – I did a painting of Patrick Mahomes and he signed it. The prints will be given to the donors who sign up to help with the City Union Mission. The Negro League has their 100th year anniversary and a couple of my murals featuring Buck O’Neil and others will be highlighted.

Do you have any artist(s) you admire? Can you pinpoint what it is that makes them so special for you?

The artist that I really admire the most is the mentor that I was telling you about earlier. Alan Pippenger. His work ethic was incredible. He is the one person that made me fall in love with art and doing murals.

It’s 10 am on a Saturday morning, where are you?

I am probably sleeping. I am a night owl, I usually paint all night and sleep during the day. When I am feeling social and want to hang out with friends, I like to go to Westport, First Fridays, anywhere there is art and live music!

If you could paint ONE THING what would it be and where would it be located?

The Silos right off 29 Hwy and Rainbow. I would love to get my hands on those!!

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