The path between Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” and Bernini’s “Rape of Prosperina” is long and winding. It’s a trail that Fall River-based artist William Kennedy walked with curiosity, admiring the scenery and collecting ideas.
Kennedy was born in Washington, DC, 34 years ago, before moving to New Bedford in the mid-1990s, prompted by family difficulties.
He speaks of his early childhood in DC as deeply important to his development, spending much time with his grandmother (one of the first black women to work for the CIA) who encouraged reading and drawing and taught him playing Scrabble and other games.
He fondly remembers looking for the fun pages while she read the newspaper, so he could freehand copy Beetle Bailey and Sarge from Mort Walker’s iconic daily comic strip. His interest in art was, at least in part, sparked by comics, superhero comics, Nickelodeon, and album covers.
Her paternal grandfather was a renowned photographer, and there were cousins who worked in film and illustration.
During his teenage years in West New Bedford, attending Keith Middle School and New Bedford High, his athletic prowess increased and his skills as a basketball player led him to be recruited by the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. But at one point a back injury sidelined him and unable to continue playing the ball he found himself somewhat adrift.
Art beckoned again. He acquired skills without formal training, becoming the epitome of the self-taught artist. Networking, he soon began doing commissioned illustrations, logos, layouts and portraits. As his skills grew, he collaborated with designers in music and fashion, eventually working with fashion icon Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of fashion brand Pyer Moss.
Kennedy is a talented draftsman, illustrator and graphic designer, but he only did his first painting in January of this year. Six months later, he travels to London, where he will present his paintings in an eight-person exhibition at the Brick Lane Gallery.
“Johnny”, an inspired portrait of his great-grandfather Johnny Williams, dapper in his fedora, bright blue suit and pipe, was used as a poster for the London exhibition.
Before delving into Kennedy’s paintings, a brief overview of his work in other media is indispensible. Certainly, he has great strength as a digital illustrator.
He had created a seemingly simple portrait called “Corey”, in which a smiling young man in a black shirt and matching suspenders sways happily against a pale lavender wash. When he posted the image on social media, he noted, “That boy loved to dance.”
Not long ago he was asked to do a portrait of Malcolm Gracia, a young man who was shot in the back and killed by police over a decade ago at Temple Landing in New Bedford in a very convoluted and controversial affair. Kennedy’s illustration depicts the face of a handsome young man, framed by a blue square. Below is the caption “Justice for Malcolm Gracia”.
The image was used on protest signs and Kennedy refused to accept payment for his work, noting that he did not consider himself a social justice warrior but was not shy about speaking out when it was necessary.
On a lighter topic, Kennedy illustrated a children’s book titled “L is for Latinx,” in collaboration with writer Yolanda Divine.
Kennedy’s “The Grip of Obsession” is a wonderfully rendered charcoal drawing, focusing on the best known and most photographed element of a particular sculpture by Bernini from 1622, “The Rape of Prosperina”. In it, the hands of Pluto, god of the underworld, grasp the hip and upper thigh of the young girl he kidnaps.
Bernini is so masterful that he makes marble look like flesh. Kennedy, working in a different medium and taking some creative liberties within his study, certainly does the old sculptor justice.
Sexuality plays a big role in “Comfort Zone,” a painting of a black man in gym shorts and a naked woman lying on a bright magenta sofa, her head on one side, hers on the other. The full table cannot be reproduced in the journal due to its content.
The man uses his foot to massage the most intimate area of his body. As their faces remain invisible, it becomes universal: “every man and every woman, every couple”. Mentioning this aspect to Kennedy, he agreed but replied that although the couple were black, the woman he painted was actually a white French Canadian. The man’s legs are derived from a photograph of Muhammad Ali.
“Comfort Zone” works for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a strong sense of composition and expressive, quietly frenetic paint application. The comfort suggested in the painting has almost the musical sensibility of Prince or Leonard Cohen, two performers who often found a way to merge eroticism and spirituality in their songs.
Kennedy’s “The Death of Adonis, Reinterpreted” is his version of Peter Paul Rubens’ 1614 masterpiece. The god Adonis was killed by a boar sent by the avenging goddess Artemis. He rests on the ground, mourned by four mythical women: Venus, the goddess of love, and the Three Graces, Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia. Nearby are a weeping Cupid and two indifferent dogs.
In Kennedy’s reinterpretation, Cupid, the dogs and background are removed. And more importantly, all of the key players – the dead Adonises and the weeping women – are now black.
The mourners are the deceased young man’s mother and aunts. The young man was Corey, the boy who loved to dance. He was Kennedy’s cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting in DC.
Kennedy did a series of paintings (three so far) titled “The Box They Tried To Put Me In”. In each, a black man’s head is covered with a corrugated cardboard box. It’s his answer to white expectations of what a young black man is supposed to be: basketball player, rapper, thug, the usual narrow choices.
Believe me, nobody puts Kennedy in a box.