The manic promise of a livelihood as a full-time artist is no stranger to Space Velvet (Kenny Burton), who spent the past year understanding what it takes to turn a side hustle into something sustainable. “I’m not there yet, but I get closer each day. I’ve learned to find a balance between creating the art I want to make and the art that sells.”
Kenny is familiar with staying centered through life’s twists and turns. As a prospective collegiate baseball player, he suffered a shoulder injury that cut his baseball career and professional aspirations short. This catalyzed his transition into civil engineering, where he designed “all things roadway related” for the next seven years. When the pandemic hit, he took the free time to focus on his acrylic and digital paintings, photography, compositions and animations. “I’m reaching the point where I need to pick up another job again, and that’s okay. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and what I’ve learned and experienced during this bizarre time in a global pandemic. I’ve caught glimpses of my life as a full-time artist, so I know it’s possible.”
How did you express yourself artistically as a child?
Art was my favorite subject in grade school. I loved working on different projects and being exposed to new mediums. I couldn’t wait to go home and show the art I made to my parents.
My mom encouraged me and my siblings to be creative. We had a cabinet with arts and crafts supplies at home. This led to custom board game maps, shrinky dinks, spirographs, creepy crawlers, custom pogs (90s kids know what’s up), pinewood derby cars…and even decorating the walls of our underground tornado shelter.
I was into comic strips. Every morning I’d read the funnies in the newspaper from top to bottom. Sundays were the best because there were about seven pages worth (and we’d get donuts). I’d also check out books filled with comic strips from the local library. Dilbert, Zits and FoxTrot were some of my favorites.
I’d sit down with my sketchbook and draw goofy/funny characters. Some had a light-hearted, lowbrow or bathroom humor-type caption or talk bubble. I’d read how-to books for cartoons and comics and learn new ways to draw noses, mouths, hairstyles, body types, etc. I’d sketch characters in the margins of my notebook in class. I’d put them on birthday cards for family and friends. I’d even put them on little notes my mom would stash in my younger brother’s lunchbox before he went to school.
How would you describe your motivation to create art? What is your process like? Does it begin with a vision? A feeling?
My motivation is multi-faceted. Out of everything I’ve done in life, I’d say my art portfolio is what I’m most proud of. It assures me I’m not being complacent as years go by. I’ve always felt I was ‘good’ at art or had the potential to be ‘good’ if I worked at it, and that keeps me going.
It can be hard to push past an intimidating blank canvas or the first stages of a project, but I’ve made it through enough times to know it’s worth it, especially if it’s challenging. Perhaps my intrinsic motivation was more evident in the pre-social media days, where I’d make things hardly anyone would ever see, just because.
I’m motivated by other visual artists, musicians, creatives, athletes and anyone with an inspiring backstory. Observing an amazing work of art moves me to dig inside and see what amazing work I’m capable of creating. Art can help color someone’s personality. As I create more, I feel I’m coloring part of my personality and illustrating aspects of myself. It makes me feel less bland as a person.
Motivation gets a bit muddied by social media and the validation of likes, hearts and pats on the back. It’s trivial, nauseating and easy to get caught up in. Sadly, social media numbers are now tied to clout and perception and consequently sales… and sales create an opportunity for financial freedom.
It seems like a dream to get paid to make the art I want to make and earn a decent living doing it. This motivates me to grow an audience, but it’s a challenge to do that without selling my soul to the algorithm.
My process begins with an idea that pops into my head. Sometimes the idea comes from seeing a new aspect of color, perspective, spatial visualization, lighting, contrast, balance, etc. in another art piece. I may take something from that and reimagine it in my own way. Sometimes an idea comes from a moment of good light/shadow. Or it comes from a funny phrase I think of or hear. I capture the initial idea by writing it down or sketching it out. If the idea seems lame when I revisit it, I discard it. If I still like it, I bring it to life.
For most of my acrylic paintings, I use adobe illustrator to work out my composition, colors, and lighting before the piece hits the canvas. If I feel I’m becoming too much of a control freak, I force myself to start a new painting with minimal thought going in. This challenges me to create based on intuition, and I figure out where the painting is headed as it develops.
Digital paintings and photo compositions are usually pretty intentional. I approach them with an idea in mind and the general path to the finish line mapped out. But I still leave room to drift into the weeds and stumble onto something unexpected.
You were on a fast-track to become a professional baseball player. How did you regard your career-ending injury? Was it hard to accept? Did it seem fated?
It’s a bit reckless to say I was on a fast-track. I have to give respect and credit to those who did make it because it’s extremely hard both skill-wise and health-wise. I don’t want to be an Uncle Rico lamenting my athletic glory days: “If I didn’t get hurt, I would’ve made it to the big leagues!”
I like to think there was a chance I could’ve made it to some level of professional baseball. I was a tall, lanky left-handed pitcher with a high IQ and some pretty good stuff. I was one of the top high school pitchers coming out of Oklahoma, and received interest from a number of colleges and a few MLB organizations. I accepted an offer to a great Division 1 baseball program at the University of Missouri. Unfortunately, my shoulder didn’t hold up and I never got to realize my full potential as my career was cut short.
It was tough to accept the end of my baseball career, but I didn’t go down without a fight. I underwent surgery to repair my torn labrum. The recovery process for that injury is about two
years. I spent time in rehab, working religiously to gain back my strength and flexibility. Since I couldn’t throw, I focused on improving my fielding and cardio. I even started sneaking into the basketball arena at night to run stairs after practice (it was oddly meditative and became one of my favorite things to do).
I was slowly able to throw again, but it was never quite the same. I didn’t regain my full flexibility and couldn’t throw as hard. I couldn’t even remember how I used to throw. I even tried to switch up my motion and become a submarine-type pitcher at one point. I was cut from the team halfway through my junior year… and I still didn’t quit. I joined the club baseball team at Mizzou (basically the intramural team) knowing if I could get back to my old self, I’d still have the chance to become pro.
One day, my dad drove 4.5 hours to watch me pitch with the club team at some dumpy field in Kansas. I pitched horribly and went over to talk with him expecting an earful, but instead he asked me about school and how my job search was going and it was quite pleasant. I think that was the moment we both knew baseball was over and I was ready to become pro in something else.
My baseball days feel like a different lifetime. People who meet me now have no idea how much of my life used to revolve around baseball. After I stopped playing, I didn’t really want to see or think about it. As the years have passed, I’m at peace with it. I learned so many skills and character traits from baseball that I now apply to other aspects of my life. Was there a transitional process behind embracing your creative spark and the need to secure a career that provides more stability?
I designed highways, bike paths, intersections, ADA facilities, signs, construction zones and all things roadway related for 7 years as a civil engineer, up until August 2020 when I was let go from my former company due to covid. Our clients were cities, towns and municipalities…all of which tightened their budgets when the pandemic hit. No one wanted to widen roads or build new roundabouts during the uncertainty at that time. I worked for a small company that wasn’t prepared for a big financial hit like that.
I’d been developing my art business in my spare time before I was let go. I had some money saved up and wasn’t spending as much. Instead of jumping back into the job market, I decided to see how far I could push my art before I had to get another job.
Learning what it takes to make it as a full-time artist has been a tough, amazing chapter in my life. I’m not there yet, but I get closer each day. I’ve learned to stay focused, to find a balance between creating the art I want to make and the art that sells. There are highs and lows, days and weeks where I feel great, days and weeks where I get discouraged. I’ve learned to stay even keeled and move forward no matter what.
I’m reaching the point where I need to pick up another job again, and that’s okay. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and what I’ve learned and experienced during this bizarre time in a global pandemic. I’ve caught glimpses of my life as a full-time artist, so I know it’s possible. What is the highest aspiration for your art?
My highest aspiration is to be a sustainable full-time artist. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. Museum and gallery exhibitions, a distinctive original style, designing artwork for my favorite bands, millions of dollars…sure, that too. Why not?
Also, I aspire to garner respect from my peers. If there’s someone whose work I admire, and they like my stuff…that’s pretty cool.
What has been the most challenging piece you’ve created and why?
A few pieces presented different challenges and hang-ups. ‘Stoney Cove’ might have been my toughest. It was a commission for a college teammate that I was hesitant to accept. He presented the idea to recreate a specific memory of his in my style, and I semi-reluctantly agreed to take it on.
One fateful day he and four of his friends took his boat out to a secluded cove at Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri. They went to this cove often to smoke weed, chill and float around in the water. On this particular day, there was one massive, puffy cloud in the sky just above the horizon. It was shaped like a perfect thumbs-up.
He sent over photos of their boat, the lake, the dock, multiple hand-drawn maps of the area, the positioning of the boat and cloud in relation to the cove, and a bunch of texts describing the excursion. I felt like a detective trying to recreate a crime scene.
It took days to figure out a composition and perspective I liked. I went through several variations before I was satisfied with the ‘stoniness’ of the cove. When I finally began painting it, there was a lot of subtlety in the tones of blue and white in the sky as well as color shifts in the reflections in the water. I re-mixed and re-painted colors multiple times before I was content.
Was the time spent developing and painting it worth the money? Probably not. But it was a great learning lesson to only accept commissions I can get behind.
Tell me more about your lava lamp and pez collection.
I thought you’d never ask.
Ever since I first learned about lava lamps as a kid, I thought they were the coolest thing. My sister had one and abandoned it when she went off to college. I snatched it up and I still have it to this day. It’s about 20+ years old and a bit faded. I’ve had to replace the bulb a few times, but it still flows great. I’ve bought 2 more since. Each has a different color combination. I flick on all three at some point throughout the day (they’re color coordinated to different rooms of my apartment, no big deal). They provide a cool, casual ambiance to each room. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming in them.
My pez infatuation started with my mom. She’d put pez in our Christmas stockings. If I was out shopping with her and we spotted pez at Walmart or Walgreens, I could usually convince her to buy a pack, since she loves pez too. It’s a candy you don’t see every day, so it’s fun to find.
When I started living on my own with money to spend, my sweet tooth led me over to Walgreens to track down pez. I’d get the big refill packs. Then I realized I should stop eating so much pez at one time and started getting the regular packs. I didn’t care about the dispensers at first, but as they began to accumulate, I figured I might as well start collecting them. I have 131 different dispensers (and may or may not have a spreadsheet). But it’s not too serious. There are hardcore pez collectors out there with thousands of rare dispensers in unopened boxes in glass cases. Mine are just chillin’. They’re crammed in a box in my closet.
Lava lamps and pez have found their way into my art and will be included in future works. Stay tuned. What side of yourself do you shy away from including in your internet persona?
I’m pretty authentic in how I present myself online versus real life. I post my acrylic paintings, digital paintings, photography, compositions, animations, drumming and guitar vids, handstands, roller skating clips…and whatever else I feel like sharing. I try to keep things interesting so I don’t waste people’s time.
I once read you should never minimize your creativity and it stuck with me. The common thread between it all is you as an artist. The style, the voice, the cohesion… is you. If I made it and I think it’s cool, I share it.
I’d like to explore more comic strip art in the future. The dry humor, lowbrow illustrations that evolved from my childhood. One or two-panel comic strips. It will be a sharp curveball for some of the people who follow my work, but they can deal with it. How does spirituality factor into your work?
I consider myself spiritual but can’t consciously say it factors into my work. Most of my ideas and pieces aren’t really that deep. I do put a lot of time, effort, thought and feeling into my work, but I wouldn’t say spirituality is a driving factor. Maybe subconsciously it is something I need to reflect on.
I’d like to have more meaning within my work. There are many aspects of today’s technological society that I think about. I have a few ideas for future projects that will illustrate some of my commentary and critiques. Once again, stay tuned.
If you could be the creator of any entirely new world of your own, what would it be like? Sound like? Smell like?
Oh, wow. It would take me months to fully answer for that.
To start, waterfalls everywhere. A bunch of zen gardens and ponds. The sky is a bright star-lit night. Everyone uses some form of air transportation like blimps or balloons or Miyazaki airships. There are large, bustling neon-soaked cities. Sunken indoor conversation lounge pits with shag carpet. It smells like eucalyptus mixed with cedar and pine. Donuts, pizza and soda are somehow healthy. There are secret bathrooms.
I’ll leave it at that for now.