A Fortuitous Visit to Artworks Gallery Inspires Blind Painter to Continue
BACK IN THE GAME: Painter Ken Alexander is opening his Trenton studio on Saturday, November 4, as part of the sixth annual Art All Day. Glaucoma has left Alexander legally blind, but he still has much to say with his art.
By Anne Levin
After almost two decades working as a chef, painter Ken Alexander was finally feeling secure enough to devote himself, fulltime, to his art. He gave up his job at a restaurant in Spring Lake. He moved from Asbury Park to Trenton, where he bought a light-filled loft in the city’s Mill Hill section.
The first interruption to Alexander’s plan was a happy one: the birth of his son. Eventually awarded full custody of Zachariah, now 8, he put his dream on hold and took a job as a butcher. Painting would have to wait.
But some serious medical issues came next. After beating prostate cancer, Alexander was diagnosed with an artist’s worst nightmare: severe glaucoma. Despite surgery, he is now legally blind.
The devastating diagnosis could have put an end to Alexander’s career. But thanks to a recent connection with the Trenton gallery Artworks, he plans to use the vision he has left to start painting again.
Alexander’s studio on Mercer Street is one of 37 sites to be open to the public on Saturday, November 4 as part of the sixth annual Art All Day. The annual event celebrating Trenton’s growing arts community is sponsored by Artworks, and is a companion to Art All Night, which draws thousands to the capital city each June.
Alexander lives around the corner from Artworks. But until one weekend morning a few months ago, he had never visited the gallery.
“I went over there to sell my frames and canvases, because I didn’t expect to need them again,” he said recently. “And now I’m selling paintings. I never expected that this would happen.”
Artworks executive director Lauren Otis and Trenton artist Tamara Torres were immediately intrigued upon meeting Alexander and seeing some photos of his work. That day, they took him up on an offer to visit his loft.
“We walked over to his place with him, and we were completely blown away,” said Otis. “It wasn’t just his art, some of which is monumental in scale. It was the space itself. Here was this incredible painter who was right nearby, and we didn’t know anything about him.”
Paintings in Alexander’s loft range from small, colorful portraits of jazz artists to huge, wall-size canvases emblazoned with one word. It is these large “word paintings” that he wants to resume.
“I have some ideas now. Maybe there is something I can do with just words,” he said. “There are artists who do that. And that’s the direction my work was going anyway. I want to give it a shot. It’s funny — now with this disability, I finally have the time to paint. I almost think that with my limited vision, I’m really going to be putting out stuff that shows who I am.”
Another style that Alexander likes uses pieces of broken crockery, in the style of artist Julian Schnabel. “I love other artists’ work and I use elements of it all the time,” he said. “Like Schnabel and the way he used plates — I love the weight of it.”
A picture of Alexander with Schnabel, whom he met several years ago, hangs on a wall in his loft. Next to it is a photo of Alexander with Bruce Springsteen, who visited his former studio in Asbury Park.
“A friend of mine brought him by one day, and he was great,” Alexander recalled. “He took a lot of time, looking at everything and talking to me about it. He didn’t buy anything but he ended up leaving tickets for me to a couple of concerts he was doing, which was really nice.”
Learning to navigate daily life without his sight is a challenge that has left Alexander feeling hopeless at times. But he has been energized by the response to a GoFundMe campaign his sister and others have launched on his behalf.
“People from my past, people I haven’t seen in years, have contacted me and helped out. It’s like a big, warm hug,” Alexander said. “They have come to visit me. I had more company here this summer than the whole time I’ve lived here, which is more than 10 years. I feel now that I’m a blessed individual. I feel lucky.”
Alexander credits The New Jersey Commission for the Blind — specifically, his case worker Donna Panaro — in helping him to adjust. “She taught me how to use my cane, and my cane is now my best friend,” he said. “I don’t leave home without it. They’ve helped bring my confidence back. They’ve made me aware of all the things that are available to me, and they’re going to be a part of my life from now on.”
Art All Day is Saturday, November 4 from noon-6 p.m. Begins and ends at Artworks, 19 Everett Alley. Trolley tours will transport participants to different locations, and food trucks will be on hand.
Visit artworkstrenton.org for more information.