Walking through the studio of abstract painter, John Kennedy, is like walking through a paint splattered cement maze. There are stairs that lead up and down into different pockets of rooms, all the while scooting by and stepping over the clues that make up his work. These clues are exactly what I’m looking for. At the opening of his third solo show at Angell Gallery, located in downtown Toronto, I stood in front of Kennedy’s work and thought: “Who is John Kennedy? Does that use of vibrant colour stem from a background in graffiti? And what about these landscapes, could he have been inspired by the Northern Lights?” Struck by his work, I decided to track him down and ask him myself.
The hunt led me to his studio, located in the city’s new artists hotspot, The Junction. Spray cans are nearly knocked over upon entering his main working room, and cans of mis-tinted paint are almost backed into. The clues supporting my initial assumption regarding the artist’s background surround me, but surprisingly, when asked, Kennedy reveals a graffiti-free background. “Comic books were my thing, I was an artist right from the start and I grew up constantly drawing and really developing those skills,” he divulges. Having grown up in Welland, Ontario, Kennedy moved to Oakville in the mid-nineties to attend the illustration and animation program at Sheridan College. “ Coming from such a small town, I wasn’t really exposed to any sort of fine art background, so when I got to an art school and was being exposed to painting and sculpting, my head just blew up! I quickly learned that comic books weren’t my passion at all.”
Once his passion for painting surfaced, he ran with, or, more literally ‘flew with’ it. “At the end of my third year, I split and went to Europe – England, France, Holland,” says the artist. “To be 21, in Europe, with a completely wide open mind and knowing that I was destined to be in the art world somehow, some way… it was incredible, it completely changed me in every way as a person and the way I saw things.”
Kennedy’s pick-up-and-go sense of adventure proves to be a prominent trademark in his career, as well as his lifestyle. Landing his first show in San Diego in his early twenties, followed by Detroit; the artist has long been a well-functioning one man operation, skipping the studio manager bit and driving his works to the galleries himself. As Kennedy shares, the lone wolf in him, is happy to tackle a challenge without the pack. “I’ve always been an adventurous type of person, I‘ve gone to places by myself, I can go on vacation by myself – to Mexico, or wherever, and have a good time. I can control the anxiety that comes with wandering around by yourself and not knowing anybody or anything – I actually enjoy it.”
Considering his intense travelogue, and his most current work’s slant towards abstract landscapes, I wonder aloud if there are any places in particular that influence Kennedy’s work? “Consciously I would say no, but subconsciously there’s probably a few things that are stuck in my head,” he admits. “I am by nature an abstract painter, they’ve (become) more organic over the past couple of years, simply for wanting to explore how the paint is put on (the canvas). I think they became sort of landscape-y just because of how the marks were falling.” Kennedy admits that it took time for him to find the balance in his vision, straddling the edge between abstract and landscape work, ultimately leaving more literal works from the past behind.
The balance he has achieved has resulted in striking work and a recognizable style that has placed Kennedy in the enviable spot of being one of Canada’s most exciting, young abstract painters, with a career art collectors best keep close tabs on.