FLINT, Michigan -- Unbeknownst to him, Keyon Lovett began unlocking one passion while pursuing another.
Lovett, a Flint Northern graduate, loved sports growing up. Like many kids, he found an outlet for frustrations and challenges in life through the physicality available on a football field.
“When I played football, I was only thinking violence, to be honest with you,” Lovett said. “Growing up was rough. So, I mean, it (football) was a release, being able to hit people legally.”
But Lovett had talents off the field as well, and sports were an early opportunity for him to hone his craft as an artist. He began drawing as a way to pass time when he was a kid, and as a huge Michael Jordan fan, athletes became a source of his inspiration. But Jordan as a cultural symbol extends beyond what he did on the basketball court, and Lovett was also drawn to the intricate designs of the many iterations of Jordan’s signature shoes.
“I was addicted to the shoes,” Lovett said. “Seeing Jordan, and just the form of his shoes, and how different they were from any other players’ on the court, visually it did something to me. So I would just draw his shoes or draw him.”
Lovett remembers spending time drawing when he was as young as seven or eight, and during high school, his talents caught the attention of teammates. He’d draw pictures and give them to people. “I used drawing as a way to make friends,” he said. He also connected with other kids his age who drew and they competed against each other to see whose drawings were the best.
Lovett also has artistic talent in his family. His aunt, Loretta Matthews, is an artist and Lovett was aware that there was artwork around as a kid. But, like many young people with artistic talents, he didn’t necessarily see art as a realistic career pursuit.
“She’s an artist, but at the time (when he was growing up), I don’t think being an artist was something people talked about being proud of, because you have to make money, you know?” Lovett said. “It’s a hobby. So she went and walked into the shop and was making $27, $30 an hour, and it’s like f--- that pencil. I’m making $30 an hour and I got a family, you know?”
But Lovett did end up pursuing art in college, at Mott Community College and later at Grand Valley State, initially eyeing a career as an art teacher. Instead, though, he found challenges to his creative vision and other frustrations at Grand Valley that ultimately set him on an independent path to becoming a professional artist.
Lovett has worked over the years to develop a distinctive style and voice in his work. He struggled at GVSU, though, when faculty and peers in his program didn’t understand his vision and pushed him to change. He also was frustrated that credits he’d completed at Mott weren’t transferring as seamlessly as he’d hoped. Instead of conforming, he ultimately decided to leave school to continue developing his own style, which birthed The ArtSchool Dropout
“I couldn’t come back home, because what was I going to do, go to the shop?” Lovett said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, my grandfather did 60+ years at GM, my aunt did 40+, and I spent time working in factories, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around doing something like that (long-term). So I was like if I’m going to do this (pursue a career as an artist), I’m going to do it now.”
A central character in Lovett’s work is R.A.T., a rat whose initials stand for “Ready And Talented.” The character represents Lovett and his experiences of being overlooked.
Lovett's style includes influences from several contemporary artists mixed with urban and street art culture.
“I wanted to be able to shed light on something that we find disgusting,” he said. “You don't think of a rat as something that you want to take home and be a pet, like you think of this as something that you want to get rid of. That's what I felt like in the art program at Grand Valley. I felt like the skills that I had, the artistic ability or creativity that I had, they didn't like it, and they wanted to turn it into something else, effectively killing my own techniques.”
In the years since, Lovett has developed an authentic, colorful style that has influences from many different artistic genres. He has an urban, street art style and studied artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and King Saladeen among others. The R.A.T. character even draws some inspiration from the story behind Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.
Lovett also tries to mix in cultural and social commentary into his work -- an electrical box he was commissioned to paint downtown Flint near the Durant apartment building includes the message “Invest in the Northside.” The piece draws inspiration from a Malcolm X speech.
Lovett has also completed public art pieces in Grand Rapids and Lansing and exhibited at Art Prize in Grand Rapids. He’s worked in Virginia and Arizona and with Flint Public Art Project locally. He’s also working on expanding the mediums he works in -- he’s begun illustrating children’s books, he’s created designs for t-shirts, and he’s working on adding content to YouTube, among other ventures.
He also even had the chance to work with Grand Valley again, when he was asked to submit work in a call for artists by their Women’s Center. His proposal was selected.
"So I was like if I’m going to do this (pursue a career as an artist), I’m going to do it now.” - Keyon Lovett
“That was a real braggadocious moment for me,” he said.
Lovett’s ability to work in multiple creative areas has helped him earn a living as an artist, but he also points out that the “starving artist” stereotype that suggests most artists are struggling simply to make money is a misconception.
“It’s not starving artists in the typical way you hear that definition like, oh, they're broke and they're trying to sell every painting so they can eat,” Lovett said. “No, I'm starving for opportunity. I'm starving to be able to teach through my work. I'm starving for you to be able to see my work. I'm starving to create opportunities for myself to be me. I'm not really I'm not like anxious for money or nothing like that. I'm starving to be able to show you my creative side.”
For more information about The ArtSchool Dropout, visit his website or follow him on Facebook or Instagram.