Community Impact

Painter finds stability through his work

February 06, 2024

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Painting by KHEM
Painting by KHEM
Painting by KHEM
Painting by KHEM
Painting by KHEM
Painting by KHEM

Featured in the slideshow are a few of KHEM's paintings


KHEM lost track of the time he spent houseless. The nights he couch surfed, slept in random places outside, or in shelters blend into a repetitive cycle. The one constant that kept him busy and gave him hope was art.

KHEM credits positive thinking, perseverance, and his painting for ending that cycle. His paintings opened doors to get him into stable housing, earned him commissioned work and to Legacy, where his art was featured at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel.

KHEM is one of several artists Legacy is highlighting as it celebrates Black History Month and the theme of art as a platform for social justice.

In this Q&A, KHEM talks about his early years as a professional painter, where he draws inspiration and how art empowers him.

How did you get started in your art?

Oh, art has always been part of my life. Some of the earliest memories are drawing geometric shapes and landscapes on yellow legal paper.

What impact has art had on your life?

The impact from paintings is emotional, spiritual and physical. Emotionally and mentally, it helps balance things. Painting provides a place to process, digest and transform energy. Physically, it offers opportunity, access, and the funds to make a living. Spiritually, it’s been a bridge to friendships and beautiful relationships. It’s also given a more in-depth understanding of self and self within this world.

How does it make you feel empowered?

Painting is like a thread or current that flows through you. There’s an understanding that the power flows through you. You don’t have it, it’s shared, and not to be held back. The world will let you know what it does with your art. That’s a beautiful and emboldening understanding.

How have you grown as an artist?

My art has grown in so many different ways. Recently, that meant understood the worth of my art. Didn’t see it fully as a kid, an amateur artist, and even early as a professional artist.

Now there’s a wider understanding of what art does for people, how it is necessary, how it changes an environment, how art engages an individual person, and how that effects people that encounter your art.
Portrait of KHEM

Photo credit to Mike Burgess

How has Legacy supported you as an artist?

Legacy commissioned a temporary window mural at the Randall Children’s Hospital. We connected while I was experiencing houselessness. It began by proposing the idea to the Legacy Health team members at a location near the outdoor shelter. Through emails and phone calls, ultimately, they connected me with representatives at the Children’s Hospital who requested the window mural.

At that time, was painting smiles as part of a project called, Smiles of Planet Earth. Murals that smile and act as a catalyst for people to smile. At the Children’s Hospital, smiles were painted on windows with the kids.

What does that project mean to you?

The Smiles of Planet Earth installation was heartwarming. Sometimes when you make art you have a specific vision. In this case, we didn’t know what was going to happen. The kids were all in! They knew what they were doing and had the motivation to get after it.

It was great to take a step back, add complimentary fuel to their fire, and watch them continue on their own after that. It was also nice to slip into that child mode with them.

How has your form of art helped or had a positive impact on the community?

Painted a lot of outdoor murals and it’s been interesting to watch how murals and beautification projects effect people and a community. There’s an impact when a fresh coat of paint goes on an object. It’s lovely to transform how people interact with that object, how the community interacts with that space, and ultimately how they hold and view that space.

Painting by KHEM titled Dancing with change, witnessing life

Why do you think it’s essential that we have more Black artist represented?

Featuring Black artists provides hope and possibility. In the past, Black art was stolen and disassociated from its creators. Black people were told they were not artists and cut off from the artwork they made as a way to dehumanize. Recently, Black folks were also not allowed to be an artist as an occupation. You could be a tradesperson. That holds up till today to a certain extent. Features like this, show the realities and future opportunities.

Who are some other Black artist that you look up to and why?

Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Gordon Parks, Lisa Nicole Jarrett, and Sam Gilliam are artists whose works and paths are admired.

What are some of your proud moments as an artist?

Being an actual professional artist is currently the proudest moment. Paying the rent, paying the utilities. Knowing on a day-to-day basis that the art is covering everything is a wonderful achievement. Super grateful and lucky to be here.

Painting opened up doors, gave access to move out of houselessness, and is funding this life.
Painting by KHEM

Can you talk a little more about how art helped you find housing?

Sure! Indoor and outdoor houselessness was a part of my life while starting out at as a full-time artist. Landed in Portland hoping to get a residency, and that fell through. Secured shelter at an outdoor village through the art gallery, Gather Make Shelter.

While staying at that outdoor shelter, created an artist residency, paint murals in and outside the shelter, exhibited art at the gallery, and painted a mural at Cooperativa, a food hall in the Pearl. All this provided money for winter clothes and food.

While working with Gather Make Shelter, the team made an introduction to Join PDX, a nonprofit dedicated to getting houseless people permanent housing. Join PDX and All Good NW provided vouchers and rental assistance for low-income housing. Once indoors, painted more murals in Portland and across the country, grew, and stepped into a studio apartment.
Painting by KHEM titled A bright twilight welcomed the night with delight

Do you have any words or encouragement or advice for other Black artists?

Love to reword the question a little bit. Prefer to give information. The information has been working lately is to trust the gut and trust yourself. Trusting yourself, having that self-communication and self- confidence is a key.

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