LOOSE ENDS 2/12: Arts Council of Princeton artists Ken Lewis and Kal ‘El Dream Livingston

Ken Lewis with Kal 'El
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Ken Lewis with Kal 'El

By Pam Hersh

This past year of virtual reality has been filled with bizarre reality.

For example: 1. I am a COVID-shot seeking psycho, who as a kid was so terrified of getting a “shot” that I had a recurring paranoid anti-vax nightmare that Nikita Khrushchev was inoculating Americans with poison from his headquarters in my family’s garage. 2. Instead of going to a Super Bowl party virtually, I had more fun reality-watching people line up in their cars on Spring Street in a blizzard in order to pick up their Buffalo Wings from Chuck’s for their virtual (I hope) Super Bowl party. 3. I have a grandma crush on a tween-aged kid who is not related to me, who may be related to Superman, and whom I have only met virtually.

I will expand on bizarre reality example No. 3, because it is ranks No. 1 in a pandemic year filled with a lot of zeros. Eleven-year-old Kal ‘El Dream Livingston from Trenton is an extremely talented artist, introduced to me through the Arts Council of Princeton. For the superhero ignorant (as I was until I met Kal), Superman’s real name is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The suffix El means “of God” in Hebrew, with Kal-El defined by some as “Voice of God.” Before Krypton’s doom, Kal-El’s (Superman’s) parents put him in a Moses-like basket and sent him down the Nile of intergalactic space until he landed safely on Earth.

Kal ‘El Dream Livingston, however, is a real kid with super artistic powers and with a dream (like his middle name). He is converting his dream into a reality and in the process convincing pandemic-weary grandmas, among others, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.

For nearly 30 years, Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) staff members have convened to review and jury artist applications for ACP’s holiday art market, called Sauce for the Goose. Over the years, this Princeton tradition has grown and evolved and now receives applications from across the state. In 2020, in spite of the pandemic, the Arts Council received nearly 50 applications from individual artists who wanted to participate in the holiday market.

One application featured a collection of colorful drawings and small paintings with the added description “I like drawing different characters from various TV shows, movies and famous people!” ACP’s Artistic Director Maria Evans found this artist’s Instagram account and saw the artist – a young boy posed next to one of the paintings.

Curious and inspired, Maria called Davina Livingston, the mother of the artist, Kal ‘El Livingston. She confirmed that the application was indeed submitted by her son, an aspiring artist who has been drawing since he was 4 years old and who now draws continually on real paper and on virtual IPAD canvases. Lacking real exhibition space during the pandemic, Kal’s exhibition space is now Instagram.

Apparently, Kal’s initial inspiration came from an Arts Council of Princeton event. Kal ‘El and the Livingston family attended a 2019 ACP exhibition called Inside Out, a group show featuring the work of Trenton artist Kenneth Lewis, renowned not only for his talent, but also for his mentoring. He is the Wynton Marsalis of the Trenton arts scene. Before COVID attacked, Ken continually hosted classes in his studio, schools, libraries, local YM/YWCAs, and coffeehouses, such as the Trenton Starbucks, where I first met him – and of course, purchased one of his prints.

Kal was inspired by the beauty and colors of Ken’s work and by Ken’s journey as an artist – rather different from Kal’s. Ken Lewis, who completed his first painting on New Year’s Day 2008, had a successful business career as a property manager and an African American bookstore owner, before he embarked upon his life as an artist at the age of 47 years old. Kal ‘El, an arts protégée as a toddler, was 8 years old when he submitted his work to Trenton’s “Art All Night” festival.

Adam Welch, the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, told me that Kal ‘El’s story “happens to be the physical manifestation of that proverbial spark you often hear about but seldom see firsthand: when curiosity, passion, enthusiasm and ability align and explode.”

Particularly notable is the fact that both mentor Ken Lewis and mentee Kal ‘El Dream Livingston are artists who have managed to not only survive but also thrive during the pandemic, thanks to virtual platforms and a few real exhibitions and paint party events that comply with all COVID safe protocols. For me, the two artists using virtual tools have painted a very real picture of optimism and perseverance – a picture that will sustain me until I can meet them and their art in person.

For more information on Kal ‘El Dream Livingston, visit www.instagram.com/kdl_the_artist/

For more information on Kenneth Lewis, visit www.instagram.com/kjlartist/?hl=en