- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

GLEN ALLEN, Va. (AP) - Bill Kendrick is still painting, ever reinventing himself as an artist, even as he approaches age 87. He has slowed a little recently, he admits, but that’s to be expected after you fall off a roof.

Always determined to find the best light, Kendrick climbed atop his backyard studio in Glen Allen last fall with the intention of pruning a few tree limbs that were blocking the sun. What he did instead was tumble off the roof, landing first on the hard ground 7 feet below and then in a hospital, where he was treated for broken ribs and internal injuries. He’s well on the mend now.

“That’s where I grabbed the gutter,” said Kendrick, pointing to a significant detour in an otherwise straight edge across the studio roofline before turning his attention to the ground. “There was a metal chair here. I hit the chair. I think that’s how I cracked my ribs. I stayed there for quite awhile before I got up, to make sure I was breathing.”

Even in pain, he called his wife, Debbie, and uttered the words few husbands have the courage to: “I should have listened to you.”

You might say Kendrick got his start in the 1950s at the old Richmond Professional Institute, where he studied art, and at the Village Café on Grace Street, where he was a fixture among the eccentric characters - such as his close friend, author Tom Robbins - that made The Village their personal headquarters.

But Kendrick really got his art start years earlier, growing up in Norfolk and hanging out at the telegraph office where his father worked. He would sketch the faces of people who would come into the office to send or receive telegrams. Though he was only in grade school, the realism of his work offered clear evidence of his talent as a budding portrait artist, and people would pay him for the pictures.

“I was shocked when someone would give me a dollar for scribbling on a piece of paper,” Kendrick said.

He wasn’t sure why he started to draw other than “I was born with a drawing gift” - an ability to make pictures of people that actually looked like them - so he drew. An early pencil portrait he did of his father hangs in his studio.

“He’s the one who got me to RPI,” Kendrick said. “He kept saying there was an arts school in Richmond. I wanted to go to William and Mary, but everybody kept telling me I was an artist.”

He didn’t fully believe them, but he did seem to be pretty good at it. He studied commercial art, but eventually was encouraged to pursue a less-structured type of art that presented more freedom. His introduction to the art world came through time spent at a New York art studio. He visited museums to study the work of accomplished artists to find out, as he put it, “where I fit.”

The answer?

“I found out I didn’t fit anywhere,” he said with a laugh.

He discovered he had an aptitude for all styles of art - from still life to abstract, watercolor and acrylic. And he discovered he could paint anyone or anything - from babies and mules to eggplants and spare New York apartments. He even went through a phase painting cats. His flexibility has allowed him to make a living and to keep things fresh through the decades.

He showed off a scene from The Village that he calls “the first serious picture I ever painted.” He lived in a carriage house nearby and seemed to spend most of his waking hours in the restaurant, finding work - customers would pay him to draw pictures of their girlfriends or their dogs while he sat in a booth or at the bar - and inspiration from the people who became his friends. People like Robbins.

“I’d just come back from Korea and I had a 30-day leave,” said Robbins of the time in 1955 when he was introduced to Kendrick, or “BK,” as he’s always known him. “It changed my life.

“He introduced me to the world of art, which captivated me, and introduced me to the world of bohemia of which I knew very little,” Robbins said in a phone interview from his home in Washington state. “BK and I became rather instant friends. We would walk through the alleys of the Fan District and stop in at Eton’s for a few beers, and he would jabber to me about art and painters and sculptors from the past. It was just a whole new world opening up for me.

“And he was unlike any person I had ever known,” said Robbins, who went on to work as an art critic for The Seattle Times before he turned full time to book-writing. “He had this frequent look of astonishment and delight, particularly at anything that was unconventional. It was almost childlike the way he would react to any sign or mention of unconventional behavior or dress.”

In those formative years, each could see the talent in the other. Robbins called Kendrick “Rembrandt”; Kendrick dubbed Robbins “Hemingway.”

In recent times, Kendrick has followed a more spiritual path with wife Debbie, who is a sought-after speaker in churches around the world. Those experiences have informed his art, as have the wide variety of places they’ve lived: France, Israel and Morocco, among others. For a time in the 1970s, they lived in a Pentecostal church camp in Ashland. They have five children and nine grandchildren.

No matter where or what he paints, the act of painting remains, at heart, the same for Kendrick.

“The happiest feeling in the world,” he said. “It’s like going to heaven. There’s a rhythm. Like playing a piece of music that works. It’s the ultimate joy.”

Author and teacher Phyllis Theroux of Ashland, a friend of the Kendricks who is a fan of Bill’s paintings, called him “an original.”

“He sees things other people don’t see,” she said. “That’s what makes him good.

“He paints in a sacred way . even if it’s just a jug of flowers or an apple, it’s filled with light. He doesn’t paint dark things. He’s preoccupied with light.”

As he proved last fall when he climbed on the roof of his studio.


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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