Bill Kennedy is much the antithesis of a traditional artist.
Life’s path turned Kennedy, 53, from a career plumber to an artist.
Instead of a wrench, he wields an airbrush tool and paintbrush to create stunning, so-real-you-want-to-touch paintings and portraits.
Kennedy’s art studio is in his den at his home near Donelson, where he works full time on commissioned paintings and other art projects. Many in the Donelson, Old Hickory and Mt. Juliet areas feverishly seek his paintings.
To take in his paintings of dog and cat portraits, horses, people and other animal images, one would never know he’s hasn’t had years of professional training. In fact, when he was 8 years old, his brother and sister casually told him he stunk at drawing. The familial critique punched his young ego and propelled him to not pick up an artist’s tool for years.
He delved into painting about seven years ago. Ironically, it became a reset and second career at midlife.
“I first started art just seven years ago,” Kennedy said while sitting next to his in-progress painting of a cat someone commissioned. “It began with me picking up an airbrush to do a few little random craft projects. Well, finding how difficult that was, I realized I needed to learn. I started reading about how to make my airbrush work in the first place. Then, I happened to see incredible artwork people were doing with that medium. With no high hopes, I just wanted to learn a bit.”
At the time, he worked in his 30th year as a plumber at Lee Co. The little side adventure was a hobby. He stenciled names on hats. It was not so simple at first, he said.
“Shortly I became obsessed and would rush home after work and practice,” said Kennedy, who is a father of five children, husband and grandfather of eight. “I’d practice on my kitchen table, usually from 8 p.m. until midnight. I’d sleep and go back to work the next day. I got the basic techniques down after several months.”
Then, he ruptured a disc in his neck and damaged the nerves that lead to his right arm.
“I found myself unable to not only work, but paint, as well,” he said. “I was in physical therapy a while. I used that downtime to read a lot – a lot about traditional art, the old masters, oil painting, acrylic painting, watercolors. No mediums are off limits to learning and growth, in my opinion. My recovery took months, but then I was able to go back to work, but still with some lingering motor skill issues. I kept reading about and studying other artists and just observing their styles and how I felt I could achieve the same effect.”
He practiced on thousands of pictures and portraits and augmented his airbrush with acrylics.
“I realized I had no idea how to draw yet with any real skill,” Kennedy said. “So off to YouTube I went and followed some good and many bad videos on how to draw [and] picked up some books along the way on perspective and began to crudely refine basic proportional shapes. I still will tell anyone I am barely competent enough at drawing to get the crude rough proportions in. A pencil artist I am not. However, with proportions, I can carve out the details with a brush or usually mostly an airbrush. I also started studying color theory and many technical aspects of art.”
About four years ago, Kennedy woke up and could not walk across the room. His disc and spine issues became worse. He was forced out of his three-decade plumbing career. He stopped painting and dealt with really hard times. He lost critical, good income. He was depressed.
And then the puppies saved him. He got a puppy named Jax, a German boxer-Labrador and Rottweiler mix. He said Jax is the dopiest-looking dog ever.
“And he truly was my saving grace,” said Kennedy. “He gave me a reason to get up and move [when it was very hard to walk more than a few minutes.] And I also got my second dog, Rico, [a mountain cur,] and we took many trips to the local dog park, where I also bonded with many other pets – more so than the parents.”
He met Rico at the dog park. The dog was on the way to the pound, with a one last visit to the dog park. Kennedy said, “He’s mine.”
And then it started. Kennedy first painted a couple of dogs. He needed something to do. A huge dog lover, pets became a natural migration in his painting
He met an amateur photographer at the dog park and asked her if he could paint one of her subjects. She did. He painted a husky in the snow with snowflakes fluttering around. The recipient loved it.
“By this time, money was running out, and I was still unable to work a regular job,” Kennedy said. “So, I started offering my services for the grand sum of $50 – just to get people to give me a chance. I did not have many takers. I realized I would need a larger body of work. So, I found multiple subjects to paint and kept attempting to improve with each one. I was slowly getting a couple of commissions randomly and painting anything I could that would be an income.”
Things changed two years ago when he felt confident enough to offer services to the public. Through a Facebook post, someone reached out to him to paint her brother-in-law’s dog, and he shipped it out of state. It was a hit, and the brother-in-law hired Kennedy to paint seven more immediately after.
People absolutely fall in love with his paintings. Many people want their pet painted for a lasting memory. Kennedy’s artist brand name is W. Leon Kennedy. He’s sold more than 200 paintings in the last two years, and currently five are commissioned. For the pet portraits, he always asks the name of the pet before he starts to paint it.
“I get an emotional attachment to the animal,” he said. “It’s sentimental and at times heartbreaking because people come to me and want that forever portrait of their pet that won’t be around for an eternity. But the portrait will.”
One regular customer came on short notice to ask him to paint her mother’s beloved Chihuahua. She was a loyal customer, and there was no wavering on Kennedy’s part.
“On Dec. 23 last month, I sat down in the morning and started the sketch,” said Kennedy. “Time was of the essence.”
The little pet died a week before Christmas, and the daughter presented the painting to her distraught mother.
“They sent me a video of the mother receiving the painting, and the expression on her face undid me,” said Kennedy. “I didn’t post it for a while because it was just too private. I could tell you many stories of similar such stories about my paintings and what they mean to people.”
Last year was challenging for all, and for Kennedy, it was especially difficult because his granddaughter, Ava, 8, was diagnosed with leukemia at the end of January 2020. She spent 31 days in Vanderbilt during the first hospitalization. Kennedy was ready to move to Kentucky to be near her, but he stayed because Ava comes to Vanderbilt regularly for treatments. COVID-19 put a cramp on Kennedy’s regular visits with her at the hospital.
Between the visits, Kennedy continues to paint pets and all sorts of other subjects. He started a YouTube channel, where he teaches what he’s learned to others.
“Anyone can learn to do art if they are willing to devote the time and learn the skills,” he said. “I’m the prime example of that.”
And, he’s proof second careers are reachable at midlife.
“People put self-imposed limitations on themselves,” he said.
While he has a five-star rating on his Facebook page, his goal this year is to revamp and expand his social media presence. And while people adore his pet portraits, he said, “[dogs and cats] fur is tedious.”
He paints all sizes, all subjects and mostly uses airbrush and acrylic. His pieces start at $150. He has extraordinary feedback from people.
“It’s a blessing to be trusted to paint people’s most treasured things,” he said. “There a mutual attachment.”