Visual Arts » 2D

Portraits as Easy as 1, 2, 3

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Like many artists, Kevin West spent his days working in corporate jobs that paid the bills. So his passion for art was relegated to nights following work days, after time with his family, and on weekends.

That's when he'd slip into his makeshift art studio, otherwise known as a garage, and release his creativity, fears, thoughts and desires onto canvas. Using broad, yet skilled and colorful strokes, West created contemporary abstract paintings or commissioned portraits of celebrities -- everyone from singer Jill Scott to athletes Gary Brackett and Reggie Wayne to comedian Mike Epps.

Kevin West, founder of Gifted Custom Art, gives pointers to a painter during a Gifted art party. - COURTESY OF GIFTED CUSTOM ART
  • Courtesy of Gifted Custom art
  • Kevin West, founder of Gifted Custom Art, gives pointers to a painter during a Gifted art party.

West says that painting has always been his thing, even as a kid.

Then one day the paintings just stopped.

West was slapped with a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis after doctors found soft tissue sarcoma in his left leg -- a tumor the size of a football. After 18 weeks of radiation to decrease the tumor's size and then surgery to ultimately remove it, West was on the mend, physically at least.

Mentally was another story.

"During that time I wasn't painting at all," says West, referring to the seven months he spent at home recuperating. "I think the Lord had me in a place where I had the opportunity to think about my life in general and what I wanted to do. It was like I was on an island, and everything around me didn't exist."

What West had always wanted was to make a living as a full-time artist, and to use his artistic skills to give back to youths.

Since May 2014, he's been doing exactly that through Gifted Custom Art.

But instead of spending hours creating works inside his studio, West has been helping hundreds of people -- both young and old, with little to no artistic skills -- create their own masterpieces ... with a twist.

Though the concept is simple, the results are often mind-blowing.

Based somewhat on the old paint-by-numbers kits that most of us played with as children, his Gifted Custom Art is a fully automated, modern paint-by-numbers company that allows people to paint what they want.

Guests at a Gifted Custom Art party at District Tap show off their finished works of art. - COURTESY OF GIFTED CUSTOM ART
  • Courtesy of Gifted Custom art
  • Guests at a Gifted Custom Art party at District Tap show off their finished works of art.

For more than a year, West and his crew of art agents have been hosting Gifted parties every weekend inside homes, offices, event venues and community centers in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Michigan. By the fall of this year, Gifted will be in more than 20 states.

It all began in West's garage studio.

After months of recuperating, West had finally started painting again. He was working on a portrait when his daughter Brooklyn and her cousin knocked on the door wanting to paint their own self-portraits. Busy trying to complete his work, West tried to get them to come back later. The girls persisted.

In a rush, West took pictures of both girls, quickly sketched their images onto individual canvases, numbered sections of the sketches, along with the paint he wanted them to use, and then he left them to their own devices. While he was off delivering a painting to a client, the girls had completed their self-portraits.

When West and his wife, Roshawn, saw the final results, they were in awe.

But it had to be a fluke, right? Maybe his daughter had inherited his artistic skills. And maybe, just maybe, her cousin had also picked up those skills from spending a lot of time at their house.

To determine if he was really onto something, West rounded up as many family and friends as he could and asked them to bring their kids to the Boys & Girls Club on Indy's Southside one Saturday.

Images are made using digital photos that are then re-created into a paint-by-number portraits on a 16-by-20-inch canvas. - COURTESY OF GIFTED CUSTOM ART
  • Courtesy of Gifted Custom art
  • Images are made using digital photos that are then re-created into a paint-by-number portraits on a 16-by-20-inch canvas.

"They sent me their pictures, and I drew them on canvas and numbered them, and had a little workshop. But at that time, I didn't know the power of social media," says West. "All these mamas and daddies took pictures of their kids, put them on Facebook and showed all of their coworkers. By 10 a.m. Monday, my phone was going crazy. I had over 25 inboxes from parents asking how they could get their kids involved in the workshops."

He also received a call from the director of the Boys & Girls Club.

"She said, Kevin, I don't know what you did over the weekend, but I've gotten calls from directors of other Boys & Girls Clubs saying that the phones have been ringing off the hook all over the state asking what this program is."

What West hadn't noticed was that the pictures parents had posted on Facebook all had the Boys & Girls Club logo in the background.

Word of the workshop had spread like wildfire.

That evening, West and his wife created a page on Eventbrite to host their first paid Gifted party, and then just two days later had to cut off registration after 57 kids had been signed up. "I didn't even have 57 tables and chairs," recalls West, laughing.

That was in early May 2014, and the phones kept ringing. The couple soon had parties booked through the end of the year -- averaging between four and five parties each weekend with a minimum of 15-20 kids per party.

Since then, Gifted has morphed into an all-ages paint-by-number company that draws in just as many adults as children.

West focuses on the creative and customer experience side of the company, while business partner and longtime friend Kelly Hipskind serves as Gifted's CEO, focusing on the day-to-day business operations.

An almost-completed Gifted painting shows the detail indicative of the portraits created. - COURTESY OF GIFTED CUSTOM ART
  • Courtesy of Gifted Custom art
  • An almost-completed Gifted painting shows the detail indicative of the portraits created.

West credits Hipskind (a "serial entrepreneur") with giving him the support -- and the initial seed money -- he needed to take Gifted to the next level. The two have been friends since their days playing basketball for Danville Community College.

"Kelly and I have always been really solid friends, but honestly coming from where I come from, me being a young African-American male, I felt like I hit the lottery or something," says West, an Indianapolis native and graduate of Manuel High School. "It was like somebody sees value in what I'm doing and not only do they see value, but very rarely do you have people put money where their mouth is."

Hipskind's only request for West was that he had to share his cancer testimony and recovery with others.

West was able to quit his corporate job in December 2014 to focus full-time on Gifted, which now is a fully automated, scalable, real-time, paint-by-numbers company. He also no longer spends hours converting pictures from clients onto 16-by-20-inch canvases by hand. That also has been automated.

"The most I can tell you is that we take your photo and put it into a software (that we created) and convert it into a paint-by-number," says West about the process.

In addition to the art agents, Gifted employs four artists (ranging in age from 18 to 24), who when not working on Gifted projects have the freedom and the finances to pursue their individual art careers.

In essence, West is making it possible for them to be full-time artists just like Hipskind did for him.

"The four artists that work for me are full-time artists. I knew it's what I wanted to do when I started my company, to provide an opportunity for artists to be artists," says West. "More than giving them an opportunity to make good money, what I wanted to show them is that they're valuable. I wanted to put them in a position where they could succeed, financially and mentally with their art."

In addition to their canvas with the numbered images, each painter at a Gifted party receives paint numbered 1 -5 and a "pallet." - COURTESY OF GIFTED CUSTOM ART
  • Courtesy of Gifted Custom art
  • In addition to their canvas with the numbered images, each painter at a Gifted party receives paint numbered 1 -5 and a "pallet."

In a little more than a year, Gifted has grown to include art parties, e-commerce (for at-home, solo painting), and have begun partnering with sip-and-paint companies, and craft stores. They're also looking into a local Gifted retail location.

For West, however, the underlining success of his company is the joy he sees in the faces of people during Gifted parties as the pictures of their loved ones come to life.

"People get emotional," says West. "We were at a nursing home and one guy was in tears while painting a picture of his son. When I asked if he was OK, he said, 'I haven't seen my son in so long and I just wanted to paint his picture.' ... When I allow you to paint something that you actually love, it touches your heart."

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