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Living outside the anthill

He came to MU to study finance, and dropped out with little money of his own. But Grant Blackwell wasn't failing – he was forging a lifestyle that imitated his art.
Friday, February 15, 2008 | 3:29 p.m. CST; updated 11:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Blackwell's work often features depictions of ants, which the artist admires for their social characteristics.

COLUMBIA — Maybe you’ve seen him around town, screaming his poetry in the streets or drawing by the curb. As an artist, the man known as Grant Blackwell wants to catch the public’s eye.

Growing up, Blackwell lived in University City in St. Louis before coming to MU in 2002 to study finance. After arriving, he changed his major to focus on Black studies, English, history and business, all at the same time. Things were going well academically for Blackwell before his decision to drop out of school changed his life.

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“After dropping out, the world opened up,” Blackwell said.

He began writing poetry and working on his art on a more frequent basis.

But soon after dropping out, Blackwell was thrown into homelessness. A family feud resulted in Blackwell camping out on friends’ sofas for days at a time. Now, at 24, he considers his six months of homelessness one of the most meaningful and important times in his life.

“If I had any advice for any artist it would be to be homeless for a month,” he said. “If you’re still painting after that month, then you’re the real deal.”

Blackwell explained that he painted more in those months than any other time in his life. The pieces he created are some of his most treasured possessions because they remind him of those hard times.

After getting back on his feet, Blackwell returned from St. Louis to Columbia because of the atmosphere of the downtown. In warmer weather, the artist spends much of his time sitting outside of Dreamcatcher on Ninth Street. Blackwell said he chose the spot because the high amount of foot traffic meant that more people would be able to see him at work.

“I feed off other people’s energy,” he said.

Because Dreamcatcher had been generous in letting him occupy the entrance way, Blackwell returned the favor by making a charcoal illustration of the store, which is now displayed in the front window. Eventually, several of Blackwell’s pieces went up for sale at Spare Parts Gallery next door to Dreamcatcher.

“I like his freshness and rawness,” said Lisa Bartlett, a part-owner of the gallery. “I admire how hard he works.” (Spare Parts is closing at the end of this month.)

In the fall, Blackwell’s art took a dramatic turn. Straying from the traditional canvas and brush, he started using Sharpie markers to draw on large pieces of plywood he finds lying around town. Blackwell said he began illustrating on the boards because he wanted to show the world that you can make anything, even trash in a dumpster, into art.

“I just want to be considered ‘before my time,’” he said.

Like his Sharpie art, Blackwell’s personal image is also unconventional. For example, he favors a camouflage jacket with a collared shirt and tie, and he has untamed hair and beard.

“Everything I do is about the visual,” Blackwell said. “I want to look like a homeless menace. It’s my image, you can’t look away — people have to notice.”

His art is also all about the visual. Blackwell’s favorite artistic technique is altering well-known cultural symbols. “I take symbols of things that oppress us and I turn them to make them for the people,” he said.

Usually these turns involve incorporating Blackwell’s favorite creatures — ants — into the art.

At a glance, one of his paintings looks simply like the American flag. Upon further inspection, however, the stars aren’t stars at all; they’re ants.

The artist thinks he has good reasons for including ants in his art. “Ants don’t have hate, or greed, or crime,” Blackwell said. “They always work together.”

By incorporating ants into the pictures, Blackwell hopes the public will see his art and maybe start to live a little more like the ants.

“I just want people to see the great in the small,” he said.

Blackwell said he just loves making art and will make anything for anyone. The hardest part is getting in contact with him.

“I’ve got no Web site, no cell phone,” he said. “Just come talk to me on Ninth Street.”


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