Engaging People: Grant Blackwell

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Grant Blackwell works on a drawing while sitting on Ninth Street. Homeless just two years ago, he credits his rigorous work ethic with getting him off the streets. He feels fortunate to make a living through his passion for art.

COLUMBIA — Day in and day out, Grant Blackwell sits on Ninth Street and draws. He is often outside for 10 hours or more a day, working on his various projects. 

He sums up his current project by saying, “I am Ninth Street.” He is drawing the storefronts of locally owned and colorful stores on Ninth Street, as a way of respecting the street that his given him much inspiration and support.  

To see Blackwell's work

Grant Blackwell will display his current project in the windows of a vacant storefront at 20 S. Ninth St. in early September.

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The streets were once his home. Originally from St. Louis, he came to Columbia in 2002 to pursue a business degree and later an English degree, but he became frustrated with the programs.  In 2005, “everything just hit.”  His roommates left him footing their bills, his mother developed cancer and his brother was jailed. Out of money, he returned to St. Louis and lived on the streets.

He used art as a catharsis while homeless, knowing that “if it’s your catharsis, you’ll never stop doing it.” In 2007, he returned to Columbia after getting caught in a shooting between rival gangs, reasoning that he would not get shot at and the cost of living would be lower here. He worked construction jobs, saving enough money to eventually move into an apartment.

Blackwell lives frugally, avoiding what he calls "money traps," such as bars and clubs. 

“It’s about what you don’t spend,” he said. 

He sells his art constantly but also accepts donations from store owners, such as day-old bagels. He often trades his work for what he needs. He once traded a landlord two months of rent in exchange for a project.

Born Graham Bailey, he adopted the artistic name Grant Blackwell. He considers it a representation of his attempts to stay positive and a deep well of inspiration based on his experiences.

He draws inspiration from the style and philosophies of Salvador Dali, embodying his teachings in a tattoo on his hand that reminds him to be artistic. Blackwell is also inspired by ants, seeing them as perfect social creatures. He often uses them to represent crowds.

"I live my life very socially like an ant," he said.

By getting off the streets in just two years, he considers himself an example of what is possible through hard work and discipline. Blackwell's work is always an interaction between him and other people, his community and even the paper he draws on. He knows the importance of reaching out and, conversely, of helping, and scoffs at misanthropic artists.

“You can’t dislike people and be an artist,” he said. 

By reaching out to others, he hopes to avoid his fear of “dying unremembered,” realizing how many people have died before him and how he never knew them. He hopes to do a similar project in The Loop in St. Louis, but for now, “Ninth Street takes care of me because I take care of Ninth Street,” he said.


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