Kevin Preston has always loved making and creating art, but after four operations and a stroke, painting became much more important to him.
In the few months since his painting of Mark Ormrod was first mounted on the side of a house in Peverell, the artist behind the painting has remained entirely at the heart of the Plymouth art scene. Although Kevin Preston still covers himself with paint from time to time, his latest project is more about helping others overcome the obstacles that have interrupted his career for so long.
Kevin is now an Ambassador for Outside In, exhibiting artwork across Plymouth, working with the Kintsugi project at Leadworks to nominate artists with disabilities and will design a new Christmas card to be unveiled later this year. But his breakthrough into the art world was hardly conventional.
Growing up in Devonport, Kevin had been painting since he was old enough to pick up a brush. As a child, he had won art competitions at school and one with WHSmith, and had been featured on Blue Peter for his designs.
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“At the time, I didn’t have all the qualifications – to be in the art world you needed a college degree, you needed a master’s degree and everything,” he said. “So I gave up – well, I didn’t give up, I just couldn’t afford it, my mom couldn’t afford it, so I joined the army.”
The 58-year-old served with the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. Kevin first suffered a serious back injury while stationed in Northern Ireland, leading to four spinal operations and a stroke.
“I was very lucky to walk, to be honest, because I had to have emergency surgery. During that time, because I was bedridden, I wanted to get back to my art,” he said. -he adds.
“So what I did, I started doing portraits of soldiers in Afghanistan who had died in the war. And I sent them to families as gifts.
This carried on a tradition from Kevin’s army days, where he painted the soldiers stationed with him in Northern Ireland, to send them home to their families. One of the men working with Kevin even offered him a job thanks to his artistic talent.
“We had an assault pioneer with us, an engineer from the battalion, and he asked me if I wanted a job when I returned to England as a sign writer, which I gladly accepted and trained as a writer of battalion ensigns.”
Shortly after, Kevin completed his last tour and was discharged from the military. It was only after his spinal operations that he took up painting again, instead seeking manual labor jobs – which only aggravated his injury.
“When I realized what was happening and had this operation, it was a game changer. That’s when I went back to the days of Afghanistan and I I started doing these portraits for the families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan – mostly Coldstream Guards, who were in my regiment at the start. Then I was doing prints for their wives and children, and I joined Help for Heroes, who helped me a lot, then Outside In.
Outside In was established in 2006 and is a national charity providing a platform for artists facing significant barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social status or isolation.
“I had a lot of obstacles,” Kevin said: “So I jumped at the chance. I was also under-trusted because I was bedridden and unable to get out of the house – there was was only me and Jo at the time.
Jo is Kevin’s wife and “his rock”, and has helped him through much of Kevin’s difficult recovery process from his surgeries. And while Kevin’s family and Help for Heroes gave him the support he needed despite his injuries, Outside In encouraged Kevin’s artistic pursuits.
“When I joined these companies, things started happening again – people started liking my work and I ended up becoming their ambassador, and we just won an award for voluntary service.”
The equivalent of an MBE, the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service is the highest honor a group of local volunteers can receive. The Outside In Ambassadors are one of 244 charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups to receive the honor as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in early June.
The Plymothian has also had work featured in national news and had three shows with Help for Heroes, for whom he now works as a t-shirt designer. Gaining in confidence, Kevin then joined the most prestigious Armed Forces Art Society.
“I’ve exhibited twice at the Menier Gallery, London – it’s inside an old chocolate factory, right next to the Tate Modern. Two of my paintings were refused – my two best ones and the other one I did, a kind of silhouette, which came in.
“That’s why I work with charities like Outside In, because of all the artists with disabilities who don’t have a chance to get into these big corporations or exhibit in big places. Joining this company made me think how hard it is for artists to get in.
Having experienced obstacles and inaccessibility in the art world himself, Kevin knows firsthand how difficult it can be to reject a job.
“I don’t know what it was, why they wouldn’t accept my paintings, but all it did was make me work harder. Each time it happened, I didn’t give up.
“That’s what I would say to a lot of artists: don’t give up. Keep going and keep going, and the more you do, the better you will get.
To help break down the barriers faced by artists with disabilities, Kevin helped organize Hidden Disabilities Earlier in June, an exhibition ran through The Kintsugi project. Kintsugi is a Japanese idea that something that was once broken is repaired using gold, “making it even more beautiful than it was before”.
The exhibition featured artwork from Plymouthians with various disabilities, including people with autism and bipolar disorder, and, in a first for some artists, were able to showcase and sell some of their work.
“It was a brilliant experience. Even though I have exhibited before, I just wanted to help out and get involved with everyone on the team.
“People were very well recognized for their work and they were so thrilled that they were exhibiting for the first time as well. We had something like over 200 guests there!
This is just the tip of the iceberg for Kevin’s future hopes. Already they have secured exhibition space in London, offering a fantastic chance for some of the “newbies” to submit and potentially exhibit their work in the nation’s capital. He also hopes to bring Kintsugi and Outside In together to pool funds and resources for artists with disabilities, with the goal of giving them as much support as possible.
“I want to teach them what [Outside In] taught me. I was asked to teach there – which I wish I could do. I will be able to talk about how to create an exhibition, pricing the artwork and giving them all the knowledge that I didn’t have before. I mean, I’ve done a few paintings here and there, but the last decade has been going really well for me, as an artist.”
“I get people asking me to do commissions, but I’d rather do charity work and put it back into society.”
There are so many projects going on that Kevin isn’t allowed to talk about yet – as well as enabling and empowering disabled artists in Plymouth, we can certainly expect to see more of Kevin’s work brighten up our town in the future. ‘coming.
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