Some artists paint to express themselves or as a form of therapy— to get out feelings trapped inside. Others use art as a path to immortality, using their works to carry on their own names. Ken Pridgeon paints to immortalize others — fallen soldiers who not only fought and died for their country, but were also mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons mourned by their families. On Wednesday, May 15, Pridgeon visited the Community Bank of Texas’ Delaware Banking Center in Beaumont, where his exhibition will be on display through May 24 in celebration of Memorial Day.
Pridgeon said he enjoyed drawing as a boy, but that his talent wasn’t discovered until he served in the Air Force as a communications technician.
“They found out that I could draw and make posters,” Pridgeon said. “So, naturally, officers at the Officer’s Club wanted me to make their posters and their logos.”
Although he never experienced combat, Pridgeon, 78, served his country for 10 years during the Vietnam War.
“They wanted to make me a warrant officer and give me a helicopter in Vietnam. I wanted to paint pretty girls on billboards,” he said.
After his time in the service, Pridgeon said he took a job as a billboard artist in Houston for $7 an hour.
Artists had to be extremely careful while painting the billboards, which usually stood around 50 to 60 feet high, Pridgeon said. They had little room to walk and had to brave the elements, yellow jackets and fire ants. Several of his fellow co-workers had even fallen to their deaths, he said. One winter afternoon, Pridgeon said he received a spine-tingling wake-up call while working on a billboard near Interstate 45.
“This was before OSHA got involved and before safety belts,” he said. “I was being very careful as I went around the billboard, keeping very close to it. I startled a pigeon underneath. The pigeon flew up through my jacket, up underneath my chin and out in front of my face. I turned and looked down and there was nothing but a railroad track underneath, but it wouldn’t have mattered if there was a featherbed because I would have been dead anyway. This was the end of my career of as a billboard artist.”
After the pigeon incident, Pridgeon started his own sign business, which survived for more than 30 years. He painted the lettering on barges, another dangerous job, according to Pridgeon.
“You hang off a tugboat and paint on the side of barges,” he said. “If a big wave would have come, it would have probably just squished me right up against the side.”
Pridgeon received a second close call during his barge-painting career as well.
“I finished up lettering a barge in Channelview one afternoon and went home,” he said. “It blew up that night.”
It was during this point in his life that he finally found his true calling, Pridgeon said. People would often approach him and ask him to paint portraits for them, which he explained that most artists would brush away by saying, “I don’t paint portraits; I paint trees and flowers and bushes.”
But not Pridgeon, who began painting portraits of fallen soldiers in 2010. He said he was hooked after the first family hugged his neck after immortalizing their son through his artwork.
He knows all their stories by heart, including the story of Jeremy Burris, a Marine who was home-schooled at Cornerstone Church in Liberty, led praise and worship for the youth groups and played guitar in a gospel band with his mother and father. In 2007, while serving in Iraq, his patrol vehicle was damaged by an IED. Burris survived the initial blast and helped pull wounded Marines to safety. However, after returning to the vehicle a second time to retrieve some equipment, a second explosion killed Burris, Pridgeon said.
Another one of Pridgeon’s paintings tells the story of Hull native Shaun Tousha, a sergeant in the Army. He was a bull rider who favored the adventure of the outdoors and was killed by an IED while serving in Baghdad, Iraq in 2008.
Pridgeon said he doesn’t sell the paintings of these heroes, but instead gives them to the families of the fallen.
“If it’s the right thing and you believe that you should do it, you just go ahead and do it,” he said. “And I knew it needed to be done.”
Pridgeon raises money for expenses through tours he gives at his Portrait of a Warrior Memorial Art Gallery in Baytown.
“People come in and I give them a tour because I know the stories of all the guys,” he said. “The ones that can put in five dollars, and the ones that can’t put it in no dollars. I have veterans groups all over the country that support me a little bit. It all adds up. I’m blessed.”
Pridgeon spends more than 10 hours a day, six days a week painting portraits of fallen soldiers and said his goal is to paint every Texas soldier that has fallen during duty in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
On March 13, the Texas Legislature took note of Pridgeon’s patriotism by adopting H.R. No. 643 in his honor.
“Ken Pridgeon of Baytown has turned his artistic talents to a patriotic purpose, and his efforts have touched the lives of many Texas families.”
Not bad for an artist who began his career painting ducks as a young boy in Perry, Fla.
The Portrait of a Warrior Art Gallery is at 308 West Texas Ave. in Baytown. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (832) 514- 1452 or visit www.portraitofawarrior.org .