Paint or Phaint: Into the Mind of a Rebel Painter

Sitting down with Kevin Cornejo was a humbling experience. Never have I ever met someone that emulates what you see on the surface through his heart and his character, but also surpasses it with his thoughts and wisdom.

I had never met Kevin before. All I knew about him was that he went to high school with one of my close friends, he was a little “out-there,” and he was a painter.

Prior to my meeting with him, I prepared myself for an interview of kookiness, some out-of-pocket theories with a sprinkling of the outlandish.

There is no doubt that Kevin fit some of the criteria, but much to my surprise, he also contradicted some of those presumptions, both in his appearance and habits.

For one, he certainly looked the part. He sat down in one of the booths at San Pedro Square, clad in faded black cut-off shorts, leather boots and a worn sweatshirt. His face held kind features, broken by a Captain-Morgan-esque moustache that framed the gentle corners of his mouth.

As he sat in the booth, he pulled out a leather notebook from his bag, stuck his nose into it and began to doodle. The action seemed habitual as he waited for me to approach.

That same leather notebook, I later learned, is Kevin’s livelihood, the place where he scribbles out his ideas, sketches the beginnings of his next piece – a not-so-uncommon feat of artists across the board.

Kevin has all the stylings of a seasoned artist. When he showed me his portfolio, every piece had a story, a rhyme to the reason, a method behind the motive.

Throughout the conversation, it was clear to see the pinwheels in his head are always spinning, always coming up with new concepts and ideas and how to make them visual.

“Sometimes, I’ll come to an idea while driving, like about traffic or something,” he said. “Then I’ll go home, jot it down, then ignore it for awhile, then I’ll come back to it.”

With Kevin’s artistic process, time is not so much of an essence. His pieces, though heavy with meaning and thought, are created through impulse.

“The one thing that I feel is current throughout is spontaneity — responding with almost no intention of doing something, but all the intention to do certain things,” he said.

Spontaneous impulses don’t just fuel Kevin’s creative processes, but he believes is forever engrained to his life. One of his pieces, a painting that has elements from different parts of his life incorporated into it, weaves together several stages of his past into one artistic entity.

“A part of this piece includes this boat, where I felt like I was on this voyage looking at my past,” he said. “Everything that happened, all these little phases, making peace with my past, made me realize that this is a product of who I am – it all ties in with spontaneity because none of it was planned, but it happened.”

As the youngest of four siblings, middle-school-age Kevin was surrounded by kids warped into the rebellion stage of their teenage years. Frequent trips to San Francisco honed his interest in graffiti and art, but in due time Kevin was too “deep into mischief,” and had to make a change.

“Getting in trouble because of graffiti and being sanctioned by police really directed me into a new way,” he said. “A new path and that really was being interested in who I used to watch as a kid, which was to watch Bob Ross (on PBS) paint.”

Several of Kevin’s paintings are basic in composition and technique, but the subject matter and angles are where the intrigue lies. Using mainly oil on canvas as his primary medium, Kevin’s paintings fall somewhere between landscapes and abstract, integrating his signature within his paintings.

A figure that he calls ‘contortion’ for the time being, the configuration has a smoke-like density, but billows like when a drop of paint hits water. Despite its descriptive qualities, Kevin says that it’s not a single object.

“It’s a combination of five different things,” he said. “What neural networks look like, grey matter, psoriasis under a microscope, the way that people contort their body and just how things are connected – how can we make things look like something. While this may not look like something for me, it can look like something else to another person — a rock, an elephant, a tree. For me it’s simply a formation. It all starts out very small, it’s very ambiguous.”

With an artistic focus in mind, Kevin’s said that the focus for his craft extends past his own work. Taking classes at Evergreen Community College, Kevin hopes to not hone his own skills and style, but to also generate the same passion and skills for art in others by teaching.

Kevin’s close friend, Cutum Derecho, speaks highly of his comrade, namely for the growth he has firsthand witnessed since they were in high school.

“He’s matured a lot,” Cutum said. “He’s not where he wants to be, but he definitely is on the right path, the right track to where he’s going. He has a lot potential. He has an open mind, so his room for growth is immense.”

Cutum said that he believes Kevin’s optimism and open-mindedness is another intrinsic feat of the painter that will help him get far, though he wasn’t that way at first.

According to Kevin, prior to having to take graphic design classes at Evergreen Community College, he hated the concept, along with digital design.

“I respect graphic design much more now,” he said. I had every intention to not like it. I couldn’t explain why but that was just how I felt, that was part of the ignorant person I was — I had never engaged in computers and art.”

Though not his first medium of choice, that’s part of marketing yourself, Kevin learned. Like most students turning into young professionals, learning how to retain one’s own personal interests and being able to involve those interests with what’s marketed now is just another part of the curriculum.

“You have to move with what’s going on and we got to find that. That’s the hard part, figuring out how this can work with us,” he said. “After taking that class I felt like I need to incorporate what is in that digital, pixilated medium and bring that out into the actual world.”

Cutum said that Kevin’s attitude is the driving force is his potential. Always open to new things, even when it doesn’t have to do with art, Kevin believes that it will in some way contribute to his craft.

“He stepped out of his zone and played basketball with us one time,” he said. “And he said he loved it, and that’s just his attitude. Attitude is everything.”


Kevin at his most recent show in downtown San Jose’s fashion show, “FAME,” held on June 1. Picture courtesy of Cutum Derecho.

With his family and friends at his back, Kevin’s main focus is to continue to grow as a painter and a person. Factor in several aspects of his life, and his work directly emulates his experiences, his thoughts and his feelings. His ideas, whether they are palpable through oil on canvas or pencil sketches in his leather notebook, come from a place that was inspired by the city he grew up in and the things he’s seen throughout his young 21 years of life.

Combine his confidence, his continuing growth and passion for painting and you have a success story in the making. Though he has had several successful shows to date and sold a number of his pieces, Kevin is no rush to reach that point yet. For him, the successful parts arrive through the process.

“I have a lot of faith in that in the near future something will happen, or that my work will get picked up,” he said. “And that’s just part of being someone like myself.”

Kevin’s up-coming show, “Kaleid-O-Scope,” features not only his own latest work, but also the work of his peers.

“Everyone I’m working with for this show has been at some stage in my life and now we are coming together for the same purpose, (which was) to advocate for the arts in our local schools,” he said.

Kevin said that when he and his peers sat down to discuss the title and mission for the show, the constant theme brought up in that discussion was the lack of support and resources from their respective high schools to make art and learn about it.

“Given that most of us went to high school on the east side of San Jose, we all agreed that not much has changed,” he said. “We wanted to bring awareness and also display the work of some students, specifically students who attend the Boys and Girls Club after-school program.”

His peers’ individual crafts range from film to sculpture to illustration, but share the same passion and dedication to the overall umbrella that is art.

Check out “Kaleid-O-Scope” this Saturday, June 22from 5pm-9pm at the FM 92.3 radio station, located at 2905 S. King Road in San Jose.

Until then, check out Kevin’s works on Instagram and Etsy.

Also, check out this short documentary on Kevin, entitled, “El Pintor,” done by Marco A. Custodio.

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2 thoughts on “Paint or Phaint: Into the Mind of a Rebel Painter

  1. Love this quote “Everything that happened, all these little phases, making peace with my past, made me realize that this is a product of who I am – it all ties in with spontaneity because none of it was planned, but it happened.” – real good outlook on Life and how I live too.. Its the spice of Life!