The CoffeeShop Chronicles: The painter

Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:


Ken Fox, 75, of St. Paul keeps his passion in his pocket. Literally. He carries a handful of photographs of the portraits he’s painted in his life.

“I was born in the Depression and I’ve been in it ever since,” he says. He’s currently unemployed, though occasionally he’s asked to paint a portrait.

“I’ve always been drawing since I was five years old,” the Air Force veteran said. “I came to St. Paul in 1960 solely to go to art school at the School of Associated Arts. He ended up teaching drawing, painting and sculpturing for 22 years.


“I pick up a portrait or two; right now I’m working on my dad’s dad’s farm in Iowa. It’s all boarded up, but I’m painting it the way it was 12 years ago. The buildings are decaying.”

“I like to paint old dilapidated barns. It’s almost like a sentence. It looks like it’s done to the viewer, but it goes on and on and on. I move things on it all the time.”

Fox says he can’t make a living painting portraits. “People aren’t going to pay $300 or $400 or up to $1,000 for a portrait. That’s why you always hear about the starving artist.”

His last painting was about a year ago.

“People want them done, but I can’t afford to do them for nothing.” He has Social Security and he owns a house in St. Paul that generates some rent money. His unemployment runs out in 13 weeks.

But that will take him to the spring when he has another painting gig. He does maintenance work for Paddleford Boats on the Mississippi River, painting them inside and outside..

“If somebody said to you, ‘I’ll give you a fulltime job and pay you well, but you have to give this up, would you do it?” I asked.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” he said. “I need to be an artist. I’m just about dumb at everything. But if somebody asked me to paint a picture, I can do it.”