Ken Pridgeon, 77, spent 10 years in the air force before becoming a billboard painter—known as “Ken the Dauber”—in Baytown. Now he’s on a mission to memorialize every Texas serviceperson lost in Iraq and Afghanistan with a 3’-by-4’ portrait, even as the number continues to grow. So far, Pridgeon has finished 85 portraits, most of which are on display at Baytown’s Portrait of a Warrior Memorial Art Gallery. He says the project picked him.
“A lady called me and said they were having a memorial fun-run for [19-year-old Pfc.] Wesley Riggs. He died in Tikrit in 2005 and he was from Baytown, and she wanted me to paint a portrait of him for that event. I said, ‘Well, when do you need it?’ She said, ‘Saturday.’ It was Thursday.
“I said, ‘Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll go there and sit outside City Hall, and I’ll start the painting and people in the event will see that it’s in progress.’ So I did that, and I thought that would be the end of it.
“The fun-run was in July 2010. I was just 75 then. I was a lot better looking.
“And then at the run, I was tapped on the shoulder by someone, and they said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna have to paint a picture of [24-year-old Staff Sgt.] Jesse Ainsworth.’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re having his funeral today up in Dayton, and it would be good if you’d paint a portrait of him.’
“Now, I was a billboard artist. I didn’t think I was good enough to paint these guys. But I said, ‘Well, get me some photographs and I’ll see if I can.’ And I did.
“Jesse was a dog trainer, so he’s got a dog with him in his painting. Wesley, he was rough and rowdy. He was a Gulf Coast fisherman and a whitewater rafter and a mudder. Anything fast, dirty and dangerous, Wesley wanted to do it. So I depicted that. That started a trend. Everybody wanted all kinds of crazy things in the background. The craziest one I haven’t done, and I don’t think I’ll do it. The family wanted the kid with a balloon and an Indian war pony and a rainbow with ‘God Family Country’ on it. But I can’t paint anything that I would think one of these kids would make fun of the other one for having it on theirs. So I try to put the fog of war on here, because they didn’t get killed at the company picnic.
“I paint the ones that died [in the U.S.] from suicide because they really died in Iraq and Afghanistan, okay? They were killed there. With the IEDs and their friends getting killed next to them and all that. They just came back to the United States, met their moms and dads, and then killed themselves. But they died there.
“When I did Pat Tillman, I didn’t realize they had made a movie about him. So I put him and his brother down here on the bottom, and I asked his mother Mary about it and she said, ‘That’s not him, that’s not his brother either.’ They were a couple of movie actors! So I had to take them off and I put him there running with his hair blowin’ in the breeze.
“See, I have a problem. I’m good at sticking my head into places it shouldn’t be and then dragging the rest. So I said I was going to do 500, that’s when we had 500. Now we got even more.
“They call me a poor man’s Norman Rockwell. I went out with my Social Security [money] every month and I’d buy all the canvasses I could afford. And then I started doing eagles. I just run down the row doing eagles on them, getting them ready. Some of my eagles are terrible. I went down the row thinking, man, I got 500 of these things to do! There’s the yellow, there’s the orange, there’s the gray. I just knocked them out, because I told people I was just going to do as many as I could live to do. I’ve been blessed with good health the last two years. But my goal is to do all of them.”