Innovation and Impact with James Kemp, Legacy Building for Creatives
He likes to joke that when they were dating, he told his future wife that he helped his dad paint some portraits. But, she didn’t believe him at first. Instead, she assumed he was trying to impress her. However, now there’s an art gallery named for him at the Dallas Convention Centerand she’s still his biggest fan.  Like his dad, James Kemp pioneered innovation and impact.

Yep, we have the answer to the Galilee Mural mystery! So, which artist painted this beautiful mural I admire every Sunday? Tommy Kemp, a prolific mural painter, successful small business owner, film maker, minister, and father to artist James Kemp.

Innovation and Community Impact

James, an artist and civic leader in his own right, recently joined me on Fireside Talk Radio along with my co-host, artist Anna Krafve Pierce to talk about innovation and impact. You can imagine the questions and ideas flying between those two creative souls! What a conversation! Whether you are a young parent or a community leader or both, please listen in for the insight James gained through his innovative work, which impacted Dallas’s schools and county jails!

Artists: Like Father, Like Son

When I contacted him, James wasn’t sure if he helped his dad on the Galilee Mural. But, I suspect he did. Even before we connected with James, we believed there were multiple artists involved because of the unique style differences in our Galilee Mural. To find Galilee Baptist Church, click here.

“My father had a dislike for doing portraits,” James Kemp explained. “Oftentimes, I would be the one doing the portraits of Christ on some of the works.”

I couldn’t wait to ask James about his father’s faith, since at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Tommy expressed his faith in innovation and impact, painting murals in African American churches all over east Texas and reaching out in other ways. Father and son worked side by side on a number of his projects.

James recalled how his dad was an “inter-disciplinarian,” that is, he excelled at several interests. For example, his preaching innovations highlighted Tommy’s multi-talented approach to all of life.

Silent Movies, Vocal Faith

“In the early fifties, my father had purchased a movie. The movie was about the life of Christ,” said James, “He would take this movie to various churches in east Texas and show it. Back then, these were silent movies. He would plan his sermons around these movies.” 

Eventually, Tommy decided he needed to expand his inventory of visual aids, so he built a movie camera from scratch. And it worked! Soon, innovation and impact combined as he filmed movies to enact Bible truths, recruiting fellow African American church members as actors.

The Mechanics of Tommy’s Movie Camera

“All of these things he was doing as I grew up. And he built one of the largest stores in east Texas,” says James. Tommy built one of the largest African American owned grocery stores in east Texas.

Innovation and Impact

We often think changing a community takes a lot of funding, as we search and pray for big time philanthropists to help us. 

However, for the cost of a few chess boards, James started the Young Artist Institute. They offered a chess program to schools that affected over 10,000 students in the Dallas Independent School District, including landing college scholarships for some of the kids. Thus, James followed in his father’s footsteps as he created a generational legacy through innovation, serving and impacting others.

Innovation Starts in the Home

“As a young mom, I’m really encouraged that chess was just something to do while your student’s paintings were drying,” laughs Anna, “With small children, there are all these moments when plans have fallen through and I’m creatively filling the moment.” There’s comfort  to think you might discover your child’s passion in one of those unscripted, spontaneous moments, adds Anna.

“The beauty about chess is winning is important but playing the game is even more important,” explains James, “there is a winning process in losing. I tell my kids all time, the one that loses learns more than the one who wins.”

History-Making Moments

James started an art therapy program in the Dallas County jail. Oh, the stories James can tell! For instance, the judge who invited him to teach the inmates about art was the same federal judge, Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes, who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in1963.

“She was very adamant about inmates becoming more educated, rather than just housed in a facility,” James says. “As a result, the program we offered through the city at that time was extremely welcomed.”

As busy as he was with teaching at the college level, James knew the judge’s invitation was one he had to accept. He describes the change in countenance for inmates who participated in his art therapy program.

“Once they were introduced to painting, it became very obvious to me that all that heavy load they walked into the room with seemingly disappeared. Painting is very therapeutic and so is chess,” James says.

“Your brain and your heart are so engaged when you’re painting that you don’t have time to have a bad attitude,” Anna says. “When you disengage, you look up and you’re lighter because you had to let go of all that stuff to engage with the artwork. Plus, you have something to show for your efforts, a physical object, that didn’t exist before.”

“Exactly!” James agrees, laughing, “I don’t think I’ve ever completed a painting. I just stop. I guess it’s a part of that hunger to perfect your creation.”

James’s Current Impact

We asked James which painting is his favorite: “Five Sides of Texas,” he answered, adding, “It’s five of Texas’s largest cities all in one sky-line. I did several works for Sanger Harris, a major department store, which afforded me a greater audience.” Still a prolific creator and civic leader, in the last couple of years, he’s exhibited his work at the George W. Bush library twice. Currently, his impact is measured in private devotion as he and his wife care for a beloved person who has Alzheimers.

East Texas Roots

James grew up in east Texas, attending Emmet Scott High School, then served in the military in the early 60s. After his honorable discharge, he went to Texas College, followed by Southern Methodist University. He taught at several colleges in the early years of his career, sometimes simultaneously.

James promised to visit Galilee Baptist Church soon and reacquaint himself with his dad’s mural. I can hardly wait! My next personal project is to find someone to tell me more about the Greater Hopewell Mural. If you know anyone there, please pass along this blog and have them contact me. Also, if you think your church might have a Kemp mural, please contact me. We hope to find a bunch of Tommy’s murals still gracing churches across east Texas!

May I pray for you?

Dear Father in heaven, we are so grateful for those who have gone ahead of us to create peace where there is strife. Thank You for the talent You gave Tommy Kemp and for the way his art work still honors You. His faith passed down through his family to his son and beyond to bless us and we are grateful. You often use one man to impact a whole region. Thank You for showing us the impact a good man can have on his family, his children, his community, future generations, and even people he never met. Give us courage and strength to honor You, even when the times we live in make it hard. In Jesus’s name. Amen.

We love to hear from you!

How has art impacted your life? When have you had an “accidental” success? What community projects are working for the good of everyone in your hometown?

We have Winners!

Winners were contacted via email this week and will be receiving one Dana Goodrum‘s book, Open With Your Broken!!! (Special shout out to Dana: Thank you, thank you on behalf of my friends for your generous gift!!) If you missed the contest, it’s not too late to get in on the action because we’ve created free printable templates! 

Yep, just in time for Easter! These darling templets are perfect for a Sunday school craft or entertaining kids over spring break. Heck, adults will love this coloring fun! (I tested them on a group of my granny friends and we had so much fun coloring, cutting, pasting and sharing chocolate!) Each one has inspiring messages and can be cut out to wrap up a candy bar. They are the perfect little treat to let friends know they are loved. Sign up and get your free templets here!

Or, find lots more easy ideas about spending time with creative kids from Anna Krafve Pierce, here.

More Stories and Wisdom to Bless Our Hearts

If you, too, are committed to building healthy communities, we want to encourage you! Joyfully, we’ve interviewed experts. Don’t miss their stories and wisdom, shared just for you on Fireside Talk Radio: Sarah Cummings, Neita Fran Ward, Benjamin A. Simpson, Ben Sciacca, Doug McSwane, Marcie McSwane, and Tony Johnson.

Return to the Fireside Talk Radio Podcast Page
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