Delaware artist’s experience on the streets fuels work and life

Delaware artist Knicoma Frederick has lived in Wilmington since he was 16. Sometimes homeless, often hungry, he sold his artwork to be able to eat. That experience fuels his art, which has gained more attention lately being featured in several gallery shows.

Life on the streets

Most people know Knicoma as the guy who would paint in the McDonald’s restaurant on 4th Street in Wilmington. Back in those days, he would sell his work for five or ten dollars, then go into the restaurant to buy a drink and sit and work on his art.

There were those who recognized the quality of Knicoma’s work and would encourage him to hold onto it, but when you are hungry, it’s hard to argue with your stomach.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Knicoma is a consumer of Delaware’s behavioral health system. He is currently a client of Connections Community Support programs, he has also been a client of Horizon House of Delaware. The process of living through that system has been a major influence is his work.

Michael Kalmbach, director of the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington says, “The work definitely is indicative of his experience in the streets of Wilmington, also being somebody who’s been involved in the larger behavioral health system here in Delaware. When you’re looking at a series of his drawings, you’re going to see anything from thoughts around psychiatric medication to thoughts on homelessness.

Outsider art

Kalmbach recognized Knicoma’s talent and the sophistication of his work right away. “I was just completely floored that, here in downtown Wilmington, we had this unrecognized outsider artist that I felt like is on the level of like a Henry Darger or a big figure in outsider art. Without any training, he’s on the streets getting amazing stuff out of material.”

Kalmbach says it was the opportunity to work with Knicoma that convinced him to take on the job of creating the Creative Vision Factory. “When I was deciding whether or not to take the contract to establish and create the Creative Vision Factory, I knew right off the bat that I was going to have the opportunity to work with Knicoma Frederick. Knowing that was really the tipping point for me to take on this contract. I knew that, we had a guy here, who’s just amazingly talented, producing a lot of work and he just needed the right infrastructure around him to really achieve a lot of success from the work.”

Knicoma was recently awarded the Emerging Arts Grant in the Folk Arts category from the Delaware Division of the Arts. Kristen Pleasanton, Deputy Director for the State Division of the Arts says, “Folk art is carrying on a tradition of your culture, of your background. Knicoma’s work was recognized because it’s really powerful. It’s very vibrant work, very colorful. The work when you look at it is just amazing, when you see the details and the story behind it. The quality of what he’s doing is remarkable.”

The artwork that is now on display at the Carvel State Office Building in downtown Wilmington is part of what Knicoma calls his “WPIZ series.” He explains that the series of books are a “command system that enables people to deal with their lives through artwork in such a way where they can solve their issues without having to get in trouble with the law.” The books can be purchased on Knicoma’s Blurb page.

Kalmbach says the WPIZ series is Knicoma’s idealized vision of the future. “You’re seeing [his] imagining of this ideal place, or ideal future where there’s food for the taking, free housing, free medicine, all crime eradicated by 100 percent. You get to see this really utopian future, but that’s really informed from his day-to-day experience on the streets of Wilmington.”

The works have a visceral connection to his life on the street, says Kalmbach. “Just the grittiness of the drawings, the fact that, the edge of this may be tattered or worn, that he’s had these on his person for untold number of months, or even years. You’ll see perhaps water stains from when they were left out in the rain. So each drawing is a document really, of his experience, and too, a physical thing that is also a telling of that life out there.”

Pleasanton says, “Art means so much to him, it’s very powerful in his life. He uses it as his tool of communication. It also shows that no matter what walk of life you come from, no matter who you are in the world, if you have artistic talent, you have a chance to be recognized for that.”

More to come

You can see the exhibit at the Mezzanine Gallery in the Carvel State Building in Wilmington through February 28th. From March 22nd through June 12th you can see his work as part of a larger show at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington called “Trap Stars: A Street Art Exhibition”. Also during the summer, he and other members of the Creative Vision Factory will be featured in a group exhibition at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal