Keyon Lovett: Fighting Lead with Paint


Our offices at the Healthy Homes Coalition on Buchanan Avenue have a new, edgy look. The beige walls now feature a colorful reminder of our cause courtesy of local artist, Keyon Lovett.

Lovett created a series of paintings for a recent #heretoo event put on by the NIA Centre.

The event was put on to bring awareness to the current lead paint poisoning issues happening with Grand Rapids, which has the highest recorded levels of lead poisoned children in the state, with the highest number in the 49507 ZIP code.

Lovett’s work connects the issues of the ongoing Flint water crisis, and the struggles lead affected families are dealing with in Grand Rapids.

Meet R.A.T., The Art School Dropout

Keyon Lovett didn’t mean to become a social activist. He just wanted to be an artist. After attending Mott Community College in his hometown of Flint, he transferred to GVSU to study classical art. During his time as an art student at GVSU, he began to grow discouraged with the process. His previous credits weren’t transferring; his peer feedback wasn’t helpful.

Lovett didn’t mean to become a dropout either, but he ended up leaving GVSU, and began to cultivate his own style.

“I moved away from traditional artwork and began doing a more urban, street art style. It was cool to break away, to do something more fun.”

The cornerstone of Lovett’s personal style is the character, R.A.T. (Ready and Talented), who he compares to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

“Many artists create a cartoon character that is a piece of them. R.A.T. is me and I am him.”

Lovett describes R.A.T as “a rodent in the classroom, not wanted, not understood. “

He uses R.A.T. as a subject is “to detail his own experience, empower the people, tell people to continue to follow their dreams.”

From Flint to Artprize

By 2014, Flint’s lead water issues began to come to light on a national level. Lovett was now a resident of Grand Rapids, but still felt the impact of the injustice happening at home.

Lovett’s concerns over the crisis in Flint lead him and a few friends to create “Home Sweet Home”, a short documentary and installation art piece of the same name.

For three weeks, Lovett lived in a vacant home for using only bottled water for all his daily needs. ArtPrize attendees could walk through his “home”, and experience the daily life of someone still affected by lead poisoned water.

Reactions to his piece varied.

“Some got it, some were not ready.” says Lovett.

In general, he says people received his piece well, but he did hear a few mutterings of, “Is this art?”, and “This is bit much.”

Despite a few people not understanding, Lovett wanted “to bring the issue to light”, and he ended up making a larger impact locally than expected.

From ArtPrize to Grand Rapids Activist 

Lovett’s awareness of lead poisoning issues in Grand Rapids came when he met a 7-year-old girl at his ArtPrize exhibit. She told him that her school was doing water and lead paint testing. After a little research, he quickly discovered that the lead levels here are, “astronomically higher than Flint.”

Lovett didn’t expect to find himself living in another city with a lead crisis, but it was happening, and he was about to connect with the issue in a real way.

During his ArtPrize exhibit, he was approached to attend the NIA Centre event in January, and to create a series of pieces about lead in Grand Rapids.

His goal in creating this series of work is “to tell the truth.”

Lovett’s visual work cuts to the heart of the issues happening here in Grand Rapids. Along with representing him, R.A.T. stands in for all the people affected by lead poisoning. The connection between the “marginalized and unwanted” R.A.T. rodent character, and the families is poignant and painful, but powerful.

He describes the struggle simply: “This is a group of people trying to live, work, survive, trying to thrive, and their homes are killing them.”

We want to invite the public to come view his pieces on display in our offices during business hours, Monday-Friday 9am-5pm.