Abused as a child, PCC custodian finds escape through art
Ammon Knight lives out the concept of a diamond in the rough on a daily basis.
He's a custodian at Portland Community College's Willow Creek Center, which straddles the border between Hillsboro and Beaverton on Southwest 185th Avenue. He's held a handful of similar jobs over the years, including kitchen work at Oregon Episcopal School and PCC.
Knight looks just as one might expect him to — a little short in stature, a few strands of hair curling out of a grey cap and tumbling across a stained PCC T-shirt.
But tucked away in the back of his Hillsboro home is a window into another dimension, another world where the barrier between the physical universe and Knight's imagination evaporates.
Knight, 49, is a brilliant artist. His studio is packed with acrylic paintings on canvas, stacked in piles around a dirty black card table.
Boxes of paints — Knight refers to paint as "candy" — sit in the corner. A pair of cats peer curiously at Knight and his guests.
One of the paintings to the left of the door features a figure shrouded in gray mist. Swirls of chaotic color surround the figure, but it remains in focus. The painting, "The Path of a Leader," was Knight's entry in a staff art competition held in May by PCC to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Art was displayed at the Gelzer Gallery at the PCC Rock Creek campus.Knight's submission won the top prize, but none of the staff members at Rock Creek had ever heard of him. A quick Google search left PCC Rock Creek Community Relations Manager Janis Nichols stunned, she later said.
"I just about fell over," Nichols wrote in an email.
"His paintings," she added, "are breathtaking."
Knight was one of 17 artists selected to display work at the Chelsea Old Town Hall as part of the London Biennale exhibition in early May. His website is dotted with wild paintings of various sizes and color schemes.
The paintings are such that a viewer can find something different each time they look away and look back — yet no one sees what Knight sees.
Art is where Knight disconnects from his past. He was adopted at the age of five and abused by his adopted father. He said the only reason he never ran away was to protect his mother, who he said would have been killed in his absence.
There was anger and fear.
"I know how it feels to be called stupid and worthless, and to be hit, and to miss school because I was recovering," Knight said. "I know it. I know what it's like to live in this shame. When you're abused, you have this second skin of shame and it doesn't go away.
"Society tries to harden you, but I think the challenge is in softening."
Knight searched for a way to process and express his experiences. He fancied himself a writer, and stopped by a library book sale a decade ago, purchasing "1000 Masterpieces" by Sister Wendy Beckett for $1. He spent so much time with the book, he wore it out and bought a second copy.
But even when he started painting, Knight struggled to find what he was looking for. He initially tried painting bowls and trees using a brush, but it still wasn't right.Two and a half years ago, Knight said he made a conscious decision to be the best painter he could be — and he tried painting with his hands. Now, he straps on a pair of gloves and pours as many as 70 colors into a plastic apple container from Costco. Without the brush holding him back, his triumphs and defeats splash onto each canvas.
He's painting feelings. It's more than painting objects or painting a scene, he's painting emotions.
Each piece has a story. One painting was created when he was feeling peaceful, and is far softer than most of the others. Another was painted in the dark, and resembles the Great Barrier Reef when turned upside down.
While many of the paintings have swirls of blue and white highlights, others are marked by deep twinges of red.
"When I look at the paintings, I see dark sides because I know what I went through," Knight said. "There's no way you can forget about it when you're treated like that. But I thought, 'You know, I just want to know how I feel.' That's the goal whenever I paint. I want to know how I'm feeling."Knight said painting is like going into a trance. There isn't always conscious thought, just a stream of art from his soul to the canvas.
"I can't even tell you what's happening when I'm painting," he said. "I know that eight hours can literally go by and I have no idea. I have no sense of time, or anything.
"I could literally be sitting beside a dumpster, and it wouldn't matter. I just feel what I have to do, then."
One of his entries in the London Biennale was painted out of frustration while sitting at an art exhibit in Idaho. He was upset at the entry cost and the small number of visitors, and set to work painting "Breath of Fresh Air." It was one of several submissions to the London Biennale exposition, painted on-the-spot with onlookers behind him.
Knight sent a few photos of his work to the gallery and heard back not once, but twice.
At work, Knight keeps an eye out for coworkers who seem to be battling a rough day. He'll leave an unsigned note of hope on their desk, sometimes never hearing a reaction until months or years later.
His paintings, and his writings, have a similar aim.
"I was that kid back then and didn't have any examples of beauty of kindness or any of that. It really does make me feel better. Last week, someone who works for PCC came up to me and said, 'I read your words and they made a difference,' because he went through the same thing. That made me feel better."
The art is "what makes the world go away" for Knight. While he needs art to survive, the overarching message is more important.Knight wants people to look at his art and discover their own ability to make beautiful things in spite of the struggles they've been through. It might not be painting — Knight said his painting ability surprised him — but it could be music or carving.
Knight dreams of the chance to use art as therapy across the nation, hoping to help people who went through abuse as he did. He said he'll donate a portion of art sales to domestic abuse shelters, and hopes to someday make art his fulltime gig instead of painting on his lunch break at Willow Creek.
Knight said he plans to submit work to the Betty Bowen Memorial Award Competition, a Seattle-based art show focusing on artists around the Pacific Northwest.
But for the time being, Knight continually retreats to his studio, his heart on display amongst canvases on the walls and stacked in piles around his workspace.
He never knows what the day will bring him. Sometimes it's happiness; sometimes it's anger. But usually, people who see his paintings find beauty regardless of the emotion he paints from.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'Wow, that's really beautiful. Is that what I look like?'" Knight said. "And that's what I'm really happy about, because for the most part, the work is really beautiful. It's stunning."
John William Howard
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