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'Keep going no matter what': Peoria-based artist follows dreams after 10 years in prison

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Jody Holtz
Keleen Bishop

A Peoria-based artist is looking to have a fresh start after serving more than 10 years in prison.

Keleen Bishop grew up on Chicago's south side. As a child, Bishop said he was always interested in being creative and often found himself dancing, making vlogs for YouTube, and doing gymnastics. However, things took a turn after Bishop lost his brother at age 14 when he was killed by gun violence.

“So, that kind of struck a nerve and had me on a different path, like, wow, my brother just got killed. So, I started hanging with different crowds, started experimenting with different drugs like ecstasy, stuff like that,” said Bishop.

Over the next year, Bishop’s mother also passed away from drug use. Bishop said this is when he turned to the streets.

“I ended up doing crimes just to be doing them and getting incarcerated and doing over 10 years in prison,” he said.

During that decade, Bishop did much more than just sit in a prison cell. He taught himself as much as possible and went on to earn his GED, as well as learn about real estate, finance, and self-health. He also worked on painting and drawing in an effort to perfect his craft and return to the creative nature he said has always been a part of him.

All the work seems to have paid off.

“I just knew that being creative and my art was going to take me far… I was proposed an opportunity to get released from prison over two years early because they seem to recognize everything that I was doing while I was incarcerated, like, hey, you're not supposed to be here,” explained Bishop.

After getting released early, Bishop was offered the choice of returning to Chicago, or coming to Peoria. Bishop said picking Peoria was a very easy choice.

Jonathon Romain, Associate/Assistant Director of ART Inc Peoria

“That was one of the best decisions I ever could have made,” he said. “I just figured like, hey, don't nobody know me, like, I can pretty much blend in.”

Once in Peoria, Bishop hit the ground running by enrolling as a graphic design student at Illinois Central College within the first two months of his release. He also found a mentor in Jonathon Romain, a nationally-known visual artist and one of the founders of ART Inc in Peoria.

“I came and got under his wing and I'm at the school and he showed me the ropes. He showed me everything that he knows. So, he became like a real mentor,” said Bishop, who began working with some of the children at Art Inc., teaching them how to make red bottom shoes and hats out of cardstock.

He said Romain's mentorship was definitely in his blueprint.

“Surround yourself with positive people, good mentors, even if it's a mentor that I can't even touch, even if it's artists that are just on social media… you have to have that type of support… somebody who I can call and be like, ‘Hey Mr. Romain, what do you think about this?’ Or reach out to community leaders… business owners or people who own churches or whatever, so you need that circle. It’s very, very, very important,” said Bishop.

Currently, Bishop is working to expand his art. He primarily focuses on painting portraits, though he is currently trying to transition into more digital art through his work in ICC’s graphic design program. He also has his own specialty craft project.

“I also make a lot of different arts and crafts,” Bishop said. “So, out of cardstock I make red bottom shoes. So, I make the stencils. I designed the packaging, and I'm actually going to donate them and give them to kids so they can have fun and paint their own shoe. I also make hats out of cardstock, so I can have them for the kids, too.”

Bishop hopes his story inspires other people to follow their dreams in spite of obstacles and encourages people to help one another.

“You're going to hear a lot of no’s. You're going to have a lot of obstacles in your path in your life,” noted Bishop. “Just be able to just keep going… to get here it was a fight… I've heard no 1,000 times before, but I'm still making it. I just want to tell everybody to keep going no matter what. Just do it.”

For those interested in learning more about Keleen Bishop and his art, head to his Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Bishop recently started posting tutorials on YouTube and has started a blog as well.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director and host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and WCBU's morning news podcast On Deck.