Man shares journey from jail and mental illness battle to standout artist

Ken Jackson is an artist, a cartoonist, a muralist, a writer - he's also a schizophrenic and a convicted felon.

"A lot of what I do is based off real life," he said. "I committed a violent crime and I was incarcerated for that."

Born and raised in Detroit - a graduate of Michigan State University - he had interned with Marvel - and in 2017 went to Burbank to follow his dreams - to become a storyboard artist.

It was 2017 - he had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was living in Burbank - on the streets, making art on the backs of pizza boxes for money.

He was off his meds - meeting with his caseworker - when he just lost it.

"I pulled a knife out and I started yelling at her," he said.

Police were called and he went to jail.

"One of the first things I did was find a pencil - I don't know how - I guess they give it to you at intake or something," he said. "But it was a golf pencil and I started drawing on the walls."

Ken was in the mental health section - trying to get his mind right - surrounded by other inmates.

"What do a bunch of guys who are locked up in jail want? So I started drawing nudes for the other inmates," he said.

Which he would trade for paper, juice, food, coffee - the jailhouse hustle became his business.

"People wanted me to draw comic book characters or design tattoos for them, or a rose for their girlfriend back home," Ken said.

He spent 10 months in jail, another year in a psychiatric facility, then a halfway house before coming back to Detroit.

"After being released I was doing comic books again," he said. "So I was looking for funding and I found out about the 'Inmates to Entrepreneurs' thing and I'm like - I'll give it a shot."

Inmates to Entrepreneurs - a program he could attend virtually during the pandemic.

"This is as good a chance as any - it's not like people are knocking down my door to hire a convicted felon," Ken said.

It would prove to be just the guidance he needed to get his life - back on track.

"It just walked me through things - like developing an elevator pitch - or properly managing your money so you have the capital to just get your business off the ground."

Which is what he's been doing - while getting his master's degree in English at Wayne State University, he had a recent gallery show and he is working on comic strips - but his talents don't stop there.

A mural on the side of the Catholic Charities building in Detroit is just one that Ken Jackson has worked on.

"I'm not just a one-trick pony, I do have a blank canvas of a piece that I'm working on," he said.

A blank canvas, and a fresh start. Ken's story is far from over - but he hopes it helps others dealing with mental illness or incarceration to know there are opportunities - and there is hope.

"How do you feel about yourself at the end of the day," he said. "That's all that matters."

And right now - Ken Jackson - is feeling pretty good.

"It was a steep price, but I feel like I came out on top," he said.

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