The Instant Artist

Ken Dorr is driven by his irrepressible compulsion to produce works of art to encourage hope and the love of life in others. Working under the name of Kenario, he has created the most extensive collection of the unique type of art called Sculpted Polaroid Manipulation.

Originally from the US, Ken is now living in Lagos with his husband, Mario Marchiaro, while painting fervently. Inspired by his surroundings and loving relationship, his creative spirit flows abundantly, producing incredible works of art daily. Ken was born with his twin brother, Donny, in Berkeley, California, in 1957 into what his mother described (and used as the title for the book she later wrote) as “A Family up in the Air”. His father flew PBY air-sea rescue aircraft during World War Two and, although he later worked for IBM as a computer expert, he never gave up his love of flying. “I remember going on flying trips with my father from a young age. He owned many different planes. When I was seven, he bought a twin-engine PBY aircraft similar to the ones he had flown in the war. He converted it to a recreational plane that could land on water,” explains Ken. 

Ken’s father was given the summers off in exchange for flying the IBM executives and their families in and out of lake areas for holidays. “As a family, we had the most amazing trips too. Consequently, my childhood was great fun!” 

One day, when Ken was 12, disaster hit. His father had taken off in the PBY with John, Ken’s older brother who was 21, and 22 executives on board. Just after he had cleared the treetops, he slumped forward, having had a massive heart attack. A surgeon on board cared for him while a terrified John took over the controls. He had flown a plane before under the guidance of his father but had never landed one. A passing Boeing 707 was alerted by his May Day call for help and, following it to Port George, John circled until air traffic control found someone who could explain to him how to land it. Unfortunately, their father died on the way to the hospital.

Ken’s family were devastated. His mother, a professional storyteller and television show host, had to keep working to provide for everyone. Brother John became a father figure to his younger siblings, but bad luck continued for the family. A year after his father’s death, Ken’s older brother Denny died and, the following year, his grandmother, whom Ken was very close to, also passed away.

John owned a white-water rafting company. Ken participated in the sport to distract himself from his family’s sadness. He and his brother rafted on many rivers in Idaho. Ken recalls, “Earlier lake and river trips with my father had initiated my enthusiasm for extreme sports. Going white-water rafting with my brother from 14 years onwards fuelled this passion and kept me out of trouble.”

Another distraction for Ken at this time was that he started experimenting with a Nikon camera inherited from Denny. “I experienced a clarifying moment where I wholeheartedly knew that photography was my vocational path,” declares Ken. “I have always been fascinated by how nature displays elements and patterns, including shadows, reflections, ripples and cloud formations. Once I received the camera from Denny, I happily captured these creations and many others on film.”

Entering photography school at age 18, Ken studied colour photography and continued his path to The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. At 23, having qualified, Ken worked as a photographer for a construction company before moving to San Francisco, where he, ever ambitious, acquired his first art show in the Isis Gallery. 

“I needed to fund my art career, so I became a city cab driver for a few years, which ended after a major earthquake in 1989 when many people fled the city. Luckily, I then found work in the rental department of ProCamera and stayed with them for ten years,” he recalls.

When Ken was 39, he met Mario, a professional dancer, and it was instant love. They have since married and are devoted to each other. “We both quit our jobs and moved to Palm Springs. I opened an art gallery there, and in 1997, Mario and I formed a synergy of creative energy. Our team name became Kenario.”

Ken with husband Mario

Ken and Mario’s artistic partnership combines many photographic elements, image sculpting and painting. “We love to travel the world in search of dancing light and ever-changing natural patterns,” Ken declares. “With our unceasing experimentation with photographs and paint, we developed an inimitable process called “Sculpted Polaroid Manipulation”.

The Polaroid SX70 was the first reflex single-lens instant camera. It contained a mirror and a prism and was known as a one-step camera. Before this, photographers had to take additional steps towards the development process. All you had to do with the SX70 was wait. Kenario used this waiting to time enhance the photographs. “Before the emulsion on the developing pictures dried, we submerged them in hot water. Using various tools, including dental instruments and calligraphy tips, we pushed the imagery around. We created sculpted pictures, some of which we later painted using oils or inks, producing individual impressionistic pieces. Sometimes people are not sure if they are photographs or paintings.”

Ken and Mario travelled extensively for ten years, working with their sculpted photography method. They built up the world’s most exclusive collection of this type of art, covering many topics: landscapes, architecture, florals, nudes and still life. “It was a captivating business venture, and we still own virtually all of them.”

In 2010, Polaroid stopped making the films for the SX70 and, as the batteries in them only last for six months, the ability to produce this type of sculpted photography stopped. It has become a lost art.

Ken recounts, “During this time in Palm Springs, I suffered a health complication that prompted Mario and I, in harmony with our spiritual path, to embark on a vegan lifestyle. I cured myself by going on an intensive plant-based retreat and, in 2011, I became a raw vegan chef. We have been vegans for 16 years and feel much healthier.”

In 2014, Ken accepted a position as The Executive Raw Vegan chef for the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego. “This experience was one of the most healing and educational in my life’s journey,” Ken states.

Over the 11 years Ken and Mario spent in San Diego, they gradually began to get fed up with life in the US. It started feeling too frantic for them, the politics got messier, and crime increased. “For a complete life change and without much research, in 2022, we moved to Lagos, Portugal.”

Ken is busy most days. If he is not painting, he produces excellent vegan food for Mario and their friends. “In Portugal, I have no pressure to work and, with Mario as my muse, I can paint freely,” he says. “Having an unquenchable curiosity leads me to artistic exploration and discovery. I am influenced by rocks, the sea and the people around me, and recently I have been trying out wood, palm leaves and cork as surfaces. While Mario works on the shows he will perform, I use my vibrant imagination to experiment with colours, paint types and surfaces.”

Ken will exhibit some of his work at the upcoming Portimão Art Exhibition this September. Mario remarks, “Ken looks at the world through the eyes of an artist. If you sit still for too long, he will paint you!”


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