When North Carolina track and field thrower Kwabena Opuni-Frimpong Keene’s seventh-grade classmates hung their self-portraits on the wall, he saw nothing drastically different between his painting and those that flanked it.
Everyone else did.
Among the myriad of tans, taupes and browns, was Keene in all of his Crayola green glory.
“I’d used bright green paint for my skin,” Keene said. “I didn’t realize anything was wrong because I couldn’t tell the difference. My mom kind of freaked out and took me to the doctor, and that’s when we found out I’m colorblind.”
Keene’s colorblindness prevents him from seeing variances in shades and differentiating between secondary colors like green and purple.
But Keene, who leads his team in shot-put and discus distances, has stuck with painting despite his handicap — transforming the disability into an excuse to manipulate color and experiment with shading.
“I figure if I can’t see it, there’s no harm in trying to make it work,” he said. “I’m not ever too worried about what the end-product is going to look like, I just try it out. My colorblindness helps me break out of the technical mold and focus more on the abstract.”
He paints green monkeys, orange skies and purple elephants, but to Keene, that’s what makes his art unique.
His confidence and drive makes Keene an inspiration to those around him, like senior and best friend Craig Barclay, who met Keene during his recruiting visit to Chapel Hill.
“I’ve always noticed he doesn’t really say a lot,” Barclay said, “but he’s one of those guys that when he talks — you listen. He doesn’t need anyone to sit on him. He’s always on top of what he needs to do.
“He gets it done and gets it done well. He’s just the man.”
Keene doesn’t see his disability as any reason to stop pursing art. He is an economics and studio art double major, receiving art instruction for the first time in his life.
Yet sometimes, the artist needs a break from the run-of-the-mill canvas. His medium of choice: plain white Vans or basic Nikes — wearable art.
“One day I just started sketching a face of an animal on an old pair of my shoes,” he said. “They were white, so they reminded me of a canvas. It’s fun to do shoes because they only take an hour or two and it’s not something people usually expect to see.”
Keene has since begun a small, custom-painting shoe business, Kwopuni Designs, and has produced about twenty five pairs of custom shoes with designs ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Biggie Smalls, from zombies to Miley Cyrus.
“My mom’s the one that got me painting,” Keene said. “She used to draw for me and my three sisters growing up, so I’d try to emulate her and it just stuck with me.”
Refraining from sports until high school, Keene spent his childhood in Ghana experimenting with paints and attempting to replicate things he saw on Animal Planet — his favorite channel.
Keene’s favorite design to date is his first pair of shoes — a face sketched with a black marker.
“My first memory of painting is when I was six,” Keene said. “I got my first watercolor set and my mom had this huge SUV. When she’d come home from work, I would go sit outside and try to paint it.”
From then on, he was hooked.
Keene’s ability on the athletic field may seem miles away when he’s in his kitchen painting, but he says the two activities go surprisingly well together.
“The discipline I had to learn in athletics translated into me being more disciplined in my art,” he said. “I learned to express myself a lot more.”
Keene’s roommate Adam Curry, a junior football player and high school track captain, said Keene is the best guy he knows.
“He just works to be the best,” Curry said. “In track, in his art — it doesn’t matter. And then he drops this bomb that he can’t see shades and it makes it even more amazing.”
Since Keene is a completely self-taught painter, the focus and patience he has gained from the throwing techniques have helped him immensely in his art, which he mostly paints from his memories of Africa.
One of his favorite canvases is a representation of the four generations of men on his mom’s side of the family.
“My sports background is starting to show in my art,” he said.
“There’s a lot of movement in track and I’m starting to really try and reflect that in my painting.”
Since arriving at UNC, Keene has taken a few classes in sculpting and painting.
This past summer Keene returned to his Ghana, where he was inspired by the local tradition of wood carving. Like his painting, his African heritage has stayed with him on this side of the Atlantic, and he is looking to take wood carving and airbrushing classes at UNC.
“I haven’t really found a limit to what I can do yet,” he said.
“So I’m going to keep pushing and pushing until I hit one.”
Contact the Sports Editor at email@example.com.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.