For every artist, there’s both beauty and struggle in an unfinished canvas. But the missing ingredient isn’t always a simple stroke of the brush. Rather, it’s time away for a reset and shift in focus.

For two decades, Kenneth Pierson’s own life story had a space to fill. A lifelong lover of art who turned his childhood passion into a career, Pierson ’20 has proudly answered the call of one of his favorite Picasso quotes saying that “every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” The former Illinois State men’s basketball player, who played on the Redbirds’ last NCAA tournament qualifying team in 1998, is a decorated artist who creates murals and paintings capturing the essence of people, while also teaching art to middle school students at a charter school.

But as time went on, Pierson began to scrutinize over a project left incomplete. He felt an inner tug while standing at the front of a room full of eager middle schoolers preaching the importance of education while never finishing his own.

Pierson, who left Illinois State in the summer of 1999 with six credits to go before graduation, never came back. At the persuasion of his old teammates—especially current coach and former roommate Dan Muller ’98—Pierson enrolled back in school in 2018.    

“When you start something, you should finish it,” said Pierson, who resides in the Houston area. “I had basically quit on getting my degree. That pulled at me for a while.”

It’s not super uncommon for student athletes to come back and finish a degree after some time away. Former baseball player Neal Cotts ’20, for instance, completed his coursework following a 10-year run as a Major Leaguer.  But because Pierson had not taken a class since Ricky Martin’s hit single “Livin’ La Vida Loca” rocked the top of Billboard charts, some of his credits did not carry over. Therefore, he had an additional 24—bringing the total to 30—to go to complete his degree.

“When I saw how long it had been, I knew this was going to be a process for him,” Senior Associate Athletics Director of Compliance and Student Services Cindy Harris said. “It gets harder and harder the further you get away from it.”

Nevertheless, Harris and Academic Advisor Julie Paska helped Pierson orchestrate a plan to finish those 30 credits. Harris said it was very clear just how dedicated Pierson was.

Pierson treated school like a full-time job, completing coursework remotely from Texas. He blocked off space on his desk and cocooned himself to do the work to the best of his ability.

Man looks to pass basketball
Pierson appeared in 103 career games for the Redbirds from 1995-1999.

He’s the first to admit that he lost focus at the end of his initial college career. “I had been hurt so often, and I was doing things I shouldn’t have done,” he said. Pierson left for Texas in the summer of 1999 unsure if he’d return. After a stint playing semi-pro basketball and being introduced to an art agent who took interest in his work, Pierson carried on without his diploma.

But once he made the commitment to re-enroll, he went all in. The time away allowed Pierson to realize the gift an education provided, especially at Illinois State. He enjoyed learning and proudly made some lifestyle changes along the way.

“They always say life is about second chances,” said Pierson, forever grateful for all who helped him throughout the process. “If I could go back 20 years, I’d be in the front row of everything. But I’m so glad I did get that second chance. It’s been a blessing.”

Pierson, who graduated in December with a University Studies degree, updated the education section on an already stellar resume. He has made a name for himself painting portraits of people and believes capturing the spirit of a person through art can tell a powerful story.

His own spirit propelled him to put the final touches on a project that simply needed time away. The University is forever a significant part of his life story. At a men’s basketball reunion in 2017, he proposed to his now wife, fellow artist Corella Fairchild, at Redbird Arena. He’ll always have his name etched in lore as a March Madness participant. And at last, he’s a proud graduate of the institution.

“It’s crazy because it is the most difficult time I’ve ever had doing anything,” Pierson said. “But it all paid off.”

For Pierson, there was beauty in the struggle.