When Bill Killen IV left Providence for the bright lights and opportunity of New York City after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1993, he was an example of the “brain drain” of local talent Ocean State leaders lament.
But a decade later, Killen returned to Rhode Island to start an acrylic paint-making company, Killen Studios Inc. His return shows that some who leave do come back and that Providence can attract young entrepreneurs as well as college students.
For three years Killen has produced the private-label, RISD-brand paint on sale at his alma mater’s store on North Main Street. He now is looking to grow the paint business, while expanding into nontoxic nail polish and furniture paint.
“I moved to New York City shortly after graduation simply because that’s where all young artists tend to gravitate to get their first work experience,” Killen said. “My decision to move back had a lot to do with wanting to open Killen Studios. There is no way I could afford the manufacturing space [in New York] to start the business.”
Killen Studios rents 1,500-square-feet of manufacturing space in the rehabilitated Butcher Block Mill on Eagle Street, which is run by the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space and serves as a low-cost home for art-related startups. The company mixes the paints, fills containers and refines the formulas for new products in the old mill in the city’s Valley neighborhood.
While inexpensive and art-friendly, urban industrial space is one benefit of Providence that helped draw Killen back from New York, family was another.
Killen’s father, also named Bill and also a RISD graduate, studied textile chemistry and formed his own company helping the fashion-jewelry industry designing resins and paints.
As an aspiring artist in New York, Killen found out how expensive paint can be and called on his father’s industrial chemistry knowledge to develop a recipe that would allow him to make his own student-grade paint. (Student grade being less expensive than artist grade.)
Early versions of the homemade paint were underwhelming, but Killen kept working on it and steadily the product improved until he thought it was at least as good as the student-grade, acrylic paints sold at art-supply stores.