Fan-Girl Friday – C.K. Wilkerson

This week’s blog is dedicated to Chad Wilkerson.
I met Chad at Suzi’s, the coffee shop inside the hospital where I used to work. I knew the second I saw him he was an interesting guy. I never minded waiting in line when Chad was working because he is so fun to watch interact with the customers. He’s great—remembers everybody’s name, knows the regular’s orders – who’s been out on vacation, who’s been on call, who’s been sick, all of it. And it’s sincere, you know? I was a fan.
One morning I overheard someone telling him they were going to miss him. I panicked and asked if he was leaving.
“No. I’ve got some medical stuff going on.”
If you know me, you know—I had to ask. I found out he was donating one of his kidneys to his mother. I stopped in my tracks – twenty some odd years ago, my brother had a kidney transplant. My mother was the donor.
I said, jokingly, “Oh, thank god. I thought you had another job.”
He said, “I kinda do, I’m an artist.”
I learned that Chad is the artist behind Pixel Eight Art – High Tech Art for Modern Spaces. When the elevator opened to take me to the fifth floor, I was already on his website. I was impressed-he was good. Really good. I knew he had a story to tell.
I was not disappointed.
Chad- So, my name is Chad Wilkerson, but in the art world I go by C.K. Wilkerson. I was born in South Nashville and still live there to this day.
I guess you could say that I grew up around Photography, my father is a hobbyist, and I was just drawn to the beauty of still images. I really didn’t start taking my own photos until 1996. I got a job in the warehouse of a computer store around that time, and one of the managers would let me use the digital cameras they’d unboxed for display on the weekends.
I found out very early on that I didn’t like to photograph “normal” things. I was not the guy taking portraits or sunset pictures, or even nature shots…I was taking pictures of rusted metal and water stained concrete. I had always loved looking at abstract paintings, so I started trying to mimic them with my photos. I managed to get my hands on a computer built from the left-over parts of damaged PC’s that came through the store and installed a copy of Photoshop on it…Photoshop 1. I was amazed at what I could change, at how I could manipulate the images I’d taken. I made my first piece of digital abstract artwork that I was proud of in 2000, and I knew I was onto something. I knew I’d found something I was passionate about, and good at, because up until that point I was only good at pissing off authorities and getting high.
At that time in my life I was doing a lot of searching, I had gotten my prom date pregnant and now had a daughter to think about. I went from job to job, mostly low paying entry level or food service jobs, I even worked in IT for a brief time doing wide area computer networking. But the common thread in my life was the art. I knew that through all the jobs and drugs and bad decisions, art was the one thing I had to hold onto. From 2000-2007 was a dark time in my life. I had caught my first felony for drugs in 1994 and that made it hard to get a decent job, by 2003 I had two more felonies for dealing drugs. In 2006 I had finally hit bottom and could no longer bond out of jail. That was the first time I was locked up long enough to be forced to get clean. I was 32 and had been using since the age of 13. When I got out of jail in 2007 I tried to do something different and went to some 12 step meetings. I got a job in a coffee shop, and for the first time in a long time, felt like I fit in somewhere. I did my first art show there, in 2007. Life got better, I managed to leave the drugs alone and build some friendships. That was the first time I’d kept a job for more than a year. There was just something I liked about making coffee. It was simple and put a smile on peoples faces…I guess in a way it was like selling drugs only legal…But there, I got to tell people to have a good day, to fight the good fight and spread some joy.
Life was good, I worked at the coffee shop and made art. I met a woman and got married, we bought a house together, but addiction doesn’t just go away. Somewhere between the time we met, and when we got married, I’d started using again and hiding it from everyone in my life. Our marriage would only last a year and a half. When she left me I was devastated. I sank into a deep dark hole and didn’t want to live anymore. The Art got darker, I made these sharp, jagged, abrasive images. I was silently screaming for help through my art. She left me in 2011 and by the end of 2013 I was back in jail, this time looking at an attempted murder charge.
I won’t go into the circumstances that led me to stab my roommate. Or the reasons why it’s nothing short of a miracle that he lived through the stabbing. He spent the next two months in a wound management facility, and I spent the next four months in Blackwood Detention facility. He had to learn to talk again, and I had to learn how to live again.
There are very few things I regret in life. I regret not spending more time with my daughter when she was young, I regret the way I treated my parents when I was in active addiction, I do not, however, regret the stabbing. It took some time for me see it for what it was. It was my bottom. My addiction had finally taken everything from me. My wife and daughter, my house, my freedom, and my self-esteem. There in that cell of fifty inmates, on that bottom bunk, I gave up at last. Utterly and completely, I gave up, and it was only after I had lost everything, that I was free to do anything…it started with a prayer, even though I had no idea what it was I was praying to. It was really less of a prayer and more of a statement, I just said “I will do whatever you ask of me.”
The miracles really started to happen after that. I got a public defender that actually cared about my case. My roommate, whom I had been friends with-and used with-for twenty years decided he didn’t want to prosecute me. I plead guilty to a lesser charge and was released on three years probation. I decided it was time to do something different, and I dove into 12 step recovery meetings. I’ve been clean since March 18th of 2014. I’ve only remained that way because I did what the people in the program suggested, I kept coming back, I worked steps, and I prayed.
There were only two things I had ever been good at that made me happy, making art and making coffee, so that’s what I did. I landed the job I have now, making coffee at the Children’s Hospital about six months after I got out of jail, and I still firmly believe the only reason I got that job was because I prayed to get a job where I would be “surrounded by intelligent, beautiful people that wanted to help others”, because that is exactly what I prayed for. That job fell into my lap. I interviewed for it and started the next Monday, and I have been there ever since. I love working there, it reminds me every day of what is truly important.
I am grateful for every tear and heartfelt laugh that comes my way.
Things also started to happen for me in my art career. Around the same time, I started at Vandy, I got a call from a friend who worked at an interior design firm. He told me that they’d gotten a contract to remodel the lobbies of the Midtown St Thomas Hospital and they wanted to pitch some of my artwork.
They loved my work and it was installed later that year. Since then I’ve done three solo art shows in two different galleries in Nashville. A national interior design firm has contracted me to design art for the Barge building on 3rd Ave, and I’ve made many custom sized pieces of my art for private clients including the Rocky McElhany law firm and the CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneurs Center. The two big gallery exhibits I put on were immense successes, selling over half of the pieces on opening night in both shows, and getting me enough commission work to last for months after the shows were over. November and December of 2017 were my best months yet for art sales…oh yeah and I almost forgot, I was able to give my mother one of my kidneys in March of 2016. That story is another miracle unto itself…
My mother has polycystic kidney disorder, she had a third of one of her kidneys removed when she was young, and as she had gotten older her kidney function declined, which is normal. So, it was either Dialysis or find a kidney. Being my mother’s only biological child I got tested. I was a match, but I feared the damage I had done to myself with years of drug use would strike me from the possibility of giving her a kidney, I was also fearful of having to take painkillers as opiates were my drug of choice. I made it through the second round of testing, they gave me clean bill of health, which I thought was crazy.
But at the end of that testing they came back to tell me that 10% of people have kidneys of differing sizes and I fell into that 10%, and they would have to do more testing. I was told this would most likely keep me from donating my kidney, as most people have one normal sized kidney and one that’s slightly smaller. So alone in a room with some strange machines and a Geiger counter, they ran some radioactive stuff though my body. This is where the other miracle comes in…they found I fell into a very small percentage of that 10%. Of that 10% there are 3% of people have one normal sized kidney and one freakishly larger one…. I was in this category. I had one normal kidney and one that was a third bigger than the other, and the bigger one was on the side that I would keep. So, on March 9th of 2016 I donated one normal sized kidney to my Mom and I got to keep the bigger one for myself.
I just don’t see how it could have worked out any better. I was off the painkillers five days after the surgery, and back in a 12-step meeting six days after the surgery. I donated my kidney on March 9th and celebrated 2 years clean on 18th. I will never forget being in the hospital after the surgery, when I could finally stand and walkaround with all those IV’s and tubes hanging out of me – my father hugged me, and we cried. He told me that he was proud of me, and I cried harder.
Mom and I recovered fine, it took her a little longer to get back to normal than it did me. She took it easy and got better, I worked steps and got better. I finished working all 12 steps in September of 2017. I did an art show called “Learning to Feel” that was centered around my experiences with getting and staying clean. I think the artist statement I wrote for that show is one of the most powerful things I have ever written.
I also know that I have a lot more to say…not just with my words and actions, but with my art. As an artist, my job is to observe and report, to convey my thoughts and findings through an object. My pieces of art are like snapshots of emotion, the colors and textures actually come from photos I take. They are open to interpretation. Every viewer gets to see what they want to see, to experience their world from their own point of view. Because it’s only when we see things our own way, that we get a glimpse inside ourselves, and its only after we understand ourselves, that we can hope to understand others.
Today I seek to understand, not to be understood.


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Clean Break

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Self Inflicted


  1. What an amazing man, and thank you so much for sharing his story. His art is beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and emotional….my heart is so happy he found his place in the world, just like you!

    1. Thanks, Sonny. There are so many good people out there with stories to tell. Chad is proof of that, and proof that it’s never too late to be who you are meant to be.

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