When her cancer returns, an artist sells her cafe and starts a nonprofit

  • People
  • Tuesday, 31 Oct 2023

Keene used to own The Starving Artist Cafe, and is again battling cancer. — Photos: STEPHEN M. KATZ/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

KIM KEENE knows the difficulties of being a starving artist. She also knows how hard it is to live with cancer.

Keene, who lives on Willoughby Spit, is the founder and former owner of the Starving Artist Cafe on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia. But her priorities changed when she received word in the spring of 2022 that she had stage four metastatic cancer.

She sold the cafe and combined her love of art with her new mission to support people dealing with cancer and created Paint Pink, a nonprofit organisation, in June.

Fighting cancer – again

“I thought I was doing everything possible to not have to deal with cancer again,” Keene said.

She had received her first breast cancer diagnosis in 2017 at the same time her now late father was battling lung cancer. “They wanted to do a lumpectomy at first, but I really didn’t want to have to face this again, so I had a double mastectomy,” she said.

Keene’s scans came back with clean margins and she remained in remission for five years. But in May 2022, she began to experience shortness of breath. Anxious to see a doctor, Keene was told the first opening was September.

She went to a walk-in clinic and after several tests, learned she had five litres of liquid in her lungs. Admitted to the hospital with a chest tube, the fluid was tested and doctors determined that Keene’s cancer had metastasised to her pelvis and clavicle.

“It’s not a super aggressive cancer, so they have put me on a pill form of chemo,” she said. “I will be on that for the rest of my life.”

The mother of two sons, Reed Woods, 18, and Kurt Woods, 16, Keene said nowadays she stays busy being present with her family and with her first love – art.

Immersing herself into creating her large-scale abstract paintings, Keene was recently the first featured artist at the Gallery at Godwin, a new apartment development in Suffolk. Much to her joy, three of her pieces were purchased for permanent display.

Selling her business

A native of Portsmouth, Keene graduated from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy and earned a fine arts degree from Virginia Wesleyan University.

She opened the Starving Artist Cafe in 2015, originally as a working gallery. Within a year and a half, it quickly doubled as a place to enjoy breakfast, lunch and drinks while maintaining its first purpose – to showcase local artists’ creativity.

But, when Keene faced her second cancer battle, including an 11-day hospital stay last year, she began to rethink how to spend her time and energy.

“The restaurant business, for me, was very tough if you weren’t present,” she said. “Keeping the staff and everybody where they needed to be was just too hard to do remotely.”

In Sept 2022, Keene made the difficult decision to sell the cafe, passing on the paint brush, chef’s hat and keys to Jamie and Shanna Windemiller. She knew it was going to be in good hands because the Windemillers weren’t just any customers.

Jamie, a retired Navy senior chief and a regular at the cafe, never thought twice about stepping in to help out when needed – washing dishes, doing maintenance work and even baking muffins. Shanna has a culinary degree with a background in the hospitality industry. She, unknowingly, gave notice of leaving her job at Kingsmill Resort near Williamsburg the same day her husband was asked about buying the cafe. “It kind of all fell into place,” Keene said. “The timing was perfect.”

Jamie didn’t have a second thought. He said he sees it as destiny. After all, he and his new bride had their first date there in Nov 2021.

“It’s been amazing to help her do this,” he said. “The cafe is something that really means a lot to her and to us.”

Keene recently started a nonprofit, Paint Pink, to provide local people with cancer with services not paid for by their insurance.  Keene recently started a nonprofit, Paint Pink, to provide local people with cancer with services not paid for by their insurance.

Starting her nonprofit

Keene had raised money for the American Cancer Society, participating in a walk in October last year with her sons by her side. But, she realised that so many services are just not on the radar for one organisation.

Keene recollected her own troubles when she was sick – needing help with house cleaning, meals, lawn mowing and so much more that is sometimes taken for granted. “I was always getting a call from someone – a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a family member – that was newly diagnosed,” she said. “And I kept thinking that I really want to do something to help people.”

So, in June, Keene started Paint Pink. Its mission is to support those living with cancer with goods and services not covered by insurance, including payment of bills, personal care items, estate planning, yard work, house cleaning and meal delivery so they can focus on their health. Hampton Roads residents with cancer can fill out an application online to share their needs.

Caryn West, a Paint Pink board member, fellow breast cancer survivor and business and estate attorney with Parks Zeigler, said the programme is still in formation, but helping clients create an estate plan is extremely fulfilling.

“A lot of people are overwhelmed by the idea of dying,” West said. “I enjoy giving people that sense of security that in the event that the worst happens, their family is legally prepared to fulfill their wishes.”

For Keene, the work she is doing now comes from her heart. “I’m passionate about art and I’m passionate about helping people go through this,” she said.

“I just love when creative folks use their art to raise money and awareness for worthy causes,” he said. “But, when Kim told me her own battle with breast cancer is the inspiration for her new nonprofit and she intends on spreading love to all individuals and families that contend with cancer, I was all in,” says Eric Worden, a disc jockey who took part in a Paint Pink fundraiser. – The Virginian-Pilot/Tribune News Service

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