Art Watch: A mosaic of creativity

Clay artist Rhoda Kahler has two major art openings in April, as well as a museum show, all at a time when she was determined to "lay low and just do art."

Her solo show at Church Street Gallery in West Chester, "Tactiles" opens  April  8 from 5 to 9 p.m. and goes through April 30. This is the first sculpture show at Church Street Gallery, and one of the few abstract shows that they present during a year.

At the Blue Streak Gallery in Wilmington, Kahler opens "Abstractions" April 1 through May 3, with artists Robyn Burkhardt and Wes Memeger.  Currently she is also exhibiting at "The Art of Teaching" show at The Delaware Art Museum through April 8, and at Longwood Art Gallery in Kennett Square.  Kahler’s art is very hot right now, and there is no cooling off in sight.

Rhoda kahler at work on Alphabet City

Rhoda Kahler at work on Alphabet City

Kahler grew up in central Pennsylvania with no exposure to art. School field trips were to local farms, not museums. No one had "being an artist" as a career path. From her earliest memory, she created things from whatever she could find around the house or from the local dime store.  She made Barbie clothes out of rags and crochet, and sold them to girls on the school bus. There was always a mixture of the creativity of art grounded in the pragmatism of selling the work she loved to create.

During our interview, Kahler showed me her bag of Barbie gear. I saw a Barbie tennis racket that she constructed out of threads layered in wax drippings, and wrapped in twine - a miniature Eva Hesse, at age 8. She recalls her childhood as "always constantly making things.. crocheting tiny clothing in a rocking chair" which gave her headaches, but she just couldn't stop herself from creating.

From middle school through high school, she made dresses and costumes for her peers, and sold them.   At 16, she met the love of her life, and they married at 24.  At 18, she transferred from York College to West Chester University with an art major, and met her clay and artist mentor, Professor John Baker.  Baker introduced her to the world of clay hand-building, and she was hooked.

Always pragmatic, Kahler took a job after graduating from college in a corporate cubicle for a large retail clothing line where she designed clothes, painted catalogue promotions and was the" Girl Friday" to whatever they needed artistically. Her family was thrilled. She also waited tables, taught art, and stole time away in the basement, creating clay works of art that she would sell at annual "Christmas open studio" sales out of her small apartment.

At her very first art show, at the Chester County Art Association in the late '90s, she entered a small, raw floral watercolor with "funky flowers," and to her great surprise, it won first prize, a major moment for her.  This event provided Kahler with the extra confidence to quit her corporate job and focus on her artwork, though she continued to waitress  to make ends meet .

Her early concentration was tile mosaics, because that is what she had space for in her basement work area. She taught at Chester Springs, Chester County Art Association and at The Delaware Art Museum, constantly creating small works on her own.  During this period, she established a large network of artist friends, students and loyal customers.

Kahler has worked on enormous tile installation murals at many schools and institutions, including West Chester University's Swope Building.

In The Folds by Rhoda Kahler

In The Folds by Rhoda Kahler

For the past four years she has spent most every Monday working on the Bridges Program with the residents at Inglis House, a residential home for people of all ages with spinal cord injuries from MS, cerebral palsy, or accidents. The Bridges program "bridges the gap" between people with disabilities and the art museum. Kahler works with the residents to create a large art piece, such as "In the Folds", which was later shown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 2010, artist Adrian Martinez asked her to join in a singular West Chester University art show entitled "Paint, Paper, Clay, Wax, Wood " with artists Adrian Martinez, Jeff Schaller, and Jamie Paxson. This was one of the finest art shows that I have ever seen in this area.  Artist Adrian Martinez urged her to "be great," to do her best work, and she pushed herself to new heights, creating mesmerizing clay orbs and large sculptural totems, and brilliant "Alphabet City" tile ensembles that were inspired by her visits to European hillside vistas.

In 2015, she embarked on "24/7" a collaborative artistic journey through seven cities with photographer Darcie Goldberg, where she made massive wall tiles pieced from collected fragments of her journey, carrying pounds of fresh clay and  working on site. Her images were bold, black and white, large and full of texture, confidence, and association.  Now, in 2016, she has further pushed her boundaries, leaving behind her alphabet impressions and fully embracing texture and semblance.

With matte finishes made from metals and sawdust fires, her work has evolved into luscious abstract vistas of texture and atmosphere. Every new challenge pushes her work towards a greater exploration of the tactile and the sublime, in three dimensional structures like "Naked Cowboy" or tiled assemblages that remind us of Turner watercolors.

Naked Cowboy by Rhoda Kahler

Naked Cowboy by Rhoda Kahler

With each new piece,  she feels the steady "pressure to be great," mixed with the dizzying excitement of pursuing the new and unexplored. She spends hours making her clay pieces, thoughtfully rearranging, adding elements, rethinking and reworking a piece over many days and nights.

After such disciplined control over form, construction and composition, the piece is thrown to the winds of chance into her 2,232-degree Fahrenheit kiln.  Kahler says, "Every time I open the kiln, I am so excited. I have to see what has happened. Is it beautiful? Did it crack?"

Even as I interview her, she covers her hands, explaining that today she opened the kiln too soon and burned her fingers; she couldn't wait to see what magic lay within.  She explained that while she could still repeat things that she knew, the artistic excitement came from experimenting with new glazes and clay elements, and then surrendering her work to the whims of the high-fire kiln.  "I like a little chaos and a little suspense," she says with a smile.

Go to the Church Street opening of "Tactiles" April 8, or the Blue Streak show opening April 1, to meet artist Rhoda Kahler and see her latest great clay works.  She is disarmingly friendly, open and generous as a person; as an artist, she is fiercely creative and passionate.  Kahler is an artist to watch, and collect, because from where she is now in 2016, who knows where she will be in 2017 or 2018. Rhoda Kahler is one artist whose constant challenges to herself fires up new, bold creations in every passing year. Her life and work are a mosaic of creativity.


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