Art Watch: Storytelling and the artistic spirit

West Chester University's  John H. Baker Gallery will be celebrating a lifetime of encouraging the artistic spirit with the exhibition "Art Spirit and Beyond."  The exhibition will include works by artist Karl Kuerner and 50 other of his more than 500 students from over the past 30 years.

Portrait of artist Karl Kuerner by Lin Tan

Portrait of artist Karl Kuerner by Lin Tan

"My goal is not to teach, but to let them paint."  Kuerner says that when he looks at a painting, he looks for the reason they painted it, not how they painted it, because it is all about "the passion." That spirit of encouragement creates an exhilarating classroom experience that carries outside the classroom, lifts an artist's daily life, and spills over to light the fire for others with an artistic spirit. "Enthusiasm in contagious!"  Regarding the daily work of an artist, Karl said, "You are the chiropractor of a painting.. you adjust and adjust and adjust until it feel just right… maybe it never feels finished and that is okay too."

Kuerner's history in the Brandywine Valley is well known. His family estate, "The Kuerner Farm" was neighbor to NC Wyeth's property, and he, his father, and grandfather all maintained close relationships with the Wyeth family.

The farm itself is featured in over 300 paintings by Andrew Wyeth, as well as many others.  There is a strong tradition in American art, and in the Brandywine particularly, of artists mentoring and teaching others, of moving the creative passion forward to the next generation. Karl Kuerner was mentored, and encouraged by Carolyn Wyeth, daughter of NC Wyeth, to pursue his art.

I sat down with Karl Kuerner recently to discuss his upcoming exhibition at WCU. He said that the hardest part about pulling together this exhibition was choosing the artists. He feels a strong bond and friendship with most of his hundreds of students, and hated to leave anyone out.  The 50 chosen artists have stories to tell, and share a common passion for creating.

He remarked, "We are all students. You will see 50 different teachers here because everyone learns from everyone else. We are always learning!"  There is no commonality among his students except the desire to pursue their artist passion. Students come from all over the world, from every imaginable occupation, and every level of artistic expertise from novice to PAFA graduate.  The show is called "The Art  Spirit and Beyond" in homage to the famous Robert Henri book "Art Spirit" which Karl Kuerner often quotes from.

Karl Kuerner's class instruction is the polar opposite of atelier classes which have defined methodology and concrete aesthetic goals. Karl's classes light and stoke a fire, whereas other classes are more concerned with stacking the logs and kindling. In Karl's classes there is no right or wrong, and he is quoted as saying "You can't mess up!  Ask questions... Don't be intimidated! Give yourself a chance!" He says that artists go through a journey, "and who knows where it will take them!"

I asked him about selling art and becoming a famous artist, and he looked at me incredulously. "If you are painting just to sell - then good luck...Why would you want to sell something that you have put so much of yourself into?" Many artists, including many of the students in the art show, want to show and sell their work, so is he saying that this is not something to strive for? Karl answered "If you really follow your passion, doors will open for you in the most unorthodox ways." In other words, it is the passion for creating, or expressing your story that is the goal, and if you are true to that passion, the rest falls into place.

The centerpiece of "Art Spirit and Beyond", is a painting by Karl Kuerner entitled "Storyteller" which shows sweeping velvet curtains open to a broad smoke-filled stage with six masked actors to either side of the central, masked figure. This central figure has his arms stretched wide, welcoming you in. Karl explains the work simply, "It is Art, Artist.. we are all storytellers. Each has a different mask, with their own story to tell." When you paint, he continues "you are on stage and you are a different person every time you paint, like the figures in this painting."

One of his students, Stephen Marvin, explains "Karl's classes let you explore, discover and enrich your own art identity.  Trouble is, once you found it you want to continue to evolve."

If Trees could talk - RTPAnother featured student, artist Sue Ciccone, is exhibiting "If Trees Could Talk". Sue writes " Although I consider myself to be self taught artist, I  feel that  Karl's instruction, encouragement and knowledge was invaluable to me. One of the most profound things I learned from him was the importance of every artist painting their own life's story."

Her story behind this painting is that while she was driving one day "Suddenly I see this abandoned historical farm and this AMAZING massive, ancient oak tree with the sun shining on it like an ethereal object! I was so overcome I had to pull over.  All that I could think about was - judging by the size of this tree and the proximity to the farm, which was now  falling in disrepair, this tree had to have lived through so much history!   Suddenly the title, "If Trees Could Talk" came to mind "and the story began to unfold from there. After she posted her painting on Facebook, she found that it had been the cherished spot for a wedding day back in the 80's, and is "The Great Oak" believed to predate the founding of Pennsylvania.  All of a sudden her vision, her painting, the tree itself were all connected to art, history and so many people.  Each of the 50 paintings from the art students have such great stories to tell!

When you go to the exhibit, try to get in the mindset of Karl. Kuerner and Robert Henri and see the works as journeys of self-expression. Imagine what story the artists are trying to tell, and try not to get too hung up on the style or level the of expertise which is often clearly evidenced as well. This exhibition is a story about a lifetime of encouraging creative passion, in a gallery space dedicated to another brilliant art teacher who has also dedicated his life to encouraging the art spirit. Go from painting to painting, and you will feel the resounding applause throughout the gallery.

The exhibit opens January 23  in the West Chester University's  John H. Baker Gallery and runs through February 24 2017.

Both John Baker and Karl Kuerner will be my radio guest on Living History-Art Watch, Wednesday February 1st from 1-1:30 pm at WCHE AM 1520.  Living History-Art Watch is scheduled for the first Wednesday of every month from 1 to 1:30 p.m. with Lele Galer.


About Lele Galer

Lele Galer is an artist who has chaired numerous art shows, taught art history and studio art, public art and has chaired, written and taught the Art in Action Art Appreciation series for the UCFD schools for the past 12 years. She worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and wrote for the Associated Press in Rome. She has been dedicated to Art History and art education for most of her adult life. Lele and her husband Brad own Galer Estate Winery in Kennett Square.



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