One of My Heroes

We all have (or had) parents. They gave us life and a heck of a lot of other things. My wife Alice the therapist likes to point out that one of their gifts to us is to fail us. Had our parents been able to meet all our needs, not one of us would have been emotionally able to leave the nest. And there are important things that would have stayed unlearned had we never left home.

Artists need a wealth of different talents. The ones usually checked off on everyone's list include an ability to draw, an eye for color, and a fabulous imagination. I'd like to proffer one additional talent- the ability to find heroes. I could have said teachers, but I mean something more than that. Sometimes we encounter the work of another artist that just pulls some hidden internal switch in us. You see their work and you feel a floodlight has been switched on revealing new terrain you just have to explore.

For me, my first mega art-hero was an American landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872).

The Old Pine (images courtesy Art Renewal Center)

I'd never heard of Kensett until I reached Indiana University in the summer of 1970 to pursue my MFA degree in painting. Outside the school's art museum was a bookstall where I purchased a copy of an exhibition catalogue of one of the Museum's recent shows that contained three Kensett images. I was slowly being drawn to landscape imagery in my work anyway, but so far it had more surreal confections than actual landscapes. Kensett seemed different to me and provided a more than welcome shove in that direction. This guy had a double-whammy of a remarkably light atmospheric touch combined with a willingness to break out of old compositional rules.

Foggy Sky above has a delicious marriage of sharp edged clouds blending in with those with edges evaporating into thin air. I love the powerful restraint Kensett shows in using just one highlight in the rocks. So often artists seem to get lost when painting rocks, ending up with a pile of unrelated individual forms. Not this guy.

Eaton's Neck above might just be my favorite Kensett. The sculpting of the silhouette of land piercing the sea is just as good as it gets. While I was at Indiana University, the Museum let me set up my easel next to the very fine small Kensett oil in their Collection and paint a copy. For a young artist who had his painting beginnings imitating early Frank Stella, this was an eye opener in what subtlety and imperceptible gradations of color could do.

Is Kensett for everybody? No. But he opened an important door for me. I'd urge any painter to scour the work of those who've gone down the road before us. In their footsteps you'll find hints of the artist you are going to become on day.


  1. Beautiful essay! There was a fabulous Kensett at the Maier Museum, of Randolph-Macon Womans College, now Randolph College, in Lynchburg, VA, that I used to spend time with.

  2. Thanks so much Frank!. I'm glad you're a Kensett admirer too. I can see a lot of the same love of subtle color and edges in your own painting.


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