A City Torn Apart
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About the time Lewis started public school his family’s financial situation improved from one of desperation to tolerable, and his mother bought him art supplies and books. His teachers were amazed at his ability, both academic and artistic, and with success at school came an improved outlook at home. His mother praised his success, but his father, who had been abusive, continued to ridicule him, making him the butt of cruel jokes, causing Lewis to further isolate himself from the company of classmates. But after two years of spectacular academic success, Lewis’ father began to express remorse about his mistreatment, compensating by indulging him materially. A short-wave radio, one of Lewis’ most precious possessions, allowed him to listen to world events, and he enjoyed recalling that he listened to King Edward’s abdication speech and the coronation of King George.
His early interest in art was sparked by a traveling art show that came to Hollidays Cove, and most of his artistic knowledge was acquired by reading and studying works of master contemporary abstract artists. Over his father’s objections he began painting professionally at the age of fifteen when he was included in an exhibition at the Rockefeller Center in New York City sponsored by Timex. Although he did not attend formal art school, Lewis took advanced workshops and seminars, studying privately with master painters Samuel Rosenberg at Carnegie-Mellon, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, at the Art Students League in New York City. He also took classes at the Isaac Seder Educational Institution in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In an effort to help other young artists in his state, Kesling founded the Arts Workshops Corporation in West Virginia, and served as its director from 1962 through 1972. He also served on the Advisory Board of West Virginia University from 1960 through 1966. But Lewis believed that art schools teach rules, and that a real artist systematically learns how to break them. “An artist cannot always stick to rules because each creation has a life of its own,” he said. “Artists must follow their own creative instincts and do what feels right for the piece of art.”
Kesling’s artistic efforts soon expanded beyond painting— to architectural design, set design, and murals. He was a polymath, accomplished at writing prose and poetry, and a keyboard artist, playing public piano concerts at the age of nineteen. Later Mohammed Ali engaged him to design one of his homes. He wrote 10 collections of poetry containing 200-300 poems, and two unpublished novels. His murals are found in many churches and corporate lobbies, including Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company in New York City, Sun Oil Company in Philadelphia, and the Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
Kesling’s initial painting efforts were representational in style, and he became known for impressionistic landscapes of the tri-state area, but he quickly progressed to abstraction—at first surrealism, and then abstract expressionism, his enduring oeuvre. Disproving the oft-held belief that a representational artist cannot paint abstractly, he demonstrated that the basic principles of composition and color hold true across both styles. “The invention and widespread use of the camera removed the need for artists to paint only what they see,” he said. “Abstract painting represents an artist’s feelings about what he sees. Painting an exact copy of what we see is a slavish task.”
Above all, Kesling wanted to paint with spontaneity and emotion. He was particularly influenced by abstract expressionists Franz Kline, Sam Francis, and Helen Frankenthaler. The influence of Sam Francis can be seen in Kesling’s use of color, composition, and looseness. His signature style evolved from the combined influence of architecture and growing up in a Greek neighborhood. He loved the strong architectonic forms found in the Greek alphabet. Finding it more visually compelling than western letters, he forever after incorporated Greek calligraphy in most of his work. “If a viewer recognizes letters he will concentrate on the meaning rather than the form—the gestalt—of the lettering. Most of his later works encompass balance, color relationships, and color perspective, with no representational composition in mind.
Kesling worked in a variety of media, including acrylic, water color, collage, plasters, and a unique acrylic plaster he developed himself. For works on canvas, he preferred to work quickly, with acrylics, shying away from oils which required longer drying times between sittings. His works on paper include 1200 water color and ink drawings, including unique and colorful monoprints, five of which may be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Kesling was particularly fond of two series of works on canvas, “Mikroskosmos” (“Small Worlds”), and “Urban Paranoia.” His most detailed representational works on canvas include the series, “From the Artist to Mrs. D’Medici,” works that incorporate original poetry set in butterfly gardens; and a commissioned series of poster-like paintings that depict scenes from the most famous operas. But the majority of his works on canvas are individual compositions ranging from bold geometric shapes in complementary colors to nude mannequins fabricated from strips of newspapers.
After enjoying five financially successful decades of artistic creativity in the tri-state area of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, Kesling’s life was interrupted by a disastrous divorce and episodes of disabling depression. After losing most of his material possessions and family associations in the divorce, he inexplicably left the tri-state area and settled in Northern California, hoping to duplicate his past success in interior design and painting. Settling in Carmel-By-The-Sea, a legendary oasis of art, he found an even more devastating life than the one he left, one that, in his words, was “rampant with malevolence, greed, and fakery.”
After years of fighting for a place in the Carmel artistic community, he became bitter, calling the village “a small town full of power struggle and evil, fed by a self-serving pseudo-aristocracy whose sole purpose is acquiring or keeping money, social position, and control.” Adding, “The charm and creativity that was once Carmel died long before I arrived, and the corpse a highly commercialized pseudo-art scene of unscrupulous dealers and local socialites fighting curators to control what type of art could be featured in local museums, galleries, and schools. Abstract expressionism was not a part of the scene.
As he approached the age of sixty, Kesling’s social isolation in Carmel was even more devastating emotionally than that which he suffered in pre-school years, and his response to the injustice was a spurt of artistic creativity that was a manifestation of his inner strength, confusion, ambivalence, and anger.
The town of his birth and childhood, Hollidays Cove, West Virgina, is dead now, annexed into the adjacent city of Weirton. And on Christmas Eve, 2003, an unhappy and lonely son of Hollidays Cove died too. Nearly blind and impoverished, he painted until the end. Unable to afford Carmel housing, he lived in isolation in a single room of a tiny frame boardinghouse on Hawthorne Street in Monterey. Only weeks before his death he discovered that many canvases and works on paper, stored in a basement across the street, were saturated with mud and water from a ruptured water pipe. He was too poor to afford safe storage.
On Christmas eve, 2003, while eating Christmas Eve dinner with his landlady, Lewis felt a sudden pain in the abdomen. He was rushed to the hospital and taken to the operating room, but it was too late to repair a ruptured aortic aneurism.
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Samuel Rosenberg, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, New York, NY
The Irene Kaufmann Center, Pittsburgh, PA
West Liberty State College, W. Va.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, California
Wiebe and Bonwell Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA
JJ Gillespie Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA.
Monede Gallery, Paris, France
Crespi Gallery, New York, NY
Poindexter Gallery, New York, NY
Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya, Japan
The Forum, Munich, Germany
The Pittsburgh Center for the Creative Arts, Pittsburgh, PA.
Gallery New World, Carmel, CA.
Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY.
Guggenheim Museum of Art, MY, NY.
Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, PA
The Salon of Fifty States, NY, NY, Paris, FR.
Salon de Sao Paulo 78, Sao Paulo, Braz.
1963 West Va. Centennial Exhibition, Huntington, West VA
The 1977 West VA Invitational, Parkersburg, West VA, Akademie Raymond Duncan, Paris, France
Huntington Galleries, Huntington, West VA,
Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, CA
Abstrax Gallery, Houston, Texas
The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
The Abstract Group, Syracuse, NY.
The Pittsburgh Society of Artists, Pittsburgh, PA,
West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council, Charleston, W. VA.
Allied Artists of West Virginia, Parkersburg, W. VA.
Steubenville Art Association, Steubenville, Ohio
The Irene Kaufmann Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Mensa, Western Pennsylvania Chapter, Pittsburgh, PA.
The Governor's Visiting Committee, West VA University
C. Robert Pettit, executor of the Lewis Kesling estate
Information from artist biographical material
"My paintings are a physical manifestation of my exploration of the endless sea of self. Our short visit here in the vastness of all time passes swiftly and there is littleof it to spend looking back or stopping to survey what has been and is now gone. I do not know if there will ever be an endpoint when I might be able to look back, nor am I concerned with the end. Death and finality have already come to many who still walk the shore, afraid to sail that sea of self, fearing an end when actually the shore is the end and the sea the beginning."
[Kesling, in "Nine West Virginians" 1963, The West Virginia Centennial Exhibition, Published by the Art Workshops Corporation of West VA.]
|Review of Artist's Work: |
US Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Former Governor of West Virginia: "In reviewing the long professional career of Lewis Kesling and considering his years of creating state wide Fine Arts Programs and his public service, one must acknowledge that he is truly one of West Virginia's great cultural heritages."
James Johnson Sweeney, Jurist, The West Virginia Centennial Exhibition; Director The Houston Museum of Art; Director, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Kesling's abstractions of West Virginia landscapes and industrial scenes have provided a new definition of landscape painting. His Centennial Exhibition works cut beyond the visual image to the essence of the scene. The experience is not one of using the eye as a reflecting surface, but rather, one of creating a great emotional response."
Mme Shao Fang Sheng, The Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship, Instructor and Lecturer, Chautauqua Instutition: "Lewis Kesling strives always for complete expression of his individuality. Every day and hour are important to him, every minute contributing to the human experience from which he draws.
"Through conscious observation of his universe he seeks understanding of himself and of the purpose of his existance in that universe. Like a process of Nature he grows, is nourished by his heart and spirit, and through the control of his amazing intellect he flowers magnificently from time to time. His preparation is constant and arduous, and his moments of creation swift and joyous."
C. Robert Pettit, M.D., executor of The Lewis Kesling Estate: "After early mastery of classical form, lighting, color, and style, and after having experienced financial and professional success, Kesling pursued the irresistable next step: a daring exploration of the ultimate two dimensional representation of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Similar to other great painters Kesling has suffered mightily for his art but has never compromised the presentation of his vision which is not always uplifting or pretty, but is honest, often a startling statement of truth made in the lucidity of his genius. Kesling was obsessed with painting his vision, not for the commercial art world, but for the delight of sophisticated collectors, adornment of institutions, and for all posterity."