The Many Facets of Kelly Fearing
August 22, 1995
The last time we saw one another was at an exhibition at Flatbed Press earlier this year and just before I was leaving for San Diego. At that time you suggested you would like to have an interview with me as soon as I returned to Austin.... My exhibition at Flatbed Press is scheduled for September 30 through October 25...
I should have known. A working artist with more than 50 years of experience would never forget an arts writer's casual offer for an interview. Kelly Fearing's genteel query letter mentioning the date of his return to Austin - and certainly his stature as professor emeritus at the University of Texas after 40 years with the art department - necessitates a proper response. I decide to drop in on the artist as he works at Flatbed Press, proofing and printing the last of approximately 30 works that would be in his exhibition. That meeting, and a subsequent visit in his studio, prove both delightful and instructive.
As I enter the back room at Flatbed - with its imposing array of press equipment and clutter of works-in-progress - the diminutive artist's mustard-yellow, long-sleeved jumpsuit catch my eye immediately. Next, I notice his washed-out blue eyes and white hair, and the hand which trembles a little as he reaches to shake mine. His fingernails are as rough and uneven as Hill Country stones. Despite his age, Fearing's memory is phenomenal and every story he tells is rich with detail and "chit-chat."
When he talks about the Fort Worth Circle, an avant garde group of artists he worked with 50 years ago, Fearing describes detailed conversations between them and the musical selections he listened to during their weekly soirées. He remembers, "It was really a romantic period. And decadent." In the Forties, Fearing and other members of the circle made prints together one evening every week. Their work was regarded as advanced and experimental at the time. In 1992, the University of Texas at Austin presented an exhibition of their prints. Fearing renewed his interest in the print medium around the time of the exhibition. He joined a print group organized by Jonathan Bober, curator of prints and drawings at the Huntington Art Gallery, and participated in a workshop at Flatbed Press where he learned to use light-sensitive polymer etching plates (solar plates). Once again, he was working on the cutting-edge of etching techniques.
The solar plates enable him to literally build on his own past work. The artist often begins by xeroxing a finished painting or drawing onto paper or a transparency. He revises the image, then produces a final transparency which is transferred to the plate using either sunlight or a controlled artificial light. Many of the images in the current Flatbed show were developed in San Diego, where the artist lives half the year, and then proofed and printed in Austin. My visit to Flatbed temporarily interrupts the process of preparing for the artist's show, so we agree to meet later at his studio.
Kelly Fearing's home in Westlake is his studio, and his studio is his home. They are one and the same, built according to the artist's specifications nearly 20 years ago. The living/studio space has sofas and chairs, tables, and oriental rugs to one side, and an easel and a long, low table covered with paints and tools on the other. The room soars two stories high and has tall windows which face north and a bit to the west. They let in a fine light (and a little moisture, unfortunately), creating a nearly optimum condition for making art. The kitchen and breakfast area are low-ceilinged and intimate, as is the cluttered master bedroom downstairs. Upstairs, a guest room doubles as library and den. Fearing collects art books which fill a long stretch of waist-high shelving which overlooks the living area below. A yellow neighborhood cat, nearly the color of the artist's Flatbed attire, is stretched on the open stairway landing when I arrive.
Downstairs, the stacks of art books on the coffee table and end tables are interspersed with other books, guides to nutrition and good health and such. Fearing has been receiving treatments in California for cancer, now in remission, for the past 10 years. The illness has been held at bay through attention to diet, spiritual and emotional well-being, and a pragmatic early round of chemo-therapy. We talk about this first and then the subject is retired. The artist, at 77, is entirely too lively to encourage conversation about anything but his ongoing art-making and the way he has fashioned his world.
Fearing's considerable body of work, much of it displayed or stored in his home, can be divided roughly into four parts. His early works, influenced by the Fort Worth Circle, reflect the group's involvement in modernism, rather than the Regionalist style prevalent at the time. Fearing's work from that time is sometimes abstract and often has a surrealistic tone.
His "sound of color" series - also abstract for the most part - developed out of an interest in music and its relationship to the visual arts, which the artist explored with violist Albert Gillis. "His influence is as strong as any in my life," says Fearing of Gillis, his friend of 50 years. In the mid-Seventies, the two presented comparative arts lectures in England. Fearing created a show of hand-painted slides which were manipulated to correspond to Kryzsztof Penderecki's orchestral work "De natura sonoris, #2." Later, the artist's work in a variety of media echoed his preoccupation with the voice of pure color over detailed figuration. A green canvas and a blue canvas, one above the other, extending nearly floor to ceiling on the living room wall, still sing a lively duet.
From his travels in England, India, and Greece, Fearing borrowed elements - flora, fauna, the color of the sea in a particular light - to create imaginary landscapes. Fearing also collects rocks, some the size of large dogs, that show up in these often formidable settings along with "saints, yogis, meditators, and mendicants" and an assortment of beautifully rendered birds and animals who are "in passage." According to the artist's statement, they are seeking, in passage, "a wholeness, an ultimate relationship with themselves and nature."
Fearing's long-standing preoccupation with things aquatic - aquariums, fish, and brilliant blue bodies of water - has led to another series of work. Two low walls downstairs are filled with jewel-like (sometimes quite literally bejeweled) works on paper, each with an individual fish painted, drawn, and enhanced with gold leaf and found objects. Their presentation en masse transforms the whole wall into a kind of aquarium.
The artist uses paint, frottage, montage, collage, graphite, silver point, litho crayon, charcoal, and gold leaf with great facility. His storage racks, closets, and shelves in the house and garage are crowded with work that provides a textbook sampling of various techniques. In fact, he says many of the works began as classroom demonstrations at the university that he would revise and refine until they suited him. At my request, Fearing opened a box mysteriously marked "street transformations." Someone other than an artist might have labeled it "junk." The box is filled with found objects - rusted tin lids, striated cans that have been squashed into odd shapes, pieces of plastic and glass, and slashes of wood. Fearing uses them all to make art.
The ghosts and shadows of all these materials and techniques can be felt in the prints at Flatbed. The images there echo the artist's life work beginning with "The Collector, Revisited," a revised version of his 1945 etching. There are also landscapes with human figures, birds, animals, and fish in passage. When I ask if his artwork is out in the world, doing all that he hoped it would do, the artist answers that some is in fine private collections, although not in as many museums as would be desirable. "I'm reluctant to sell my work," he says. "When it's gone, it's gone."
The proof of Kelly Fearing's accomplishment in his second chosen profession, teaching, is easily available. He calls me back twice to add names to his list of talented former students - Sydney Yeager (whose work is currently at Lyons Matrix Gallery and Blue Star in San Antonio), Ann Matlock (water colorist and nationally acclaimed weaver), Carolyn Manosevitz, a number of Umlauf offspring, and lots of others. It becomes clear that there are many ways for an artist to make his mark. While much of his own work and that of students may never find its way into museums, Kelly Fearing's lifelong effort, output, and influence have been astonishing. n
Fearing's work remains at Flatbed Press until October 25 and at Robinson Galleries in Houston through October 14.