Kimes: Getting lost a catalyst for creative possibility


Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution and professor of fine arts at American University, speaks in the Hall of Philosophy Monday afternoon. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

In 2003, a flood destroyed Don Kimes’ Washington, D.C., studio. Among his lost possessions were letters from friends, family photographs, his computer files and many of his personal artistic creations.

Kimes’ presentation, “Interruption, Transformation and the Creative Act,” initiated the Week Four afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series, “Art and Soul.”

He discussed what moves him artistically, his creative process and the discovery provoked by “unwanted, life-changing interruptions.”

Kimes has served as the artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution for 26 years, where he helped to establish the Logan Galleries (which recently was relocated to the renovated Fowler-Kellogg Art Center) and merge the formerly independent Chautauqua Art Association Gallery with the School of Art and Visual Arts Lecture Series to form VACI, which now includes Strohl Art Center and the Melvin Johnson Sculpture Garden.

He also is senior professor of Fine Arts at American University in Washington, D.C., where he launched American University Visual Arts programs in Rome, Umbria and Florence, Italy.

After the flood, the artistic effect of interruption was no longer a theory. It was Kimes’ life.

“This was my interruption,” Kimes said. “I was lost. It was devastating.”

For three months, Kimes attempted to salvage four pulpy bags full of personal papers and pictures.

Someone asked him, “Have you ever painted through pain?”

Kimes realized his damaged photographs reflected a beauty akin to the ruins he had seen on his travels in places like the Villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii, Italy.

He sank into a chronic depression for three and a half years, but he created small studies of his destroyed artistic career in the meantime.

“I think painting saved my life,” Kimes said.

He considers the complete metaphoric pieces created out of pain to be his strongest work to date.

“Creativity isn’t about what we don’t have. Instead it’s about making music with what we do have,” Kimes said.

To illustrate his point, Kimes shared an anecdote about Master Violinist Itzhak Perlman, whom he saw perform in Italy. While onstage, the violinist’s string broke. He paused for a moment and signaled the orchestra to begin again — retuning and recomposing the concerto on the spot for three strings instead of four.

“The music he made that night with three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable than any he had ever made when he had four strings,” Kimes said. “What if that string hadn’t broken?”

He answered his own question: “The broken string allowed him to reach a level that otherwise would have been impossible. … That interruption, which might’ve caused a lesser musician to start over with a new violin, instead allowed Perlman to ascend in a manner not even he had considered when he walked out onto that stage.”

This, Kimes explained, is the essence of art.

“The notion of a foundation and experience, combined with the ability to recognize daylight when it happens, are at the core of what it means to make a discovery, to put things together in a way they’ve never been assembled before, while also giving us a sense of meaning,” he said.

Something is not art solely because it is raw nor because it is technically correct.

Art is “discoveries that are meaningfully original,” Kimes said.

Much of the art esteemed by the mainstream today was mocked, shunned or discarded at the time of its creation. It may have no relevance to popular culture and may take years to be appreciated. Kimes offered the examples of Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime; he and others created on what Kimes calls “the edge of culture.”

“Understanding art is not automatic,” he said. “It does not come ready-made, like some visual fast-food available in 30 seconds. It requires effort.”

As such, the cliché “Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach” does not apply to art, Kimes said.

The interaction between teacher and student is a historic one; it fuels creative and intellectual development, which is why Kimes believes institutions like the Chautauqua School of Art are so important for instructor and pupil alike.

Kimes was a student of art himself in the 1970s and 1980s, working and living in the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village. For four days a week, he left the city to get back in touch with nature. He discovered a rock where he thought he might sketch the stream flowing past and ended up painting in that same spot for six years.

“At the time, I thought I was painting landscapes, but looking back, I realized that it was the relationship to the human engagement with nature in that cycle (of time, change, permanence … birth, growth, death and rebirth) that held my fascination,” Kimes said.

His work became more and more abstract but still reflected motifs of life, death and rebirth.

In 1994, he and his family decided to move to Italy, a radical change. But being uncomfortable is a part of the artistic process, Kimes said.

“How can you know when work is hollow? When it’s comfortable,” he said.

He reflected on making art and experiencing interruptions in the age of information. Simultaneous experiences, like reading a newspaper, flying on an airplane and listening to Beethoven aren’t interruptions, but are bits of noise, Kimes said. Time and space are now simultaneous, not sequential.

“In this age of information, making art requires a greater act of faith than it did for Piero and Giotto and Masaccio,” he said. “They had the church. We have mass media.”

But Kimes said he has no doubt that new technologies will change art, not destroy it.

“I don’t believe for one second that if Leonardo (da Vinci) were alive today, he wouldn’t be pushing the envelope to the maximum. … He’d have a brush in one hand, a computer in the other, and, being Leonardo, he’d probably have an iPhone in the third hand,” Kimes said.

Painting has been relevant for the past 35,000 years, Kimes said, and the interruption of the digital world will not alter its value. The invention of canvas or the camera or the motion picture changed painting, but painting also affected those mediums in turn.

Kimes referenced the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries near Pompeii, which continue to affect their viewers.

“At its deepest level, art exists outside of time and mortality,” he said.

Though his own work is autobiographical, Kimes believes the search demonstrated in his pieces represents an experience common to all of humanity. He concluded with a quote from T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”