Don Kimes earliest memory is of drawing.
“I’m one of those rare artists who always knew they were going to be an artist,” Kimes said. “I never thought about anything else.”
And at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center, Kimes, who serves as artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, will share the story of his development as an artist through the years — the first lecture of the sort he has given on the grounds in almost five years.
“Ori Soltes [who gave the Interfaith Lecture Monday] talked about the history of art from about 3,000 years ago to about 100 years ago in one hour,” Kimes said. “So I should be able to cover 30 years of my own work in 45 minutes … maybe focus a little more on the stuff people haven’t seen, right up to today — I’m talking Friday, so right up until Thursday.”
Kimes grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes from Chautauqua. It was not a vibrant art town, and Kimes did not even set foot in an art museum until he was in college. The first piece that captivated him was not a Picasso or a Cézanne, but a cheap print of some horses racing in a storm on his grandmother’s wall.
Despite this, he continued studying art and, by the time he started at Chautauqua, was making a living as an artist in New York City.
In 1988, two years after beginning at Chautauqua, Kimes and his wife, Lois Jubeck, moved with their first child to Washington, D.C., so he could take a post at American University.
“Of all the schools I looked at, American probably had the worst facilities, but I thought the most potential,” Kimes said.
Since then, it has improved, including building of the Katzen Art Center, which holds the 30,000-square-foot American University Museum.
“I started out teaching at the New York Studio School, and that was always a hand-to-mouth existence for the school,” Kimes said. “That was the training I had, trying to build something out of nothing, out of smoke and mirrors a lot of the time.”
He is now working on building a small program at the American Academy in Rome, but he is backing away from doing the same level of development that he has done previously.
“I’m not sure I want to continue building on the scale I’ve been building,” Kimes said. “I want to put that energy into my work. That’s a lot of energy. Everything that’s happened at Chautauqua is decades of energy, and [American University] was the same way. I’d rather build the art right now.”
Through the decades in Chautauqua, Italy and AU, Kimes has worked in a variety of media and styles, including painting, collage and even rusted and etched steel. There are, however, key threads he sees running through his work. Among these are themes of natural processes, especially water and time.
“I can go back and look at the work that I first became really interested in, and I can find elements of the work I’m doing right now in that early work, although I didn’t realize it at the time,” Kimes said. “And then the third thing that people have written about me is that my work deals with regeneration — like loss and regeneration.”
This theme of regeneration is particularly evident in his recent work, which uses found and discarded paper in collages, including those that formed the backdrop to Carmina Burana.
Kimes had his own personal experience with loss and regeneration several years ago, when a flood destroyed almost 25 years worth of paper, writings and family photographs.
“It took me a long time to work through what I felt was basically the erasure of my existence,” Kimes said. “But I think the work I’m doing now, I could never have done it had that flood not happened. So the flood’s a gift.”
This ability to survive devastating situations is one thing that Kimes hopes to instill in his students.
“One thing that I really — as a mature artist now — really want to help young artists understand is that most of what they will do is not going to be accepted. That they will deal with loss their entire life,” Kimes said. “The experience of loss and the ability to survive it and emerge from it — I think there is a link [from that] to the ability to discover new things and see things in a new way.”
Beyond individual survival, Kimes sees art as vital to the definition of what it is to be human.
“I think art is just kind of what falls off of us as a race, as a species,” Kimes said. “It’s the residue that falls off and shows where we were.”
As Kimes observed, it is not through the great attorneys of history that we understand our culture, but through the great art that previous generations have produced.
“It’s a powerful medium,” Kimes said. “It’s not decoration, it’s not just a side thing. I believe it’s the main thing. That’s what I believe. It’s the main thing. It’s the one thing that makes us different from every other species on the planet.”