Conversations With Artists
Margaret Stark Kemp, Painter
Joys of a Serious Profession
By M.G. Hudson
"The Observed/Studying Self" 1992, pastel, Margaret Stark Kemp
Paul 1971, Margaret Kemp (image cropped)
Paul was a friend of my son Michael. Paul's father bought it after it won an award
at the State Fair Fine Arts Show.
Q. Did you deliberately see him as a modern Jesus image?
A. No. Before I finished I realized the dark eyes and shape of face and hair were
frequently used in portraits of Christ.
||Margaret and I met on a hot summer afternoon.
She drank Red Rose tea, I had English Breakfast. I had copies of her paintings in
front of me. We looked at the work and began to talk, artist to artist, friend to
friend. She was in her home and I was in mine ten miles away. Ah, the ecological
benefits of telephones and Internet. I have known Margaret for many years but I know
her a lot better after our conversation. I picked up a thread of our talk to lead
to the work.
Margaret said about another matter, "I don't believe in anything 'till it's
I said, "Is that true in art?"
Margaret replied, "I may believe in an idea or a possibility but don't really
know it until I do it:"
Q. Let's talk about your doings. I am looking
at the self-portrait, "Studying Self" where you look stern and serious.
A. Yes, I am when I am painting. Actually, that pastel has two titles. Originally
it was called the Observed, which is what you must do when you do a portrait of self
or others. It was in an 'one man' show at the Schubert Gallery (now closed) in Albany.
The theme of the show was observing; looking, seeing, being a strong observer.
Over time, I've done a lot of portraits. I often painted other painters. We modeled
for each other. When I began to paint people, I tried to paint a portrait as the
other person wanted him/her self to be seen. Unsatisfactory. I had dissatisfied sitters,
too. Painting portraits to please others leads to poor paintings. I had to please
myself first. And I did. Eventually. I still asked friends like Kathryn and Harlow
(who had taught Jon) to sit for me. I painted what I saw as their essence, their
habitual gesture that summed them up, but they didn't like their portraits.
I wanted to show the raw strengths of people. I respected them too much to flatter
them. I painted what I saw and tried preserve a sitter's dignity, beyond age, sex
appeal and intelligence.
Q. When did you start to show your work?
A. I first showed in Central Florida and Richmond, Virginia. After moving to Oregon,
in Eugene and around the state, and Washington state. I exhibited at Maude Kerns
Art Center in Eugene in the early sixties, [an art community based gallery and
education center, founded in part by Maude Kerns, the painter-editor].
Q. What do you think of Hank Pander's method
of stark photo-realism with significant symbols around the subject? Like that portrait
at the state capital of the late Gov. McCall. On the beach, helicopters, logs, a
A. I like to paint people without traipsings. Without reference to accomplishments.
I believe is history is history. What you are is what you are now. In the context
of the past, but not the past. Symbols of accomplishments are not the personal qualities
that matter: honesty or dishonesty, sweetness or toughness and so forth.
Q. I guess a person would have to be pretty
secure in self to sit for you.
A. (Margaret Kemp laughs.) Yes, I suppose so. Fellow painters
were the best models. They understood what I was trying to do. On the Paul portrait,
for instance, I looked at the lozenge shaped face, the contrasts of light and dark,
the characteristic way of sitting. This painting traveled in a few shows. It started
at the State Fair in 1972 and was in the Focus Gallery at the University of Oregon
Inshore Rocks 1993, watercolor, Margaret Kemp
Q. To me this is an abstract to some degree. No reference of scale?
A. Yes, I want the composition to be as important as the subject. Artists can only
do "equivalences" - one can't and never should try to reproduce nature.
Before doing this painting, I drove up a steep back road on the east side of Highway
101. The horizon rose instead of dropping like I expected. And I saw freshly.
Here I wanted to suggest that feeling that the sea goes on forever. I felt the continuous
struggle between sea and land, the land losing itself to the sea, and the feeling
of water, to see the surface and the depth, to sense what is not visible.
Click on images for larger image.
Painted Hills 1992, watercolor Margaret Kemp
Q. How did you paint Painted Hills?
A. This was the product of a camping trip in the Painted Hills region.
We would hike and sketch and take photos.
Here I had a strong feeling the land
itself was carving out space. There was a flow in the hills that reminded me of one
of my early influences, Thomas Hart Benton. Remember his murals and landscapes? That
undulating line? The distorted figures? His "Frankie and Johnny"?
detail of mural by Thomas Hart Benton
painted for the New School for Social Research
in New York, 1930's from The Artists America,
1973, American Heritage Publishing, Co. Inc. N.Y.
Closet Secret 1993, pastel, Margaret Kemp
||Q. Getting back to your technical vision, tell us
about your shift to pastel.
A. I found pastel more liberating than paint. I like to combine painting and drawing.
But using pastels or paint, I am always trying to see what is really there. Not a
preconceived notion of a thing but its wholeness. If you really look, you can see
a lot more than you are conditioned to.
Q. Tell us about this pastel 'painting', Closet
I was ill , at home watching the light coming in the window, making wonderful shapes
on the clothes hanging in the closet. 'Ye gods! Am I seeing something I don't want
to see?' I had a visual premonition of my husband's death ... Yet I like this painting
because it is not readily accessible though more so than I anticipated. But it has
a few visual secrets.. .
Logging Doane Mt. 1990, pastel Margaret Kemp
Q. Let's look at Logging Doane Mountain. Is that near you?
A. Yes, it is the big hill up behind our place. I watched the logging. It was sad.
It was also strangely beautiful. When I came to Oregon, it was routine for men to
work in the woods. We all grew up on literature like "Girl of the Limber Lost".
[Many people hated the growing trend of overcutting] but there always was respect
for the loggers who did such dangerous work. They were committed to a lifestyle and
believed in what they were doing.
When the logging above us began I sketched it. I was amazed by
the choreography necessary to bring down a tree. These men lives depended on each
others' exact and graceful movements. The crude machines .. And there was beauty
in the way the trees dropped with an agonized sound between a moan and a wail.. I
thought of Rembrandt who went to butchers shops to draw carcasses to study anatomy.
I'm reminded Goya, too. Both saw beauty in offal and the dreadful.
Ms. Kemp continues to discuss her life and work in Conversations With Artists, Margaret Stark
Kemp, Part Two.
(As Jon did more and more conservation work, reading reports and Environmental Impact
Statements, going to Congressional hearings, we did less backpacking. Summertime
was logging season and became the crisis season.)
High Mountain Valley (near Happy Valley) 1992 pastel
Q. Where is Happy Valley?
A. It lies below the site of my "High Mountain Valley" paintings on the
northeast side of Broken Top Mountain in the Deschutes National Forest.
When we were younger Jon and I backpacked and camped in the Oregon Cascades - from
Mt. Hood in the north to Diamond Peak in the south, among other places. Later our
son joined us and the Berley Lakes area became a favored destination when his short
legs could make it in a morning. Now he takes his sons and friends there as we did.
We packed camping gear, food etc. and I took a small watercolor set and pad for sketching.
Once when we were late in the season, a snow blanketed us in the night and an unprepared
friend nearly froze.
Children find such experiences delightful. The small scale of alpine growth seems
made for them. Tracks, burrows, and sightings from frogs to marmots invite them to
explore. Once on a lower slope of Mt. Rainier, Michael took a header into an icy
pond trailing a frog over the edge.
Damian, his son, did a similar thing in the late eighties when their family joined
us on a hike into the "High Mountain Valley" area. A badger burrow looked
like the rabbit hole in "Alice In Wonderland". Jon grabbed his coat to
keep him from crawling in.
The Benton influence shows in the undulating line of the stream and sides of the
mountain. Only pools remained of the stream in summer. The air was so clean that
shiny fine grass glistened like frost in the shimmering light.
When we were first married, Jon taught me to see flowers of arid and alpine regions.
He called them "belly flowers".
Q. Belly flowers?
A. Yes, because you had to get down on your belly to see what is there. Tiny, lovely
flowers. Jon would get down to see them.
I never had the stamina to go over Broken Top to the other side. I can see why the
old mountain men just kept going. It is a magical place.