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 complete."
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-

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 snag ...

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 Art Museum.

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"?

workers , river boat,mules, in background, famer on tractor in foreground, figures didtored by undulating lines.

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 Secret.

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.

(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.)

Ms. Kemp continues to discuss her life and work in Conversations With Artists, Margaret Stark Kemp, Part Two.
High Mountain Valley (near Happy Valley) 1992 pastel Margaret Kemp

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.

Revised 8-17-00

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