Kimler’s Massive Journey, Massive Works and Massive Space
Wesley Kimler, a name you’ve probably heard before or one that you’re surprised that you haven’t. One of the only anti-industry painters in Chicago, Wesley has been painting for over 30 years – mastering the art of massive, contemporary abstract painting. Now in his 60s, Kimler has been living in the Chicago West Loop in a massive 6,000 square foot space. His space is actually two bays of the Goodman Theatre’s old design studio. Kimler’s journey to this city was long and winding, taking detours through California, Afghanistan, and Canada among others. This space has been his home and workplace for the past 15 years.
While just one article isn’t near enough to scratch beneath his surface, I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Kimler to get a sense of his story and some insight into his use of color and love of the theatre.
Angela Verish: Were you born with a paintbrush in hand or was this a love that you developed over time?
Wesley Kimler: I started out not as a painter but as a musician. I studied baroque flute and other wind instruments and had aspirations of becoming a professional jazz player. Growing up, being around some great players and seeing how awful their lives were sent me off in another direction — one more suited for the kind of artist I am. You can’t take a note once played, stuff it back in a horn and replay it. But, with painting you can. I am a solitary kind of person inspired of my kind of wild man reputation. I like to be alone a lot. My favorite venue is right here at the studio – 3 a.m. things going south, painting by the seat of my pants trying to find something I half-way like.
AV: A sliver of what makes you unique is your absolutely MASSIVE canvases. What interested you to making such large pieces?
Wesley Kimler: I like to work large scale as it is true to who I am and suits my nature. We are here for such a brief time [that] art seems to me to be about our sure obliteration and impending doom. [I’m] about struggling to death with it in my particular case, all I have, to the best of my ability, I require some space and an adequate arena to accomplish that with. It’s my notion of living large I suppose.
AV: One of your most recent series has been the “Afghan Kites.” When you were around 20 years old, I understand that you moved to Afghanistan. How was that experience? Is this where you drew the inspiration for this series?
Wesley Kimler: Yes, I lived and worked in Afghanistan, one of my favorite places on earth when I was young — my real college campus. The Afghan Kite Collages which reference the fighting kites the people there fly was made in part due to my history and partially due to someone I was once very close with who is involved with human rights work in Afghanistan.
AV: Your paintings are filled with such unique and succulent colors – Where do you get your color inspiration? What role does color (or the lack-thereof) play in your work?
Wesley Kimler: My employment of color, though technically evolved is not about that, but is intuitively emotive expressive of sensibility. I use color for its emotive qualities,[so] I prefer almost fluorescent kinds of hot color conflated with a lot of mud. I enjoy the emotive quality of pristine color getting all dirtied up, how evocative and about memory it becomes. I also like how close the relationship between certain fluorescent like colors and white is, which allows me to approach color not only chromatically but also in terms of value — of chromatic grey scale if you will, intensity.
AV: All your work has the definite Kimler stamp on it. But, there’s a really interesting contrast between your drawings and your paintings. Could you talk a little bit about how those mediums differ in regards to their inspiration and execution?
Wesley Kimler: In short, color versus black and white. There is a distance and a psychological/emotional timbre that comes with my black and white drawings. [These qualities are] born of chiaroscuro that I also strive to attain with color, which is a far more complicated task — one that I’ve struggled with. You see, color comes to me too easily. I often find it luscious and attractive but lacking feeling the way I want. By feeling, I mean that I do paint by a sense of touch, how things feel as much as how they appear.
It’s a dichotomy for sure, one I struggle with. It’s problematic. But, out of that has emerged my particular arguments as a painter, one that has occupied me for a long time now. In any case, my drawings inform my paintings in a very classical way — studies and precursors to the painting. Though at the same time my paperwork is a major part of what I do in several variants.
AV: You’re best known for these drawings and paintings. However, I understand that you’re interested in a variety of different art forms. One of them is theater, where you helped co-found Sketchbook, which is sadly coming to an end this year. Could you tell me about Sketchbook and how you found your love for theater?
Wesley Kimler: Well, I originally came to my [Chicago] studio in conjunction with Collaboraction Theatre Company where I held the position of art director/artist and minister of propaganda. John Cabrera, Anthony Moseley and I all co-founded Sketchbook. That’s the short play festival that just completed its 15th and final run. [My present studio] was our headquarters. [It was] known as OURHAUS where we staged many interdisciplinary events — theater, art, music, and dance mashups.
Painter Meets Theatre
My being involved in the theater world began in Los Angeles in the 90s. I was feeling down about a failed romance and a friend of mine. A Shakespearian actor invited me over to Roger Corman’s studio to watch him get shot and killed, and then, [to go] out to lunch. At lunch after being shot to death not once but twice, my actor friend asked me if I would like to go to a party with him the next week. He wanted to introduce me to someone, an amazing woman. “You won’t mind that she has won a Pulitzer will you Wes?”… ‘No of course not, they don’t give ‘em to painters’…
So began one of the best and most important friendships in my life. [That was] with the great playwright and great human being, my dear friend Beth Henley. If I have a true sister in my life, it’s Beth. Anyway, I found myself, someone who was really theater illiterate beyond a smattering of Eugene O’Neil. [I was] being invited over on afternoons to play audience for Beth’s friends as they read through and workshopped her plays. I found myself sitting facing the likes of Kathy Bates, Holly Hunter, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman — all looking at me, asking me what I thought.
Love and Intimidation
Yes, at first I was intimidated, (Kathy=Misery) (Beth: go see her in Fried Green Tomatoes Wesley. Then you won’t be so frightened of her —which I did). But, then another thing happened. I fell in love with watching a really good actor bring a character to life, flesh out and unpack a human being imagined.
So, I called Beth earlier this year and asked her to adapt seven minutes of a comedy she had recently written – “Laugh” (which featured a pie fight) for this last Sketchbook. Beth was in the original three Sketchbooks and it seemed like it wouldn’t be the same without her brilliant voice. So, a few weeks later, I get a call from Beth while I’m on the playground picking up my daughter Amina from school. “Wessssleyyy – your play is finishedddd… I’m going to make you into a big starrrrrr”…’Beth, does this involve me getting a pie in the face?’ “NO!.. TWO PIES!”
And thus began my long foray into the theater world. I would not be who I am without it. [That’s] down to the simple truth that I am the only visual artist I know or know of who lights his work using theatrical lighting.
AV: I can tell that you’re a man full of stories and passions. That being said – what do you think is one pivotal experience you’ve had that has shaped you into the man and artist you’ve become?
Wesley Kimler: Spending time in Afghanistan and growing up in the streets in the 60s. I don’t know — I’m pretty into being an individual, I’m much more about being my own person. I don’t think there’s any ONE thing – I think the one thing is my life, really. It has been kind of wild and out of control in a way, especially when I was young. But, now it has a very real focus. You know, I’m here every day painting. It’s a lifetime. There’s nothing harder to do than make a good painting — it’s absolutely consuming. So the one thing who shaped who I am? Yeah, painting.