Faced with a health crisis, some people go into a funk, grow desperate, whine, obsess, cast blame.
Artist Marley Kaul, 76, of Bemidji, Minn., started writing letters to his unborn granddaughter.
Scribbled on yellow ledger paper, the letters were sparked by the paintings he was working on at the time — small, colorful pictures of familiar things keenly observed and beautifully detailed: cabbage and lilies from his garden, a teapot, fresh pie, a basket of morels, a fox stalking a bunny, a murder of crows, moonlight through the pines.
Rambling and ruminative, the letters are lyrical observations about things new and old, elusive and common, universal and down-home: the skin of a pear, the sound of wind, the beauty of a smile, dreams, death, the importance of dancing when you can. By the time his health problem resolved itself, Kaul was hooked on the letters and just kept writing.
Now, a dozen years later, a selection of the letters and 77 paintings have been published in “Letters to Isabella: Paintings by Marley Kaul.” Ten of the pictures will be on view, for one night only, Thursday evening at Open Book in Minneapolis, where Kaul will give a painting demonstration and sign books.
“I really like it; it’s my favorite book,” Isabella, 11, said by phone from her home in Seattle. “I really like the pictures a lot because I hadn’t seen all of them.”
Her grandpa surprised her with the book when she visited Minnesota this past summer. She likes to draw, too, but doesn’t do it a lot because “I’m pretty busy with soccer, volleyball, homework. Sometimes I draw if I’m done with everything or on rainy days. I like cartoon characters, and I draw them with pencil and color in with markers.”
When she visits, Kaul clears a wall in his studio and pins up paper so she can paint with him every day.
“Well, I remember doing like an ocean with octopuses and fish; that’s all I can remember,” she said of their most recent session.
Then homework loomed so she excused herself. “I’ve got to do a surface-area poster and geography and math,” she said. “Yesterday I had to write a whole story inviting four celebrities to a party. We went to the Space Needle. I invited the first lady, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and you know those little M&M characters? I invited one of them and named him Bob.”
From farm to faculty
Growing up on a farm near Good Thunder, Minn., south of Mankato, Kaul had a precocious talent for drawing that was encouraged by teachers and inspired by the success of a relative, Adolf Dehn, a pioneering Minnesota painter with a national reputation. Still, “my father was not too happy I was going into art until I informed him I would probably teach,” Kaul recalled recently. “That satisfied him.”
After earning a B.A. and an M.A. from Minnesota State University, Mankato, Kaul completed an MFA from the University of Oregon. Returning to Minnesota, he chaired the art department and taught at Bemidji State University for 30 years, retiring in 1997.
“I love him. He was the best professor I ever had,” said Doug Argue, a New York-based painter whose work was showcased in a solo exhibit this summer in Venice and prominently featured this month at the influential Art Basel fair in Miami.
“When I was 18, I was not the happiest person in the world; I was one of those angry young men,” Argue said, recalling his arrival at Bemidji’s art department in 1980. “I was very experimental, spray painting in the snow and flinging enamel paint all over the place. Other faculty would have kicked me out, but he gave me a space in the art department, and a key to the building, and basically said, ‘Go for it.’ He gave me freedom. And pretty much every day he’d leave magazines or books in the studio related to something I was doing. He’d never confront me, but I devoured the whole thing.”
Argue, who painted maniacally and often worked all night, would still go to Kaul’s classes. There he learned technical stuff, including how to mix paint and apply gouache, a chalky medium that Argue returned to a few years ago for a special show of drawings.
“I owe him for that; I owe him big time,” Argue said.
Lessons from Old Masters
Kaul’s own work ranges from 7-foot-wide acrylic paintings to book-sized pictures done in egg tempera, a quick-drying Renaissance-era medium involving raw egg yolks, which he used in the “Isabella” paintings.
He fell in love with the medium’s translucency and vivid colors while teaching art history students how the Old Masters painted. Egg tempera also lends itself to his carefully designed, highly detailed images, which are rarely more than 20 inches wide or tall.
“I’m kind of a romantic, I guess,” Kaul said. “I’m sentimental, but don’t want my paintings to be sentimental. I’m very interested in everything having to do with the human condition. Watching what goes on on my little farm gives me clues to what’s going on in the world.”
Many of his pictures feature vegetables and flowers that he and Sandy, his wife of 53 years, grow. They’re also alive with birds (orioles, cardinals, hummingbirds, chickadees) and animals (fox, rabbits) that roam the woods on the couple’s 40-acre farm near Bemidji.
In praise of pie
Kaul loves to bake pies. Whole pies — and slices of pie — show up in many paintings: rhubarb, custard, apple, peach.
He even painted a pie icon, a beautifully symmetrical image of a lemon meringue treat almost levitating off its plate. It grew out of a composition lesson in which he’d asked students to draw a piece of pie, then had them add a plate, glass, cup and so on. Afterward he took them to a local restaurant “to order pie of their choice.”
“Teaching was an incredible experience for me,” he said. “I loved every minute of it.”
Cherished by private collectors, especially in the Midwest, Kaul’s paintings can be found in the collections of the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Historical Society, Duluth’s Tweed Museum of Art, the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., and the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.
Given the inspiration of her “Papa,” as Kaul signs his letters to her, will Isabella follow him into art?
“She’s actually quite good at drawing; both our daughters are,” said her mother, Allison DeLeone. “But I think every girl in her sixth-grade class wants to be a veterinarian right now. So we’ll see what happens.”