Artists Profile: Kathy Muehlemann May/June 2017

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Occupation: Artist and Teacher (Randolph College) | Age: 67

Did you notice your artistic talent early in life?
No, I did not realize I would grow up to be an artist. But a quote by the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman described my experience. “All of us collect fortunes when we are children. A fortune of colors, of lights, and darkness, of movement, of tensions. Some of us have the fantastic chance to go back to his fortune when grown up.” Without the knowledge that I was becoming an artist, I spent my childhood up in trees, lost in daydreams, books and being with animals. On weekends, my family either went to the St. Louis Zoo or to the art museum. Looking at art and animals is a wonderful way to become an artist.

After your childhood, what was your educational path?
I received a Bachelor of Professional Studies from State University of New York. This program of study gave me a studio in Manhattan’s Westbeth Studios where regular visiting artists would see my work and speak to me about it.

I was also apprenticed to the abstract expressionist painter, Milton Resnick.

New York City was my most real, most intense, most beloved and most germane education. To be in a city full of art and artists and to have the chance to see art and talk about it on the highest levels made me realize that I was an artist. It set the bar high and the challenge was exhilarating. I have felt nowhere as much at home as an artist as when I lived in New York. I was born in Austin, Texas. I was born an artist in New York City.

What was your career like in New York City?
My husband and I lived in a loft in downtown Manhattan. It was a time when it was illegal to live in lofts. But the city knew that the development artists were making of rough neighborhoods was good for the city. So they looked the other way. I was fortunate to have five New York galleries represent my work in the 20 years I lived there. Between sales of work, grants and awards and occasional teaching, we were able to live and work in the city. Days spent in the studio and nights, when not at home, spent with other artists either at exhibition openings, meals at each other’s studios or bars. The camaraderie of other artists and the conversations helped clear the cobwebs that isolated work in the studio can weave. Weekends were often spent going to museums and galleries to see art. This life as an artist in New York formed me intensely, to the point where I knew
I could always be an artist wherever I lived. It sustains me even now.

Tell us about the year you spent in Rome.
Both my husband and I were awarded the Rome Prize—Jim in 1981-82 and me in 1987-88 so we lived for two years in Rome at the American Academy. What an incredible experience. Living in a villa on one of Rome’s seven hills, the Janiculum, with other fellow artists and scholars. Those two years were filled with travel, conversations, studio work and freedom to spend days in pursuit of art. I often felt like Alice in Wonderland.

One day, wandering in the medieval section of Rome, an art historian got a key from a shoe cobbler. We crossed the lane and when she unlocked a small, non-descript door we were looking at the edge of a giant sundial the size of a football field. It was covered by a foot of water and made of marble inlaid with bronze Greek inscriptions. The sundial’s gnomon was an Egyptian obelisk that now stands before the Italian parliament. Another day an archaeologist drove a few of us out to a Roman suburb. He lifted a manhole cover, stuck a ladder in it and when we climbed down we were looking at a vast catacomb. So vast, we were warned not to set off exploring it.

I never knew what adventure a day was going to hold.

You later decided to switch gears into higher education. Why did you choose to pursue a career at Randolph Macon Woman’s College in 1994?
The people I met on campus when I came for an interview embodied a serious and intriguing idea of education. The idea that the arts played such a significant role in education was important to me. The fact that the college had an annual exhibition of contemporary art at the Maier Museum of Art was extraordinary. And with its program for bringing artists and scholars to campus, I knew I could contribute to this endeavor of exposing students to the world of art. The collection of art at the museum assured me that I would still have a chance to stand before art. The painter Paul Cezanne said that the only proper place to speak about art is standing in front of it. So the exchange with students would have that authenticity.

What do you enjoy about teaching?
Being with the students. I enjoy thinking of ways to help them make their art. I enjoy sharing the art I love with them. I love the fresh way students look at things. I like their openness to new ideas. I hope to inspire in them a lifelong relationship to the life of the mind. I want to encourage their curiosity before their criticism. When the writer Toni Morrison was asked what she most loved about having children she answered, “They ask me for things nobody else does.” Exactly. Students enrich my life. It’s a two-way street.

How would you describe your artistic style?
Metaphoric abstraction

What are your favorite mediums?
Oil paint and watercolor

Tell us about your most recent exhibition in New York City. This was a big honor!
My paintings were selected by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a group exhibition in New York. The American Academy of Arts and Letters was established in 1898 to “foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts” and is chartered by Congress. Since the opening of the exhibition I have learned that I have been awarded a Purchase Prize, which began in 1946 to place the work of talented, living American artists in museums across the country. Two of my paintings have been purchased by the Academy. These paintings will be on exhibit during the awards and induction ceremony in May and will remain on exhibit through June. And after that, they will be given to museums.

Are there any pieces you have created in your career that you would say are your “favorite”?
It is like having children. You love them all in different ways. But there are certain paintings I call breeders because that is just what they do.

Other paintings come directly from them. Ideas seem to just fall off of them and onto the next canvas.

What are you inspired by?
Art and artists, books, music, nature, and animals.

What role does art play in a community?
Or, what role should it play?
It reminds us of our commonality. Art is a reflection of us and also a world unto itself. It invites an open mind. It offers a place for rest and contemplation. Art reminds us that we are not alone. What we feel has been felt before, by someone else and evidenced in a book, a piece of music, a work of art. Art can take you by the hand and say “I know, I understand. Come with me.”

What’s next for you in your journey?
Setting my life as an artist determines everything. Next is to attend the award ceremony and exhibition of my work at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. (Note: The Academy’s Ceremonial Exhibition is May 17-June 11.)

How can readers get in touch with you? kmuehlemann@randolphcollege.edu

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