Behind the Canvas
Currently showing at the Wally Workman Gallery is an exhibit featuring the work of artist Will Klemm as it spans his 20-year career with the gallery. Originally an Austin transplant, the UT graduate is now a deeply rooted Austinite. Klemm says that coming to Austin was like coming from the dark into the light — and it is this light which plays most strongly in his work.
His vibrant skyscapes and expansive vistas, from his early pastels to his current oil paintings, are infused with a living glow. I met with Klemm in his historic East Side home; it too is full of light and a deeply energized serenity. The century old manor house, with majestic ceilings and grand windows, reflects the man and his work.
CultureMap: How did you get started working in pastels?
Will Klemm: There was a teacher named William Hoey and he was sort of the standard. . . Bill Hoey showed up at the Gallery at Shoal Creek. He did these beautiful billowing joyous landscapes with big clouds and bright colors — sort of the corridor between here and New Mexico which is exactly where I am working these days. They were so refreshingly not engaged with contemporary art practice, I thought ‘Oh, you’re my hero. This is exactly what I want to do.’
He taught a class in pastels and I took [it], and by the time I finished I was making a living selling pastels. Something clicked. It was funny because I had never been at all attracted to the medium before that, mostly because pastels can get real wispy wavy gravy. . .but he worked with a really direct stroke. I go back and forth in my work. I have a piece from the era I can show you.
(Klemm pulls out a small pastel: shapely cultivated trees on a green velvet lawn in bold strokes of greens, purples, pinks, and blues.)
Here is a piece that is sort of like that. It has lots of heavy strokes. That’s more reminiscent of Bill’s work. I was very dazzled by it. I liked his simple no-nonsense approach to the whole. . .and people liked his work and they could relate to it. That’s what got me into that.
CM: Your work has such vibrant living realness to it. You create open and inviting landscapes that I feel I could step into, yet if you look closely there are these sharp color surprises, a splash of purple...
WK: Thats the sort of other funny thing about visual art, sometimes you’ll look at it and think, ‘Oh yeah, that looks just like the real thing.’ But as somebody once pointed out, if you put an actual person next to a Rembrandt, the Rembrandt is so red and so extreme. It doesn’t look that way.
There is sort of a little trickery involved and that was where I got into trouble when I went from just working intuitively to trying to teach people. I did not know that at the time. I was working away with ‘that works visually’ but I could not explain it to people.
CM: So how or why did you make the step from pastel to oil?
WK:I’m still working both. The reason I made the step from pastel to oil, there were some problems sending these pastels all over the country first of all, if you wanted to work big that is about the limit of the pastel. (Klemm points to a soft landscape hung on the wall beside us, perhaps 2' by 3') I have worked a little bigger than that, but it ends up being a framing nightmare.
At one point, just to deliver one of the big pastels, we had to build a big life-size crate that would stand up in the back of the truck because you couldn’t lay it on its side. . .Then, also, wanting to work more with texture and thickness. I would look at paintings and go, ‘How did people make that painting?’ I would want to know.
CM: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t find your first school challenging enough. Now that you are not in that kind of structure, where do you find your challenges?
WK: You are looking at other people’s work and constantly trying to get to that level. That is the funny thing about the arts. It’s not like you’re ever. . .I mean you can get to a plateau and you’re sort of on top of it and you can crank out the stuff but you’re never satisfied. I don’t know an artist that is satisfied with their work or even halfway satisfied. You look at the great art throughout history and you think, ‘I have so far to go.’ It motivates you to keep working. You’re never bored. I have to say I’m never bored doing art, and I’m never bored looking at art.
CM: What is the purpose of art?
WK: I heard somebody talk about the purpose of literature the other day and they said that the purpose of good literature was to make you feel less alone. I came to that conclusion a long time ago with art. That is what art did for me.