Getting to Know Artist Kevin Callahan

Kevin Callahan

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What’s your background?

I am 65 years old and was reared in the Midwest on a rural farm in the 1950s and 60s. Ours was a very poor family, it was a small farm with more children than money. No one in my family had ever attended college. I became the first. From the time I was four I was compelled to try to copy the things I could see. I began at that age by trying to reproduce the cartoons in the Sunday paper, which were in color. By the time I was twelve I was painting my own works on canvas. Badly I’m afraid, yet they were my compositions.

In high school I was both athlete and artist. After graduation I attended Graceland University (then college) for a year to wrestle and study art. The following year I transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, IA where I earned a BFA in Graphic Design with minors in Journalism and Printmaking. It was at Drake where I studied painting under the late Jules Kirschenbaum and printmaking with Richard Black.

Bridget Listens

At Drake, in my senior year I was invited to participate in a multi-state sculpture show and was awarded first prize for my etching at the annual JC Penny show, along with a nice cash award.

For the next 27 years I worked in Publishing and Advertising as an Art Director/Creative Director and finally owner of BSFG advertising. At the age of 50 I attended a master class for painting at the San Francisco Art Inst. under Larry Abramson and then again in 2006 at the Ox-Bow School, Art Institute of Chicago. My teachers at OxBow were Phil Hanson and Michelle Grabner. The tutelage of these fine teachers really opened up my art and helped me prepare to step away from graphic designAs I look back I am happy to say that I have never been anything but an artist in one form or another.

Does your artwork come from that background?

Oh yes, my background is firmly rooted in my past. But, it is also forward looking. I have spent a lifetime in some way stepping away from my background. I never deny my upbringing, nor am I ashamed. Just the opposite I embrace it but leaving a small town and receiving an art education has allowed me to live a life surrounded by what some might term “the finer things.” Over the years we have travel extensively and have put together a modest art collection. It is not unusual to find references of my background in my work, particularly my writing. It is encouraging to me that many of the “kids” I grew up with who are now grandparents stay in touch and actively support me and my art. So you see as I live in one world I have a foot firmly planted in my past.

What are you trying to say with your work?

I work in several mediums and also have multiple series going over decades so there is no single message that I convey in my art. For example: The Girl/Woman/Girl portraits I paint are an effort to capture a pure unguarded moment. The paintings carry reminiscent overtones of both Hopper and Benton. These works exhibit a slightly primitive tone reminding the viewer of the relationship between the camera/canvas/painter/subject. Working from digitals I captures my subject(s), often unaware in a moment in space and time. This invasion/observation offers a very personal connection between the viewer, the artist, and the subjects themselves. These works reveal the subjects in everyday acts yet hints at their mysterious unknowns. Individually each piece offers a view of intriguing subjects, caught in a moment of time. As a body of work, they capture the essence of the female in a kaleidoscope of color and movement.

I once wrote that my paintings are “catching moments” like ensnaring butterflies in a net. My sculptures are whimsical, rescuing old wood and turning it into a work of art. I derive much pleasure from my wood works.

Wild Grapevine Bowl

What made you choose the medium you work with?

I began, as many do, painting in oils. While at Drake, Jules Kirschenbaum was a wizard in acrylics and I naturally migrated to that medium. My works in wood spring both from the childhood background when I fashioned items from old wood on the farm; and from a sculpture class with Doug Hendrickson as my teacher. Although I have long thought of myself as a painter I have a huge affinity for sculpting with wood. I also do a lot of water colors as that is the primary medium I use in my sketchbooks. Ink lines, water colors and graphite help keep my mind sharp.

Do you work in a studio?

Oh yes! I have been fortunate to have a studio (my fourth one) for the past 20 years. When we moved into our current home in Kansas City the previous owner was an artist, so the studio was already there. Behind the studio is a very large area they used for storage. I designed the space and had it remodeled with walls for office, storage, and a gallery. The gallery has a special hanging system I designed. I had my construction guy mount 4 x 8 plastic lattice with spacers to hold it away from the wall. Then with “S” hooks one can move works up/down, left/right and replace them easily.

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What is the one thing in your studio you just could not be without?

Well, that is a pretty difficult question. Making is some easier I would have to say my French easel and flat storage space. But then how could I work without my brushes and a dozen other items that I need?

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Who are your biggest influences?

Without a doubt the single artist who influenced my life the most has been Henri Matisse. But really, we live in a time when it is so simple to study art and artists that there is a very long list of those whose influences show up in my work. Matisse was a fascinating painter, trained at the Beaux Arts where he also taught he turned his back on that type of work to create a whole new way of looking at color. He lived the first half of his life in a struggle to make a living as a painter and endured much ridicule as well as success. Also, Matisse left this world the year I arrived. Coincidence, probably.

What is your favourite piece of work by yourself?

Daughter of the Prophet

Without hesitation it is my painting titled The Daughter of the Prophet. This paint is a life-sized work of a young 12-year-old Muslim girl I encountered in the former East Berlin. Sitting on the edge of an uncertain world and on the cusp of womanhood she gave me a Mona Lisa smile of acceptance.

How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?

This might be my most asked and subsequently hated question. Smiles. The “idea” to do a certain work can run around in my brain for up to a decade. BUT, when I begin to paint I rarely work on a painting for more than a week or two. In fact, some are completed in hours. My larger works, which range from 5, 6, 7 feet generally from stretching the canvas to completion take the longest.

How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?

I’m not sure how other artists work but when I reach a zenith with a work (particularly a painting) I do several things. I set it outside of the studio, so I can observe from different angles. This is often where I spot needed changes, generally small. Then I show it to my family, who know how to give good art criticism. Once I have decided I am done it is very rare for me to make a change.


What project are you working on now?

I have been sculpting art objects from old wood discover in the woods and ancient barn wood. I have several paintings nearly ready to make the leap from my mind to the canvas. One will be a different version of an abstract I painted several years ago. I have a patron who would like “something like that.” Another will be a young woman I spied in a store wearing green plastic boots; and a Matisse inspire work of my wife.

What was the best advice given to you as an artist?

My high school art teacher sat with me in the park before graduation and told me I had the talent to be an artist. To not waste that talent and to get myself off to college. After that everything else became a learning experience. The funniest thing said to me might have been Phil Hansen (head of Chicago Art Inst. Painting at the time) when he observed my plein air work at OxBow. Gazing at my painting of the sink where the artists washed their brushes Phil mused, “Well, we see these things.” I laugh out loud.

What was the first piece of art you sold?

A drawing of a dinosaur in high school. I sold several fine art prints in college. I started sell paintings after I graduated from Drake. I have never been a prolific seller to be honest. The last 20 years have seen many more sales than my younger years. My funniest “sale” was while a freshman in college and guy I knew was taking a drawing class. Except he was too lazy to draw. He had racks of new shirts. So, one drawing, one new shirt. He really improved my wardrobe that year.

Peggy Guggenheims Bed

Do you find it hard to navigate the art world?

Yes, I find it very hard to navigate the art world. It’s hard enough making good art, but then again that’s what we do, right? But that of course is merely the beginning. Unless you are an art super star you will need to market your work, no one will do it for you. This means meeting and cultivating people who will show, sell, or buy YOU. You have to write about your work (or hire another to do it for you). And you can’t let up for a moment because the world will move right past you. I am fortunate in that both of my sons are very good artists and each help encourage and guide me through the current art scene. Also, I have the unconditional support of my non-artist wife. This makes a huge difference.

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What are you personally doing to advance your work career?

I have been doing pop up shows to sell my work directly. I have work in two local galleries and I recently hooked up with an artist’s rep, who has helped sell three of my large paintings. I have participated in many exhibitions and several one man shows over the past decades.

Inside my home I have The Elegant Line Studio. We have hosted post show and art parties in our home, which has a bar/entertainment area and the studio/gallery. These gallery tours are great for networking with other artists/patrons and I do sell work.

I have also been entering local art shows for the past 3 years with some major success. Yay! This has helped to raise my profile. It is kind of a round robin thing. You meet many other artists/patrons through social media, attend their events, then you win a painting contest and post that win on social media, all of those people see your post and that raises your profile as a working artist.

Music chosen by Kevin

How do you price your work and why do you price it that way?

Pricing art work, the single most item that absolutely no one can agree upon. Like most, over the years as I have gained some (modest) success and presence and as such I have set my pricing well above the starving artist level. Although my paintings are still in line with what one should expect to pay. I also think that the relative importance you, as the artist, place on any one work affects how you price it.

Do you use social networking in your day to day life?

Yes. I use Facebook, Fine Art America, Instagram, and my site Prairie Primitives.

Is there anything that really annoys you about the artworld?

Oh yes, many things. Primary among them is the idea that as an artist we only need to make what we see as art and to ignore the history that has come before us. I find Art without Art Education to be vacuous and uninformed. The fall back from many artists seems to be, “well, that’s just my opinion,” but I feel that “opinion” counts for little against the weight of history. Not that mine counts for much. In my younger years I chased approval: tell me I am an ARTIST!? Please. In the last 20 years I finally understand that I can do this, I need no one else’s permission to make my art. And that I am making good art. And on rare occasions, important art.

Prairie Asian Barn Board Tray

What advice would you give new artists?

Go to law school or become an electrician. Seriously, artists, writers, dancers, musicians do what we do because we are compelled. Compelled to create and give it to the world whether it gets noticed or we even get paid. If you are not THAT driven, then find another way to make a living.

Also, draw, draw, draw, and paint something every day if you can. I do small water color sketches to keep my hand in like a musician practicing.

The Gratitude Girl

Have you got hobbies?

Between painting, sculpting, photographing, and writing prose and poetry the time left is consumed by my family and taking care of our home.

Where are you based?

I am in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area of the US. KC has a very vital art scene and I am enjoying meeting and working with area artists.

Kevin (pronounced Keevin) Callahan

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Isabella F A Shores
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Isabella F A Shores

Founder /Artist at YoursByShores
Hello, my name is Isabella Shores.I'm a dog lover with two Alsatians.A bird lover...2 budgies, and an avid writer.

I live in Manchester, UK and try to promote other artists and writers when I can.I'm so pleased you found our community and I hope to chat to you soon!!Please comment on my posts if you like them 🙂
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Ed Meredith
Ed Meredith

Love your new sculptural work Kevin. Great interview and advice., I shoulda been a lawyer… lol

Ronald Walker
Ronald Walker

Great interview Kevin! Love your work!!