Listening to an artist's vision

December 09, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Most of the large and small canvases in the exhibit of James Kline's recent oil paintings are untitled.

"Cedar Field," "Romantic Landscape" and "Figure (Reclining)" are three titles that are about as descriptive as the Washington County-born artist gets.

"It's just distracting," he says of the name game.

A painting is never going to have the same meaning for everyone. What sings for one may not for another.

As do music and literature, the visual arts have their own language, Kline says. If you try to mix one with another, so many times, you dilute the meaning.

Through Sunday, Dec. 15, several of Kline's paintings are on display at AIIA (Antiques to Art) in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

AIIA gallery owner Wayne Skinner compares titling paintings to busily reading descriptive surtitles instead of listening to the music at the opera.


"Let the paintings speak for themselves," Kline agrees.

Skinner, former chairman of Shepherd College's art department, says Kline's use of color is distinctive. Landscapes in his 1980 Art Students League of New York exhibit were described at the time as having "the quietness and mood of still life. They often evoke evening."

Kline, 55, grew up in Keedysville and was "never discouraged" in artistic pursuits. But the thought of becoming an artist was just not part of the culture.

He received a scholarship to the McDonogh School, a private school near Baltimore, and attended from seventh grade until he graduated in 1965.

He went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and says he probably was going to be a French major.

"I really wanted to be a painter," Kline says. But he had no advice in that direction. Nobody had presented that as an option.

It was during the Vietnam era. Kline enlisted in the Naval Reserve.

After two years in the service, Kline says he realized if he wanted to paint, he had to "get at it."

He took a trip to Greece he describes as a "showdown." "I just painted," he says, but he found a direction, deciding "I gotta get to art school."

"I was just determined," he says. He chose and was accepted at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. Kline knew he didn't want an academic program. The League is similar to the old studio-type atelier, in which a student signs up to study with a particular artist.

Kline studied for three years with Julian Levi and explored different areas of art. He did anatomical studies; he learned portraiture. Levi once suggested Kline pursue portrait painting as a good way to make a living.

Kline recalls with a smile a portrait painted on his earlier trip to Greece. An old man with a wonderful face agreed to sit for him.

When Kline showed him the finished work, the old fellow asked him to adjust a couple of the creases in his face.

The young artist complied. "Wait 'til the old lady sees this," his subject beamed.

Kline prefers "pure painting," painting without such demands.

He toyed with the idea of not spending a fourth year in New York. He applied for the League's Edward G. McDowell Scholarship. A jury consisting of artists James Rosenquist, Raphael Soyer and Reuben Tam awarded the prize to Kline. The award enabled him to travel to Europe from 1976-77 - going to museums "all the time" in Paris, Southern France, Spain, Italy.

His way of learning was to study paintings. "It's a visual medium and that's how you're going to learn," he says.

"You just absorb and absorb."

And also paint and paint.

"You just keep doing it. You just have to give yourself to it enough."

"Everything I paint is the same in many ways," Kline says.

He says he loves the idea of storytelling, but stays away from that in his art. Yet he says he's never gone totally abstract.

Kline doesn't have a formula for the way he paints or the way he chooses his subject matter.

"It's not engineering," he laughs.

"I look for something with visual impact that I could not get any other way," Kline says.

He's always surprised that he can have a show and have so many of his paintings sell. As of late last week, 28 of 34 paintings on display had been purchased.

"After a while you have to start believing that it does mean something," Kline says.

If ever he were to give advice to someone interested in painting, he would recommend learning the craft and the history. "The craft is so important," he says.

Kline wants people not to be intimidated by galleries. They don't have to buy anything, but galleries provide opportunities to see art to learn what it has to say.

See Kline's paintings. Hear them sing.

If you go . . .

James Kline

An exhibition of recent oil paintings

11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Today and Thursday, Dec. 12, through Sunday, Dec. 15

AIIA (Antiques to Art)

W.Va. 230

Shepherdstown, W.Va.

For information, call 1-304-876-0659.

Directions from Hagerstown: Take Md. 65 south to Sharpsburg. Take right on Md. 34 west. Follow, across the Potomac River, into Shepherdstown.

Take a left on German Street at four-way stop. Go through town, take a right on Princess Street, take a left on W.Va. 230. AIIA is on the left.

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