Royal Flush

The UA Museum Of Art Presents A Retrospective Of The Late Barbara Kennedy's Brilliant Work.

TIME WAS, THE painter Jim Waid had trouble finding fiery-colored pastels in this town.

"I'd go to Sarnoff's for red pastels, and they'd tell me, 'Barbara Kennedy just bought them all,' " Waid told a crowd last week at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. "It got so I had to start ordering from out of town."

Waid didn't really mind. He and Kennedy were close friends for 30 years, having met in 1968 when Kennedy was the art teacher at Green Fields Country Day School and Waid was the gardener and school bus driver. Besides, the reds went to a good cause, as a retrospective of Kennedy's work now up at the museum amply demonstrates.

Barbara Kennedy: The Priority of Color is full of pastel paintings ablaze with fire-engine red, canary yellow, orange, turquoise and purple. Flowers, fruits and birds dance across her papers' expanse, abstracted into bursts of color that chop up the space in startling ways. These are still lifes with only a slim relationship to the objects that inspired them: plates are up-ended ("Burnt Orange and Beads," 1991), chairs cavort through space ("Untitled," 1998), sunflowers jump off the paper ("Out of the Blue," circa 1995).

Gorgeous as the pastels are, it's not only the color that makes them pulsate with life. Here and there in the pictures are bits of thick hand-made paper, saturated with dyes in the same intense hues as the pastels. Kennedy used the paper like paint, transforming an umber swatch into flowers in "Abstraction," 1994, and an orange twist into a sunset. The crumpled papers, some of them half an inch thick, push the flat pastels into a whole new dimension.

"Pastels and paper go well together," Kennedy told me during an interview at the Tohono Chul Gallery in 1995, where, at the age of 84, she had a show called Color and Paper. "I began doing these still life things with paper and they turned into something no one else has ever done. What the paper does to the drawing just adds a dimension. It comes alive. It's not like anything else."

Waid agreed. "When she started putting in paper, it gave her art a physical quality; it didn't look flat to her. The freshness of collage gave it a kind of friction, tension. As she gained confidence, her work got stronger and her colors more brilliant."

Barbara Kennedy died a year ago this month, at the age of 87. Though she was interested in art all her life, she created her best works after the age of 66, inspired by a close encounter with handmade paper at a San Francisco gallery in 1977. Kennedy became Tucson's foremost maker of what she called "self-made" paper and the deceptively decorative art she made out of it got her into the galleries, won her the attention of critics, and prompted the museum retrospective. All of it was produced between the ages of 66 and 87. As she aged she began supplementing the colored papers with the pastels, creating almost accidentally a new art from.

Kennedy was in declining health the last few years of her life, but continued to work. Some of the show's best pieces are from 1998, the year she died. An untitled paper collage-and-pastel from 1998 shows an odd collection of chairs of all sizes, floating along with random fruits in a free-form space colored in reds and oranges. In its liberation from conventional space, its sensuous rhythm and its joy in simple things, the piece recalls one of Kennedy's heroes, Matisse. Another from the same year is a pungent still life in pink, turquoise and her trademark purple, ostensibly of fruits and flowers. But so free-form are they they're hardly recognizable. They're something new, and better. As Kennedy's body weakened, her art strengthened. At the end she broke all the remaining constraints in her art.

"In the last years her structure changed," Waid said. "She was letting things float in space...doing collage work allowed her to tap into an intuitive process."

KENNEDY WAS BORN Barbara Chesney in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1911, the daughter of a father who worked with Thomas Edison, according to Waid, and a mother who was a gifted needleworker. In those days, women's traditional crafts weren't thought of as art, and Kennedy's mother didn't consider herself an artist. Late in life, though, her daughter remembered her as one. "Mother was an artist. She just did everything with a needle."

The daughter grew up to study art history at Smith College, where she began lifelong friendships with the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the chef Julia Child. These early intellectual relationships set the pattern for the diverse friendships Kennedy had her whole life. She was famous in Tucson for her "evenings" at home, where she also regularly staged open studios for her fellow artists. Just a few years ago, Waid remembered, she orchestrated an astronomy lecture at her house, complete with astronomer and slides. "Her range of friends included artists, physicists, musicians and schoolteachers," he noted.

Kennedy graduated from college in 1935, and four years later married pediatrician Jim Kennedy. She gave birth to three boys, one of whom, Doug, later became a political figure in Tucson. In the early years, the family was itinerant, moving to Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia for Jim's career. As the kids got bigger, Kennedy picked up art classes when she could, studying at the Denver Art Museum and the Richmond Professional Institute, and getting herself elected head of the Richmond Art Association in 1963. It was in Richmond the same year that she had her first one-person show, winning local acclaim for her wood-block prints.

The family moved to Tucson for Jim's worsening emphysema, and once in the dry desert Kennedy began studying both at the UA and with Hazel Larsen Archer at the Tucson Art Center (now the Tucson Museum of Art). Archer was a disciple of Josef Albers, an abstractionist of color, and she taught Kennedy the rigorous Albers color exercises familiar to generations of art students. Some of Kennedy's early efforts tinkering with pink and blue are on display in an exhibit case at the museum: the idea was to study the perceptual effects of color against color. And the materials the exercises required were, for Kennedy, prescient: a big box with hundreds of sheets of paper, each one in a different color.

"You did it with paper, not paint," Kennedy recalled years later. "It trained me in my favorite thing, color, the thing I do best."

In 1967, just four years after the move to Tucson, Jim Kennedy died, and his widow hired on at Green Fields Country Day as an art teacher. She applied what she'd learned in the classroom. "She was very serious about giving a quality education," said Waid. "I'd stop by her classroom and we'd talk."

Her own artwork at this time was formal and geometric. An untitled acrylic on board from the early '70s, displayed in the retrospective, is a cool, cerebral painting sprung directly out of Albers. The base is a wood diamond painted olive green; on top of it are two interlocking squares made of orderly rows of sticks, colored in the complementary colors of blue and orange.

But her art would change drastically after she retired from Green Fields. In 1975 at the age of 64, she became a full-time artist, her best work still ahead of her. Two years later she fell in love, as she herself put it, with hand-made paper, thick, raggedy-edged and luscious.

"It was mostly white," she said later, searching for the words to describe why it so entranced her. "It was texture. It was a presence that other paper doesn't have."

Kennedy threw herself into new studies. She traveled to Japan, the epicenter of paper art, to immerse herself in traditional forms, and she learned variations of the craft in San Francisco, Arcosanti, Colorado and elsewhere. Some of Kennedy's early paper works in the museum show are surprisingly monochromatic. "Desert Calligraphy," 1979, self-made paper with raffia, is very much an earth-toned organic affair, suffering from the browns that afflicted crafts for the whole decade of the 1970s. A more interesting series from the mid-1980s explores the delicacies of white on white, threaded with silver, and molded against odd shapes, like chicken wire and sticks. Others are colored, but delicately, in lavenders and pale pinks.

Kennedy's sudden discovery of the possibilities of richly colored paper as a replacement for paint shows up in an explosive untitled work from 1985. It's a big colorful abstracted landscape, made up entirely of deeply pigmented papers joyfully twisted and thrown across the surface. A hot pink sky hovers over a land of light and deep blues, shot up with big orange stripes.

"It was amazing when she discovered hand-made paper -- it was a tremendous leap forward," Waid said. "Like a light bulb going off. She had shows at Pima (Community College) of her paper. All of a sudden people in town were interested in her work."

She exhibited at the Tucson Museum of Art, which purchased a piece in 1980, at Dinnerware, at Obsidian, at Tohono Chul, and at a host of other places in town and out. In 1993, she had a one-woman show at the Temple Gallery. She was written up in all the local papers, and even made it into the national journal Art in America.

Terry Etherton, who gave her the show at the Temple, said then that "Barbara's art works on many levels. It has an immediate appeal. It's very beautiful, very decorative, but it has more substance to it than first meets the eye."

Despite her cloud of pure-white hair, it was easy to forget that this energetic new art star was a woman in her 70s, and then 80s. Making the paper was a daunting task, "an incredible operation," Waid remembered. "There'd be these large sheets of paper, and she'd be pouring the color."

But as her body aged, and the papermaking became harder, Kennedy discovered that she could get colors just as intense out of her pastels. When she had to stop making paper altogether, she simply drew on her stockpiles of handmade paper and combined it with pastels into the new art form. A new figuration came into her art, too. Kennedy's unerring instinct for a bright palette also colored her home and her garden, Waid said, and he saw the new paintings as the union of her art with the treasures of her personal life, the jewelry, colored cloth, and exotic folk arts brought back from her many travels.

"She went from formal art to bringing in to her art the other things she loved in her life, the color, the flowers, and so on."

She kept working right up until the end, amazing Waid "with how much she did when she was tired."

Kennedy's death came via a severe stroke. She never regained consciousness, but something curious happened when she was rushed to the hospital.

"When she was unconscious, on the table in the emergency room, she raised her arm and drew in the air. It was the epitome of how driven she was."

Barbara Kennedy: The Priority of Color, A Retrospective Exhibition continues through Saturday, January 2, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Speedway Boulevard. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Saturdays and holidays. For more information, call 621-7567.