The Kentucky Center for the Arts is best known for performances by the Louisville Ballet, Louisville Orchestra, StageOne Family Theater, and a whole host of touring and local theater, music and dance.
But from the beginning, it also has featured world-class fine art and sculpture. The Kentucky Center’s collection has just grown, adding three paintings from Vera Klement, a renowned painter with a fascinating history and a prolific and varied output.
Insider spoke with the Chicago-based artist by phone and also caught up with Diane Tobin, special assistant to the president of the Kentucky Center, who helped secure the new paintings.
Additions to the venue’s collection are rare.
“This happens every once in a blue moon,” said Tobin.
She added the center doesn’t take just any kind of art — additions to the collection must be from important artists, recognized on the international scene. That demand for quality has guided the acquisition of art since the venue’s inception.
“They are 20th century modern art pieces from the top artists in the world,” said Tobin
The new Klement paintings took a circuitous and lucky path to Kentucky.
Klement is closing in on her 90th birthday and has chosen to start finding homes for her personal collection of her work. She’s placing those paintings in public buildings.
“My niece is an aspiring visual artist, and she was in Chicago and was talking to a particular gallery owner, and he had introduced her to Vera Klement, whom he represents in his gallery,” explained Tobin.
This chance meeting led to a conversation about the Kentucky Center.
“And my niece had mentioned to her, ‘Well, my aunt works in a public building …,’ and after several conversations, Vera became interested in the Kentucky Center,” said Tobin.
Tobin eventually traveled to Chicago to meet Klement, and after a process of review, Klement gave the Kentucky Center three paintings: “Hedge,” “Midnight Birds” and “Trace of Day.”
Klement spoke about these paintings’ meanings, but started by saying that direct interpretation is difficult.
“It’s very hard to say exactly what a painting is about,” said Klement, “because I work with subconscious and I don’t question it, and whatever it offers me I feel fortunate that I’ve got something to work with. So I just feel my job is to do the best I can.”
She was able to discuss the inspiration and process of the three paintings.
“Hedge,” an oil, wax and graphite work on a canvas measuring 84 inches by 60 inches, was inspired by the film “Shoah.”
“It’s about the Holocaust. What’s remarkable about it is there’s no creepy footage — no corpses, no violence shown,” said Klement.
The film, which Klement said we must watch despite its nine-hour length, instead uses long interviews intercut with present-day images of the sites of the Nazi atrocities.
“Then you see the camera showing a meadow, with grass gently blowing in the wind, where we know a certain thing took place. But he doesn’t show that certain thing, he only shows the pleasant landscape. So I thought that landscape changes and covers and hides malignant events,” she said.
Klement took a less conceptual approach in the work “Trace of Day,” another large canvas with oil paint and wax.
“My friend has a property with a lot of trees, and something about trees just intrigues me,” she explained. “I think maybe because when I was a child, we had a forest near our house, and I have a passion for trees. I like the way they look, the way they have girth, the way they stand there. I think of them as witnesses to history.”
The difference between a heavily conceptual piece and a more representative work bespeaks a larger idea in Klement’s practice.
“One of my rules is I have to make something different each time, otherwise I’d be cranking out a product. So I put all these rules in the way to prevent myself from cranking,” said Klement.
While the three paintings coming to the Kentucky Center vary in methodology, they also show the artist’s ideas of how canvas should be approached and how her subjects should be framed.
“I play with the notion of silence because my canvases are unpainted — they are white, and I don’t touch the white in the areas where I don’t have something going on,” she said.
This is a sharp contrast to many artists who will prep an entire canvas, painting a base layer before they ever begin to work on a painting.
Klement also removes what she paints from scene and context.
“I don’t try to — let’s say if I do a figure — I don’t put a figure in a chair in a room in a house. I paint the figure, period, as though it is a sculptural object in space.”
There are definitely recurring themes in her work, and the third painting, “Midnight Birds,” illuminates her frequent contemplations of the tragedies of despotic regimes. These themes are likely influenced by Klement’s childhood. Her family fled Europe in 1938 just ahead of the Nazi occupation.
While “Hedge” examines larger ideas about history and horror, “Midnight Birds” is one painting in a series, each of which reflect on a single soul snuffed out by totalitarianism.
She chose poets as her inspiration, reading and translating their work.
“They had to have lived in totalitarian regimes,” she said. “They had to be harassed, or murdered, or sent off into exile, or quieted — they were not able to write — so those kind of artists. And there are plenty of those, of course, in the Hitler and Stalin regimes.”
Klement talked about the poet represented by “Midnight Birds.”
“That painting came from a Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who was murdered in the gulag, and he had a poem that had that image, that he called midnight birds, and how they flew in utter silence.”
Klement’s works can be seen at the Kentucky Center whenever the building is open, but do yourself a favor and take a guided tour of its collection, a mere $2. The Kentucky Center is located at 501 W. Main St.