Kenn Backhaus | The Extra Mile

By Virginia Campbell

Arizona painter KENN BACKHAUS strives to move beyond conventional visual meaning in his landscapes and other scenes


LATE LAST AUTUMN, when catastrophic fires were tearing through canyons and throwing a pall of ash and smoke into the atmosphere over Southern California, Kenn Backhaus was working out on Catalina Island, a small gem of natural harbors off the California coast beloved by sailors and plein-air painters for over a century.

The frequent changes in wind, temperature, and humidity on Catalina make for such an inspiring variety of special effects that it’s as if you were looking through an ever-turning prism held up to the sunlight over grassy hills and cold sea. On this particular morning, though, Catalina was lit with an eerie luminosity that was outside the island’s usual repertoire of beauty.

The dry wind blasting out of the California desert, which can give the air over Catalina a spectacular clarity, had instead blown the ash and smoke from whole forests of flame into a high-altitude haze that gave the morning light a distinctly unnatural loveliness.

To look at Backhaus’s painting MORNING GLOW, in which pleasure boats rest beneath cliffs that support a rising diagonal of sun-struck cottages, you wouldn’t guess that destruction and death are hidden in the picture’s subtext.


But the eeriness of the “glow” is precisely what makes the painting tick. The vision of a calm that’s as unsettling as it is beautiful lingers and reverberates with feeling.

“I’m interested in that extra thing beyond how well I can treat the illusion of what I’m painting,” says Backhaus in clear, Midwestern vowels and phrasing. “Once proficiency has been developed to the point where you don’t have to think about it, then you can get beyond what I call ‘mimic skills.’ The question is, what then becomes the focus of your thinking?” In some ways, MORNING GLOW is an atypical example of what Backhaus has in mind when he goes that extra mile.

By temperament he tends to veer away from dramatic aberrations in nature or the world of man when he decides what to paint, preferring to fix his attention on a simple stand of aspen, a stretch of still water, a humble, middle-aged face, or even just an orderly row of pitched tents. “What interests me,” he explains, “are the kind of everyday occurrences and everyday beauty that overcome complacency.” In keeping with that goal, MORNING GLOW carries no hint of wildfire as it captures the reality of unusual light, but reaches for an “extra thing” by setting up a tension between the almost subliminal oddness of the landscape’s color and the serenity of its composition.

When Backhaus says his work has started to take a different direction in the last five years, he is talking about this quest for “the extra thing,” the mystery of beauty that arises beyond conventional visual meaning. It’s probably not a coincidence that it was five years ago when he left his home and studio in Wisconsin to settle in Prescott, AZ. The two departures run parallel to mark an important change in the artist’s life and work.

BACKHAUS’ ROOTS WERE deep in the soil of Wisconsin, where he was born in 1951 and grew up the farm-boy son of a father graced with uncanny drawing skills that were free to come out only when the harvest was in. “If my father hadn’t been a farmer by necessity, he would have been an artist,” maintains Backhaus. “He was very encouraging to me about pursuing art.” The young artist’s talent showed itself early, and he went straight to the Layton School of Art not far from home when he graduated from high school.


Possessed of natural gifts in draftsmanship and composition, he had both the interest and patience to master the basic skills that are no longer always part of an artist’s education. Upon graduating from art school he made a smooth transition into a career in corporate design and advertising art. He married, had a daughter, and spent 10 years building up his reputation.

“But even though I was more than knee-deep into slick, commercial realism,” he recalls, “I always had a desire for the immediacy and honesty of the French, Russian, and American Impressionists. The subtle palette of landscape painting had greater and greater appeal.” By the early ’80s,

Backhaus had developed a solid enough client base to work independently three days a week and devote the rest of his time to painting. “It worked out better than I ever thought it would,” he remembers. “I made enough money to build my home and studio, and I had enough time to develop my sensitivity to my surroundings.”

Backhaus would eventually become a member of the Plein-Air Painters of America and serve as the organization’s president, but initially his need to paint outdoors was a matter of pragmatism and disposition more than principle. “I’m not a purist at all,” he explains, “but I learn more from direct observation than anything else. When I wanted to sever myself from my commercial career, I severed myself from those techniques and learned to record what was in front of me.” Early on, Backhaus experimented with surfaces.

“I didn’t like the way canvas took the oil,” he says, “so I tried a variety of linen weaves, from portrait linen to almost burlap. I mixed my own rabbit glue for sizing and prepared the ground myself. I came to like a linen in the middle range, one with a little more tooth to grab the paint off the brush.” Once he’d found his technical comfort zone, Backhaus started using prepared surfaces and focused his time on the activity of painting itself. “I like to fail as much as possible and learn from the failures,” he says. “Back then, sometimes I’d get lucky and do something good, but I never learned from that.”

During this period the artist also began traveling. “Travel was one of the most important things I did at that time, and still do,” says Backhaus. After a decade of looking closely at the world around him and at paintings in museums by artists from Klimt to Inness, from Levitan to Frank Tenney Johnson, Backhaus made the leap to painting exclusively noncommercial work and moved to Arizona. Backhaus’ migration to the Southwest did not turn him into strictly a Southwest painter. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m in Arizona, because I love water so much,” he laughs. “But Prescott is in the high desert at the edge of a Ponderosa forest, so it’s not too hot in summer and there are seasons.

It has a Midwestern feel with its town square, and it’s not too big. Tucson would be way too big for me.” Still, many of Backhaus’ best paintings—DESERT BLUE, for example, a landscape of tall cacti standing like sentinels before mountains of a subtly unlikely blue—are characteristic Southwest scenes. But as a whole, his work seeks out the greatest possible variety of Southwest terrain, and many individual paintings are (or could be) of other regions.


Ultimately, Prescott works well for Backhaus because he isn’t there all the time. “I’ve become a gypsy,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed artists who could capture anything in front of them. It’s not a matter of being a jack-of-all-trades, but of seeing new things. I’m all over the map, and all over the board—I do landscapes, figures, still life, portraits. I switch so I don’t become complacent.” The change that’s occurred over the five years since Backhaus moved to Arizona is tied less to his new region itself than to the restlessness that got him there. Now that he can render just about any subject he wishes with evocative fidelity, he wants each painting to do something more than that.

What is the “extra” thing a painter must do to journey artistically beyond the visual reality of a subject? Backhaus’ restlessness would seem to provide the answer to the question it raises. Which is to say that there isn’t a single answer. The artist’s recent paintings suggest a series of answers, an open-ended progression that feeds off his long-nurtured wealth of proficiency.

In many of his paintings, the true subject is less the particular scene he has chosen than the way he has used shadow within it. Although drama per se is rare in his work, when anything does happen it almost always happens in shadow. In other paintings, Backhaus’s subject is the dynamic of the viewer’s attention. “You can generate greater or lesser tension through the manner of entrance and exit in the composition,” says Backhaus, and his minimalist landscape MORNING CALM, with its high horizon over an expanse of still water in which the reflected hills are subtly larger than the actual ones, proves his point.


With the shift in emphasis from the specifics of landscape to the formal and abstract qualities of painting itself, Backhaus now spends more time in his studio—the converted garage of the house he and his wife bought. “My studio is more crucial to me because I’m starting to work more from studies,” he says. He has also turned more to photography, something he deliberately distanced himself from when he left commercial art.

“Digital cameras are very good at recording the subtle contrasts in shadows,” he points out. “I’d never be a slave to photography, but it would be stupid not to use it.” That being said, Backhaus is an artist who’s served two years as president of the Plein-Air Painters of America. “I belong to very few organizations,” he says. “When I join one, I do it because I believe in it. There isn’t anything like being in the landscape, because it isn’t just what you see, but what you smell and hear that makes a difference.” What moves the artist’s ever more experienced eyes nowadays is constantly being redefined—and not always captured in his paintings. “There are things too beautiful to paint,” he says. “I just enjoy them.”

Backhaus is represented by Art Access Gallery, Columbus, OH; Debra Huse Studio Gallery, Balboa Island, CA; Fritzler Fine Art, Mesa, CO; and Troika Gallery, Easton, MD.

Featured in July 2004