By Bonnie Gangelhoff
On a Friday night in December, Andrea Kemp is standing in the midst of the jam-packed opening for the American Art Invitational at Saks Galleries in Denver, CO. Collectors and artists mingle while sipping wine and perusing artworks. Kemp is among the 42 artists in the juried show, which features painters and sculptors from across the country. And at 29, she is one of the youngest participants among a group of established artists such as Nancy Guzik, Quang Ho, and John Traynor.
As Kemp talks with several art lovers, a sensuous painting of a nude entitled STUDIO VIST rests on an easel nearby. “I just finished it at three o’clock this morning,” Kemp says. She had worked on the piece on and off for three months. “Some paintings don’t go as easily as I hope,” she adds.
The Denver-area artist is the first to admit that she is a perfectionist. Kemp credits her artistic nature to her mother, an accomplished musician. But her perfectionist, self-critical side comes from her father, who is a lawyer, she says. Early in life, her parents nurtured her creative bent with piano, flute, clarinet, and art classes. While she was always interested in music and played her instruments well, it eventually became clear that her heart belonged to painting and drawing. By the time she was in high school, her passion was evident. She was serious about pursuing a life in fine art, and her teachers suggested she take art classes at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, CO, in her free time.
Kemp considers herself lucky when she reflects back on her early art training and on one serendipitous meeting in particular. Although she was not familiar with prominent still-life painter Dan Sprick at the time, she ended up in his class at the college and learned a great deal under his mentorship. By the time she graduated from high school, the budding young artist had chalked up three years of advanced study, including the college classes as well as many 10-hour sessions on the weekends painting alongside Sprick in his studio. “Andrea came to my classes at the age of 16 with an average capability, but when I explained things about drawing and painting, she understood them to an unusual degree, applied them, and progressed rapidly,” Sprick recalls.
And so, even before she entered the Old Lyme Art Academy in Connecticut in 1999, Kemp possessed a solid art education and background. She later transferred to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and graduated with a degree in painting and drawing in 2002.
Kemp knows that accolades and other good things have come her way earlier in life than for many other artists. At the age of 25 she was already showing with a gallery, Keating Fine Art, which was located in Basalt, CO, at the time. In 2006, she appeared in Southwest Art’s annual 21 Under 31 article spotlighting emerging artists and rising young stars. And in October of this year she will have her first solo show at Saks Galleries.
One day recently she sat down in her studio in Golden, a Denver suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and talked about her artistic concerns and dreams for the future. Kemp’s studio is a minimalist, clean space with a cement floor that’s barely a year old. On this particular day, sunlight streams through sprawling north-facing windows until clouds roll in and the sky dissolves into a wintry cloudscape. One of Kemp’s dogs, an Australian Shepherd named Bob Ross, rests on the floor near her easel. The other, a border collie named Kettle, wanders off into the adjoining kitchen, apparently uninterested in a conversation about art.
The American Art Invitational is only two days in the past, but Kemp’s focus has already shifted to her solo show in October. For this upcoming milestone, she plans to paint a series of works focusing on her vision of contemporary life. “I want to show some paintings that depict middle America—not farms, necessarily, but what the landscape looks like with people engaged in regular activities like biking, hiking, and hitchhiking,” she explains. Kemp’s husband, Adam Williams, is an avid cyclist, and part of the inspiration for the new series comes from her fascination with the cycling culture. “I want to portray what it’s like to live in this area of the country where cycling is so huge,” she explains.
A painting resting against the wall behind her depicts the suburban street where she lives—a work in progress that’s also part of the contemporary American life series. Kemp says she plans to add mother and daughter figures staring up at the sky. The painting’s messages and meanings won’t be transparent; instead, her goal is for people to experience a certain mood or feeling upon viewing the piece.
The scene already evokes a sense of mystery and the surreal, even before Kemp has finished it. In some ways it comes as no surprise that she is a big fan of filmmaker David Lynch, who has written and directed such mysterious, dreamlike movies as Mulholland Drive as well as the critically acclaimed television series Twin Peaks. In a Lynch drama, things are not always what they seem, and likewise, Kemp’s mission is to invite people to dig below the surface and find more than initially meets the eye.
“Lynch knows how to put you in a scene,” Kemp says. “Because he has a painting background, his purpose is to create movies that are more like paintings. They offer an experience to the viewer. It doesn’t have to make sense for the viewer to relate to it and experience it.”
Kemp is also inspired by realist painter Winslow Homer [1836-1910] because he portrayed life in his times. “He was really painting what was around him, what people were doing,” she says. “He was surrounded by the sea and he painted fisherman. His works weren’t romanticized—they were pretty raw.”
While she appreciates the beauty of contemporary paintings done in the style of the old masters, as an artist she is strictly about the here and now. In her still-life works she eschews the iconic fruit, flowers, and vases, preferring instead to train her eye on things like the loveliness of an egg, a weathered watering can, or a cinder block.
Her appreciation for the everyday object, she says, stems from her early student days painting alongside Sprick. “Dan helped me get over my sense of the projected beauty of an object and focus more on the beauty of everyday, ordinary objects,” she says. “You can create powerful images by focusing on the ordinary, because you are forced to look at the abstraction of forms.”
Over the past 18 months, Kemp says, she feels her direction shifting slowly toward painting more figures, with a special interest in exploring the duality of masculinity and femininity in the sexes. Currently she is working on a large canvas that depicts two women facing each other. Eventually each woman will sport orchid tattoos on their backs. Orchid petals will rain down on the two figures. Why orchids? “Certain varieties are androgynous,” Kemp says. “They don’t need to be cross-pollinated, and they can exist on their own. They don’t need the feminine or masculine.”
Her love affair with orchids blossomed about six years ago when, by chance, various friends began bringing the flowers to her as gifts. Eventually one friend gave her the popular book The Orchid Thief, and she became fascinated with the history, biology, and obsession some people harbor for the flowers. For a while, Kemp says, she even painted a series of orchids, which turned out to be quite popular with collectors.
Indeed, a lovely purple orchid sits in one corner of her studio, a recent gift from a friend. For Kemp, the orchid embodies personal symbolism in her evolution as an artist. She recalls that at one point in her young career, she tried hard to paint like a man, so that no one would know a woman was behind the work. Kemp credits an artist friend, figurative painter and sculptor Michael Bergt, with “calling her on it” and changing her attitude. “Michael is intuitive, and he knew what I was thinking without me telling him,” she says. “He told me not to be afraid of the feminine or the softer side. Now I’m a little embarrassed that I used to be afraid to be identified as a woman painter. I am a woman painter.” (She is quick to add, however, that people won’t find her painting something “extremely sweet, or models dressed up in costumes.”)
As for the future, Kemp’s goals are to put together a strong, cohesive body of work for her upcoming solo show—paintings with a definitive style that is entirely her own. For inspiration in the days ahead, she likes to keep in mind a line from the movie Adaptation, which is loosely based on The Orchid Thief: “You are what you love, but not what loves you.” For Kemp the line speaks to the idea that, as a person and as an artist, she is free as long as she knows what she loves. “Just giving your all to something or someone gives you back more than you realize,” she says. “You don’t need to be accepted or loved for what you do or who you are, if you know what you love.”
Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; www.andreakempart.com.
Solo show, Saks Galleries, October 2011.
Featured in February 2011.