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Pentimenti: What’s Old Becomes New Again

Don Kimes by his paintings.

Don Kimes creates work based on destroyed paintings and photographs. (Photo: Bill Petros)

The water began spewing out of a burst pipe while artist Don Kimes was out of town, and for two weeks, it filled his Rockville home up like a bathtub until, with over four feet of water sloshing around in his painting studio, it began to pour into the yard and a neighbor realized what had happened.

By that time, his life’s work was under water. All of his artwork, his family photographs, the videotapes of his children, even the slides of his artwork that he’d sent to galleries. The flood had taken all of it.

For 25 years, Kimes had been fascinated by the notion of time and the intersection of nature and culture. Every year, he’d go to Italy and gaze at the ruins and the painted walls of Pompeii and the thousand-year-old olive trees and think about the cycle of life.

But suddenly, “It was no longer this academic abstraction. It jumped up and bit me in the face,” recalls the AU art professor of the 2003 flood.

Just after that he was giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, where he is artistic director in the visual arts, when a woman asked him a startling question: Have you ever painted through pain? 

It got him thinking. He decided he would, indeed, paint through his pain, and deal with the flood and its aftermath by, in essence, repainting his life’s work.

He wouldn’t try to redo his artwork; at any rate, that wouldn’t be possible, since there were virtually no images. But he could take the destroyed images—the washed-out photographs, the waterlogged slides—and create images based on the “strange beauty” that remained.

“The destroyed photos are almost white. They had little bits of structure, hints of color—but almost nothing is left on them that can be recognized,” he says. “But I take that destroyed image, I digitalize it, blow it up and print it out on canvas, then just start riffing off that structure the same way a jazz musician will riff.

“If an area is white, I might say, ‘That ought to be yellow.’ If an area is blue, I might push that darker.”

The resulting images are lush abstractions where colors seem to swirl and bleed into each other. They are both meditative and insistent, with names that reflect the notion of transience: “We Once Were You.” “It Was.” “Promise and Conclusion.”

The flood took his art in a new direction, and that’s a lesson he takes to his students, as well.

“I talk a lot with students about the notion of interruption being the starting point for creative activity. There’s a line from a play that says every creative event that ever happened in the history of the world was an interruption, unexpected, and unplanned for. That idea about chance and change—about not getting from point A to point B, but about what happens on the road—I talk about that in terms of their lives, their work, and a way to approach making things.

“Yes, you have to have a language; a foundation. You can’t improvise if you can’t play an instrument. But the part about recognizing that it’s in the nature of discovery to be something you didn’t know was coming—that comes into my class a lot. And we’ll set up situations so that, working on a collage, I may not let them use a pair of scissors. They have to tear everything. You can’t control it the same way. And it’s much better than if they’re completely controlled.”

That’s a lesson that he learned from the flood, and the power of that lesson is evident in the work on the walls at the AU Museum.

“The flood turned out to be a gift,” he says. “This is the strongest work I’ve ever done.”

Don Kimes will be, talking about his work, on Saturday, April 24 at the AU Museum.