Alumna Shares Painting Journey
“AU sort of saved my young life,” says Edith Kuhnle, CAS/’79, who took up painting as a young mother in need of a creative energy outlet. “I starting having children, and I thought ‘I need to get out,’” she says.
During her undergraduate years, Kuhnle studied literature and happened to take a painting class while studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France. Her teacher encouraged her to continue studying painting, and she decided to follow up on that advice when she enrolled at American. “I got to AU and just started taking one class at a time and got into the graduate program,” she says.
On the road to earning her MFA in painting, Kuhnle says it was the professors that really drove her to succeed. “I had a golden crop of teachers,” she says. More than 30 years after her graduation, Kuhnle can still remember the names of professors she had who shaped her college career.
“I was in the studio alone and [Emeritus Professor Luciano Penay] was just saying ‘push,’ and I remember it was one of those turning points, where somebody—Penay—was giving just the kind of encouragement I was looking for.” Kuhnle still keeps in contact with some of her former professors today.
When the time came for her to graduate, she and other students in the program were presented with a gift that Kuhnle describes as an opportunity to maintain the diligence they had learned in the classroom. The Department of Art made arrangements to rent out an old bowling alley—complete with lanes and stripes on the floor—for her and nine other students to use as a studio after they graduated.
The faculty saw a group of talented artists who were working well as a collaborative group, and “they didn’t want to split us up. I thought it was an extraordinary gesture to make sure that the ten of us stayed together,” she says.
The group of graduates used the space for four or five years, sectioning it off to use as their own private studios allowing them to paint day in and day out. “It’s awesome because when you do something like paint at a university, you get into the habit of doing it every day, but when you graduate, you lose your daily rhythm. I believe almost every single person in that group went on to paint professionally,” Kuhnle says.
Kuhnle herself went on to win numerous awards, exhibit many shows, and be represented by galleries such as Addison/Ripley in Georgetown and Arden Gallery in Boston. Of all her shows and awards, including winning the Kreeger Purchase Award, Kuhnle says one of the highlights of her career was being selected by world-renowned architect César Pelli to be a part of the permanent art collection in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Kuhnle is featured in the permanent collection in the American University Museum and has been invited to become a member of the newly-formed College of Arts and Sciences Arts Council. The Arts Council will be working to draw further attention to the arts scene on campus and the Katzen Arts Center, “a world class place to show art,” she says.
“I think the Katzen Arts Center is poised to be a magnet in Washington, and the reason I feel that way is that it’s a fresh, new, less explored venue. It’s so well located and has space around it, and I just have a feeling it’s not only going to show wonderful art, it’s going to be an events space as well,” she says.
Kuhnle’s high esteem for the arts at AU is in part due to her respect for College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Starr and American University Museum Director and Curator Jack Rasmussen, who share a vision for Katzen similar to hers. “AU is very lucky to have them,” she says. She looks forward to working with Starr and Rasmussen as she serves on the new Arts Council.
As her connection to American University comes full-circle, Kuhnle looks back and treasures her time with the university and the ability to paint nearly every day of her professional life, which she attributes to having a space to work in so soon after her commencement. The persistence she learned in the bowling alley and in class is what’s helped her create piece after piece of artwork. “The next one is always going to be the best,” she says.
With all her experience, she offers this advice to current students and painters alike: “Sometimes you are going to go way wrong and you’re going to know that, and other times you’ll go way right and you’ll know that too. Just don’t be too hard on yourself when something’s not a success, because there’ll be one that is.”