Interview With Artist Kevin Callahan


When did you first become interested in art?

I distinctly recall being four years old when I began drawing. I copied the Sunday funnies. I was reared on a small farm in Iowa in the 50s, so art was not considered a good pursuit but I seemed to be compelled. At age twelve, I became friends with a local painter who taught me some painting techniques and I would model for him. At about the same time I received a birthday present, a Paint-By-Numbers set. After a week or so of painting in the numbers, I threw away the canvas and old brushes, I went to town and purchased some raw canvas made my own brushes, and did my own paintings. That was, I suppose my real beginning in art. Of course, like so many other artists, I became known as the “art guy” in my small town and was sought out for posters, signs, and other art projects. My first affirmation and monetary remuneration.

What style of art do you use most?

I paint primarily in acrylics and the bulk of my work is Realism tinged with Modernism. I also do a fair amount of pure abstracts that represent shapes but not identifiable objects. My sculptures usually start as wood, often just a stick I found in the yard, and contain found objects.

The Red Ribbon_Sml
The Red Ribbon – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

Has your style changed from when you first began as an artist?

Well yes, since I began painting when I was 12 years old I would have to say so. But perhaps my “style” is not so different, only that my techniques and execution have matured. I simplify my paintings of people by stripping away that which I deem unnecessary in order to tell my story, but still retain the elegant line. The challenge, and the key, is to bring forth a recognizable personality and life to my models.

What medium do you use?

Primarily acrylic paints, although I sketch in water color, pencil, and pen and ink. I also use wood and found objects.

What made you choose that medium?

As a beginning artist my first materials were pencil and paper, of course. But as a painter I began painting with oils. My junior year in college I was introduced to acrylics and I have never used oils again. My teacher was a genius with acrylic overlays, and I just loved the immediacy of acrylic.

Do your ideas come from life or imagination?

Both really, but the overwhelming subject matter I paint are real people and real places. I like to think I catch a moment in time. My abstracts are pretty much from my imagination, although real things might spark the original sketches, things like a carpet, a hallway, a sidewalk, that sort of thing. But once I begin, the work takes on a life of its own.

The Fallen Knight of Lech Walesa Way_Sml
The Fallen Knight Of Lech Walesa Way – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

How do you choose your images and colours?

I really like to paint women, and am often struck not so much by their attractiveness but more by the play of their clothing, hair, and accruements, which often suggest a beautiful line. A polka dot coat, or the hanging tendrils of hair, a bright smile, or similarity of mother to daughter. I want people/subjects “in the moment” and not posed.

Do you work in a studio?

Yes, most of my work is done in my studio. I have had a full fledged studio for over 20 years. I do a lot of sketching en plein air however. Many of those works on paper have been turned into prints. My studio is in my home, it has good light is moderately spacious, with storage, a sink, and is attached to both a workroom for building frames and stretchers, and a full gallery for displaying my work. My gallery is called The Elegant Line.

Parkville Studio_Sml

Who is your favourite artist?

That is far too difficult to answer easily, however I will say my biggest influence would have to be Henri Matisse, with his beautiful elegant lines. Also, Alexander Katz for his large portraits of women, coupled with Tom Wesselmann’s red lips.

What is your favourite piece of work by yourself?

Daughter of the Prophet, I “found” her in Berlin, a young Muslim girl on the verge of becoming a woman in a violent world. This is from a series of paintings of girls and young women the “Girl, Woman, Girl” series. This is primarily a guerrilla series garnered from digital shots of interesting girls/women from around the world. In many cases (not all) the subjects are unaware they are being observed.

How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?

Again, a very difficult question to answer. I often “start” a work by composing it on my computer and thinking about it for awhile. Then I stretch a canvas and prep for painting. Sometimes this is a couple of days sometimes weeks before I put brush to canvas. A fairly large work generally takes about a week to complete, once I begin the actual painting. Some works take mere hours and other weeks.

The Artist as Michelangelo_Sml
The Artist as Michelangelo – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

How well do you take criticism?

About like anyone else, not that well. I do like to hear from those I trust. Good and true observations can be very difficult to obtain. Most people merely want to be polite and really don’t have the vocabulary to give good critiques. My wife drives me nuts, but I generally pay attention to any critical comments she may have. Both my boys are educated in art and are professional artists, so I listen to them. Often people bring their own prejudices to a criticism, like if one loves realism they don’t want to see a POP art treatment of a portrait, or vice versa, if they love modern art they do not like too many details in a work. You MUST find your own way, keeping in mind what works, and what does not.

What do you do to overcome a ‘block’?

I generally move on to another pursuit like writing, or “making” craft type objects. Sometimes I read about famous artists, to get me in the mood. On those occasions where I can’t “get a thing right” I just keep painting until I find it.

Santa Fe Blues_After PIcasso_Sml
Santa Fe Blues After Picasso – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?

I do what Wyeth called “paint by numbers”, when I have filled it all in I stop and walk away. I almost always come back later and “fix” something, but once I am at that place I rarely do make large changes.

Have you had exhibits in galleries?

Yes, several over the years, starting with the Flatlands and JC Penny shows in 1975 and going forward for over 40 years. I have not really had a great deal of success in brick and mortar galleries, even though I have had quite a number of exhibits. Of course one must keep trying, the internet has been a boon to obscure artists who can now get their images to the world.

Have you any exhibits in galleries planned for the future?

Yes I am in discussions with a gallery and another artist for the gallery opening. Our styles mesh nicely and we are talking about a charity event to help a community while we get exposure and perhaps sell some work. Hoping for fall 2016. I also have a show coming up in October connected with a small town festival. Plus, I have several pieces entered in two contests.

Portrait of Ross Redmon_Sml
Portrait of Ross Redmon – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

What are you currently working on?

I just completed a large portrait of a young artist who is a frequent visitor in my home. My next painting will be a self portrait of me as a famous person from history. I have done nine so far, so this will be my tenth. I also completed a portrait of a young girl drawing at the Whitney in NYC. I just returned from Europe (Spain and France) with a camera full of possible images.

What are your plans for the future?

To paint, draw, write, and make as long as I can. I am working on selling more. I have eight works in Santa Fe, NM for sale, one has sold.

Jasmine – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

What was the best advice given to you as an artist?

Go to school and learn. Then never stop learning. Paint yes, but also read, read, read.

What advice would you give new artists?

Marry well. I tell this to others as a semi-serious joke. Because my wife is successful, I have been afforded the luxury of travel and have been encouraged to do my work as an artist for over 40 years. I myself had a very successful career as a graphics designer, just another way of being an artist. Also, seriously study your art history. With the internet there is no good reason for being ignorant about art and art history.

Have you done any courses to help you?

Certainly, I have taken drawing classes with my boys when they were younger. In 2003 I did a painting intensive at San Francisco Art Inst. Studying under Larry Abramson. Then in 2006 I did an advanced painting intensive at the OxBow School (Chicago Art Inst.) with Phil Hanson and Michelle Grabner.

Daughter of Prophet – Copyright Kevin Callahan. All rights reserved

What do you do to market your work?

I have a site on Saatchi and Fine Art America and a couple of other art sites. I promote to, and through my buyers. Of course a Face Book presence. I put on one man shows, I entertain potential clients and art types in my home.

Do you use social networking in your day to day life?

Really only Face Book at this time.

Are you available for work (commissions)?

Yes, I have done many commissions. But I turn down jobs that don’t fit my oeuvre. The most difficult commission I undertook was a client who asked for a painting of his grandfathers, the difficult part was that he wanted three (identical) original paintings of the same people. It was tough but I made the client happy.

Have you got hobbies?

Other than painting, writing, and making craft type items? Isn’t that enough? With my writing I have written one novel, a mini novel, and many short stories. My craft items include: walking sticks, canes, stone blade knives, decorative war clubs, stone tipped arrows, and wooden spoons. I find the hands on quality of “making” to be a great physical release, and the sculptural qualities of the finished products more art than craft.

Where are you based?

I live in the USA in the Kansas City, Missouri area in a small town called Parkville. We have a lovely country home surrounded by woods and overlooking the Missouri river. We have lived in Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, and now Missouri. My wife maintains a residence in Durham, North Carolina where I often travel and work.

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