“Quit getting ready and just do it!” — George McNeil
This quote is Don’s response to a question his colleague Barbara Rose once asked him about his art practice.
“It sounds like I’m getting ready to do something — to practice, instead of actually doing it.”
Don is a doer. He is one of the first ‘art people’ I got to know when I first moved to Washington D.C. the fall of 1999. I began teaching as an Adjunct at American University and also had my first exhibition at the former Watkins Collection. American University was in many ways and continues to be, my work family. Don, who is fondly referred to as ‘The Don’, is the art patriarch at AU and for me, someone I still look up to and have the greatest respect for. He is a devoted educator, artist, husband and father whose demeanor is always warm and generous. He co-Directed the American University’s program in Italy with Barbara Rose and continued to direct it for 10 years, and has been the Director of the Visual Arts Program at the Chautauqua Institution for thirty years. Before that he was Program Director and on the painting faculty at the New York Studio School, housed in the original Whitney Museum in Greenwich Village. He continues to serve as the Studio Art Program Director of American University’s Department of Art where he is a Full Professor.
His current studio in Washington D.C. is housed in a building in the NW quadrant located just minutes from the Katzen Arts Center (which he helped to conceive and design). While there are no windows in the studio, the space still seemed large and bright. Don had work covering the walls — both new and old, large and small.
In 2003, Don lost most of his work to a devastating flood at his studio in D.C. He lost 25 years of artwork as well as family documents and photographs. It was the crisis that was life changing and left him in a state of deep depression for over three years.
Yet through it all he kept on working.
“At the time I felt that the record of my existence had suddenly been erased. ….I went into a three and a half year depression but I kept painting, out of habit more than motivation.”
He began peeling the destroyed photographs in an attempt to salvage anything. It didn’t work. Instead he began photographing them, blowing them up and turning them into mix media paintings. (Watch the video titled Flow produced by his daughter Elaina Kimes above).
“I began painting on the blown up images and through the media filter of photography and a few studio tricks, the underlying images allowed me to go back to painting in an original way. I could retain everything that I loved about painting: light, form, color, content, without reinventing somebody else’s wheel.”
These works are relics and fossil-like exuding emotional pain and physical hurt. They coagulate, crack, bubble and ‘bleed’. At first glance they draw the viewer in on a material level; to inspect the texture and palette and the detail of paint transformed. Yet as one looks deeper and longer, the sense of something tragic occurred begins to emanate off the surface.
Most recently Don’s work is beginning to incorporate representational references. Definitely influenced by the results of the presidential elections this past 2016, Don has inserted an image of the Capitol in an apocalyptic cloud. In another work, eyes begin to appear in the midst of some kind of Dante’s Inferno. The works are smaller and seem to be in the experimental phase. The proliferation of these works as they transition out of pure abstraction seem necessary. While in the midst of what many believe to be a political tragedy for the United States, Don is energized and harnessing this momentum to create new works that are directly speaking to the current political climate of ‘Trump’s America’.
Sitting down to cheese and crackers he thoughtfully prepared for me, Don suddenly jumps up and grabs a pile of old Look magazines proudly showing me this historic find with the iconic Jackie Onassis on the cover of one them. He was overjoyed. He then plops the pile down and shifts to his desk and exclaims so casually, “Oh and I’m working on a book!” A collection of philosophical essays and stories about coincidence and karma and how actions are not accidents, but connected to the way one reacts to a situation. He comments that the personality of the great Alice Neel, who he knew, always makes him mindful that “Luck is the bus that passes by when you’re looking the other way.”
For Don, this quote epitomizes what life can be and is for him — about staying positive and optimistic in spite of bad circumstances. He retells the story about his rejection from American University’s MFA program as a young artist, and then years down the road he returns and is hired as the Chair of their Art Department. Karma? Luck? Maybe, but really it’s perseverance.
I have no doubt his stories as an artist, educator, father, and husband will bring light to all readers and especially to the thousands of students and artists who have passed through his doors either at the New York Studio School, American University in DC and in Italy, or The Chautauqua Institution. What makes Don’s charisma so disarming is how he speaks of art and the artists he’s known and met with such awe and gratitude (he even has a tube of paint from Barnett Newman hanging like a good luck charm on his wall). It is this quality that I believe is the essence of his art practice and what ultimately defines him as a doer.
To see more of Don’s work and his extensive accomplishments go to: www.donkimes.com
Thank you to Elaina Kimes for sharing her video Flow.