Ani and I had the honor of interviewing Barbara Harrison, Lennie’s long-time partner, last week. Here are some of the things that we discussed about the late, great artist, Lennie Kesl.
On Teaching and Painting
Lennie loved his students. In fact, many are now artists. He was a very popular professor. After he left the University of Florida, his friends, Nancy Ward and Norman Jensen, invited him to join the faculty at Santa Fe State College. That ended up being a better fit for him. It was a freer place, where he had great kids to work with and where he could express himself openly. SFSC was less formal than UF and had fewer rules and regulations. He had carte blanche at Santa Fe State College, where he filled the library with the most incredible art books that he ordered.
Lennie primarily taught painting, drawing, composition, and color theory. In his paintings, the three factors that were of importance to him were the composition and what he called the “golden triangle” and the “interstices” – which was the term he used for the negative spaces in a work. He also had very clear ideas on colors: warm vs. cool, warm vs. hot, and so on.
On Lennie’s Studio
Studio number 6 in the Tench building was Lennie’s studio. You couldn’t miss it! Lennie had drawn and painted all over the moldings. He was a packrat; the room was filled with so much artwork that he could not paint or draw in that room! Many times in the early hours of the morning, you would find Lennie in the largest room of the studios with his easel, a painting, his canisters of brushes, and a little stool that he used to do his work – so that he had plenty of space. He would even sleep on the couch in his studio!
Lennie’s house was more like a warehouse, as it was filled with his collections of ceramics, artwork, records, movies, books, magazines, and letters. There were only little paths to walk to each room. When he worked at home, Lennie would place small canvases on his lap or on his bed, and he would work on them for hours. One thing about Lennie was that he had amazing eyesight. Perhaps this was because he kept his home so dark!
Lennie worked every day of his life. He was a true artist. He had canisters filled with thousands of paint brushes, all clean and ready to use, and he painted in all mediums. He loved working with John Tilton. For 35 years, they produced an amazing number of vases, dinnerware, plates, and platters. John would make the pots and the slabs, and Lennie would paint them. Every year, they planned out what they would do next.
In my opinion, his best work was produced from the ‘40s to the ‘80s in three different locations: Illinois, Alaska, and Gainesville. I love those periods of his work.
On Lennie’s Time in Paris
Lennie accidentally ended up in Paris. He had enlisted in the Army and was bound for Germany, but he came down with an illness right before heading abroad. He had an intestinal bug that needed the help of a specialist. His sister, Yvonne, said: “You cannot go to Germany!,” so she located a doctor that could treat him in Paris. Lennie loved living there; he went to every jazz club, every museum, and even took art classes at L’Atelier Léger.
It was such an exciting time for him to be in Paris, with the War happening in the background. The War provided such a contrast to the City of Light. All around the vibrant city was sadness, darkness, and bombs. For Lennie, it was an amazing time to be living there studying art and jazz. He was able to meet so many wonderful artists and jazz musicians that were living and playing there then. He had amazing stories about those days.
On Lennie’s Idols – Great artists that he admired and studied
When he worked, Lennie always had great artists in mind. He would pour over his collection of art books on them. He would even read through the same books 2-3 times, to more fully grasp the content! Among his idols were Modigliani, Picasso, Cassatt, Mastisse, Soutine, Schwitters, and Van Gogh. He especially loved the work of outsider artists and craftspeople – collecting outsider art from all over the world.
Lennie was always thinking about art and music – and he was always singing a song. He didn’t need a microphone, as his voice projected so much. He called his voice a “dirty voice.” Lennie would watch jazz (and especially Bix Beiderbecke, a cornet player) whom he watched on YouTube for hours on end. He loved the jazz musicians that played during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Lennie played drums from an early age; before he decided to become an artist, he went to school to become a musician – and then he switched! However, he never lost the ability to play the drums, and would play them whenever he could, in any kind of band.
I loved the way that Lennie sang. He sang songs and listened to music constantly. Enunciation was also very important to Lennie. He wanted to make sure that everyone could understand the lyrics he was singing. He was special in that way.
How Lennie and Barbara met – with John Tilton
In 2006, Lennie was working with John Tilton at his ceramics studio in Alachua, when I first met him. I was in the kitchen at the Temple of the Universe with my friend Kamala, when John came in and said that Lennie wanted to see us. He also suggested that we bring some lunch over to the studio. While he was bent over a plate, I said hello to Lennie: “Hello, Lennie!” He lifted his head, dropped his paint brush, and said: “I remember you, and I love your face!,” and started to ask me all sorts of questions. After I left that day, he grilled John on everything that he knew about me.
John played guitar, sang, and played gypsy jazz. When Lennie was working with him in the studio, he and Lennie would always listen to jazz music. Lennie would always explain the significance of every song that came on – giving the backstory of the pieces or a critique on their style. Lennie would paint on whatever ceramics John produced – oftentimes plates, slabs, vases, and dinnerware. They always had a wonderful time working together.
On Other Artists and Everyone was a Friend
Lennie could walk into an artist’s studio and know immediately what he or she needed to do to improve the pieces that they were working on. He had an incredible eye for what was needed in any artwork. He understood that some artists were sensitive to the suggestions that others would make, so he was careful in his delivery of criticism – always positive, reaffirming, and supportive.
Lennie made connections with each person he met; he had direct relationships with people. He would remember them, their names, and their family history. He was able to talk to them about everything – personal or otherwise. He was known for just showing up to friends’ houses – never calling ahead. But they always welcomed him with open arms!
On Lennie Himself
Lennie was an incredible raconteur, and had so many wonderful stories to share from his adventurous life. He had a different way of looking at things – behind all that humor, he was a very deep thinker. I was attracted to his intellect, his creativity, his spirituality, and his sense of humor.
Lennie loved food. At art receptions, the first thing he would do was get a plate of food. He would even save food in his pockets for later!
Lennie was a devout Catholic. One time, I asked him what had happened, as he no longer went to mass. He said that he used to go to church every Sunday, and one day it was raining, so he didn’t go. He said that it felt good not to go, so he never returned – except for weddings and funerals.
Lennie was also an avid reader, a bibliophile of sorts. He would buy thousands of books – some to keep, and some to give to friends based on their interests.
Lennie was fortunate to have great health. A few days before his accident, Lennie and I had gone to an opening at the University Gallery, where he was his usual happy and smiling self. Lennie always said that when he died, he would simply, “shuffle off the stage.” He certainly did that; he left with a smile on his face. We had always thought that he would live forever. His death was premature, and left us all in shock. But, he was lucky to have lived a long and full life – and left us a legacy that will remain for many generations to come.
On Missing Lennie
I miss him. We all miss him. He impacted all of us on many levels, in many ways. I learned a lot about myself through his eyes. Through our shared experiences together, I learned that I often viewed things too much from my own perspective. I came to learn that most things were not about me. I am very grateful for the experience of getting to know, love, and live with Lennie.
What I miss most is his eccentricity. He was always on his toes, full of energy. You never knew what was going to happen with him. Unless he was in the middle of working on a painting, he was a bit all over the place; it was hard to get him to focus.
Lennie was very knowledgeable about his own self and spirituality, although he was a bit of an egoist. He was acquainted with his inner soul. He had a deep understanding of his soul that he had cultivated through his reading and research.
He gave the best hugs and kisses in the world! His embrace swept me away. For our first kiss, he kissed me outside in the middle of the street, right after eating breakfast with friends. Everyone was watching. His kisses left me breathless and paralyzed! He was quite a romantic guy; he tended to give me little homemade gifts like love notes, painted rocks, little doodles on napkins – there wasn’t a day that went by when I wouldn’t get something from him. He would leave the gifts for me in different places where I would discover them.
On Lennie’s Legacy
Lennie developed a strong community through his artwork and music. His images stay with us forever, and there is an energy that comes through his works. Lennie lives on through his personality, the way he dressed, his humor, his knowledge, the way he spoke and connected with people, how he listened and understood others, and how he spent time with friends. He had a never-ending joy of life, and his spirit lives on with us forever.
Thank you, Barbara, for giving us the chance to hear about your wonderful relationship with Lennie! We are so appreciative of the time you spent sharing your memories with us.
Black C Art Gallery