Art has been a way of life for Walter Kendra
Reception, Meet the Artist events set for this weekend at Gallery on the Green as part of 'Walter Kendra: A Life in Art'
By John Fitts
Even those familiar with Collinsville artist A. Walter Kendra might be surprised at the depth and breadth of the work he’s produced over the past 60 years.
Attendees of the Canton Artists Guild’s Gallery on the Green show, “A. Walter Kendra: A life in Art,” which runs April 22 to Saturday, May 21, might see, in part: bright, architectural oil paintings from the mid 1960s; abstract shapes in relief sculptures, paintings and silkscreens of the 1970s; the ethereal floral motifs that followed into the 1980’s; the layered- and subsequent free-flowing monotype prints in the 1990s and 2000s; the soft realism of mixed-media paintings from the mid 2010s; and abstract, yet distinctive rock series watercolors of recent years.
“He’s just a master of structure,” said Ann Finholt, friend, painter and curator of the upcoming retrospective show, for which she also penned an essay that details Kendra’s inspirations and work. “He has these amazing compositions that really balance large forms and small forms and have the ability to sort of direct your eye thought the construction. It’s always there underneath the forms.
His forms right now are more organic than they were early on but even through his organic forms, there’s this strong sense of composition that holds everything together…. He’s also got this very unique ability to exploit very quiet color; it’s kind of subdued; it’s a little moody.
I think it’s the combination of this strong underlying structure with this almost atmospheric quality to the color that I like and appreciate so much. It’s not that common to have those two elements together, I don’t think, in the visual arts. One or the other usual dominates but Walter seems to be able to merge them together and then there’s also his drawings. … They can be very fluid. I’m thinking of some of his flower drawings where the flowers are both sort of fragile but sturdy. Those are some of the things I respond to most strongly.”
Architecture, landscape and nature themes predominate, particularly the latter.
“All of my work is abstracted from nature, and there’s an echo of representation in them, yet they transcend that. I always like my work to transcend, not mimic color or form,” the 87-year-old Kendra wrote in a description for the show.
Creating came early to Kendra. His family grew tomatoes for Campbell’s soup on a 50-acre farm in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Kendra loved puzzles as a kid and started drawing at a young age, inspired by radio shows like The Lone Ranger.
“We didn’t have television at that time,” he said. “My head would fill with images by listening to the radio.”
He also found other creative outlets, building rabbit pens and crafting airplanes from balsa wood.
“I had it in me to construct and to build. ... without anyone telling me to or encouraging me to,” Kendra said. The encouragement would come soon enough.
Kendra’s first 8 years of education were spent in a one-room schoolhouse. His Grade 5 to 8 teacher, Alma Campbell, had no relation to the soup brand but provided other nourishment to her 32 students.
“She nurtured me on with my love for nature and reinforced it with nature trails – which we actually created, wildflower collections and bird sightings and it was just so nourishing for me,” Kendra said.
Around 8th grade, another educator saw a spark in Kendra and introduced him to what is now Kutztown University, where he went to on to get his undergraduate degree in art, learning glaze chemistry, theater design, pottery and nearly every other form.
“It opened up the world to me,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. It was incredibly demanding.”
Upon graduation he began a teaching career that would continue through 1994.
One of his students from that very first teaching job in 1957 at Lower Southampton elementary in Bucks County – accomplished wood artist Dona Dalton – is friends with Kendra to this day.
“He took me under his wing because I think he noticed my interest in art and drawing,” Dalton said. Kendra became friends with Dalton’s family and introduced her to a broader culture, even involving her in a project at the academy of vocal arts in Philadelphia to do set design when she was in Junior High School.
To this day, Dalton and members of her family have stayed in touch with Kendra
Mentoring has been a recurring theme in Kendra’s life.
“It was lucky for us that we each had mentors. He kind of took that tradition on to me,” Dalton said. “He really invested and cared.”
Kendra continued being mentored as well. With the encouragement of the superintendent of the Neshaminy School district, Kendra, after just two years teaching, enrolled at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
There, Kendra received his Master’s of Arts Degree. Additionally in 1959, at International House, where graduate students from several universities stayed, Kendra met his partner of more than 40 years, Maxwell Shepherd, who tragically died of a brain tumor at age 69 in 2000.
After his master’s degree, Kendra returned to Pennsylvania and taught art on the secondary level in Pennsylvania. He taught theater design, creative arts and more and loved his students but missed the city, which he had first experienced during high school, drawn by the vibrancy of the music, culture, art and acceptance of everyone.
“I just loved the life of the city,” Kendra said. “It just offered me a sense of freedom… It was just a warm sense of community.”
So, he went to work at the Little Red Schoolhouse on New York City’s famed Bleecker Street.
“When I got the position at the Little Red Schoolhouse, which is quite distinguished, I thought what the heck do they see in this little farm boy from Pennsylvania?” he said. “That’s exactly what they wanted because they were a school that was cultivating a sense of reality of art for students. It was wonderful.”
He taught at the elementary level through much of the 1960s and near the end of that decade caught the attention of an art teacher at Wheelock College (now Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development).
From there, other stops in his teaching career included Queens College, New York University, New School for Social Research in NYC.
Kendra taught many subjects and performed many duties during his career but some of his specialties included Serigraphy (silk screen printing), design and working with student teachers.
The ability to work with the next generation of educators was a quality Kendra didn’t see in himself, but one that others clearly did.
In 1977, he landed at Central Connecticut State University, where he stayed until retirement in 1994. There he directed the art gallery, taught student courses, and worked with student teachers.
To the outside observer, CCSU and its New Britain locale might not hold the allure of the other assignments, but Kendra said he came to a department of 28 faculty members, engaged students and a creative atmosphere.
“The chairman of the department let me do the best I could in my area of expertise,” he said. “That was true of everybody in the department.”
Art, travel and honoring a partner
Kendra, of course, also pursued his own art throughout his teaching career, exhibiting widely both as faculty and in independent private and public galleries.
Culture and travel were another important part of Kendra’s and Shepherd’s life and over the years they spent much time in Italy and Mexico, among other locales. The two shared a love of reading, culture, architecture, music and art in all forms.
In the mid 1960s Shepherd began teaching at the University of Connecticut in West Hartford and after a few years talked of renting a place closer to work.
Kendra suggested they buy a place together and eventually the two found a historic home in Collinsville in 1971 while Kendra was teaching at Queens College.
The village wasn’t the destination it is today and even had a bit of a rough image. Their agent also steered them to a banker who would be friendly to two gentlemen seeking a mortgage.
But despite those factors, the two were drawn by the beautiful architecture.
“Max and I shared a deep love for architecture,” Kendra said. “In our travels, too, we would search out architectural buildings of note, so it was the town’s architecture.”
Over the years their home became a welcoming place for guests, a work space with the barn-turned-studio that became a haven for art, music and so, so many books and, of course, a place with lovely seating areas and gardens.
“I love the garden,” Kendra said. “I think of that art piece too, so it’s hard to separate art from life. I hope that I carry a degree of art in every aspect of life.”
In Collinsville, Kendra also found a balance between the rural and urban.
“I love that we’re just on the edge of more open country to the west and it’s true – our own little town the way it’s situated – turn in off the river and you’re in this wonderful historic district and beautiful little town.”
While Kendra and Shepherd traveled widely, they also belonged to many local arts organizations and Kendra’ work has involved curating shows, bringing art into local schools and supporting local artists and musicians in many ways. He’s also been a member of the Collinsville Historic District Commission for 25 years.
Shepherd, an accomplished pianist, produced concerts, lectured widely, and supported the arts in numerous ways, including as a member of the advisory board for the Canton Artists Guild.
After Shepherd’s death, Kendra – with the help of his board members – continued supporting the arts through The Maxwell Shepherd Memorial Arts Fund, sponsoring nearly 20 years of art exhibits, gallery talks, musical performances, poetry readings and dramatic presentations. Many of those took place right in town – at the Collinsville Congregational Church, Gallery on the Green and Canton Public Library.
Through it all, Kendra has continued producing his own art, continually learning, researching, traveling and trying new techniques.
Over the years, Kendra has pursued further study at New York University, the New School for Social Research, and Pratt Graphics – all in NYC – as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art School at San Miguel del Allende, Mexico and Positano Art Workshop in Italy.
When he retired, Kendra had more time to devote to his art and his own education. In addition to his extensive reading and research, he became a student once again, studying printmaking at the University of Hartford art school for printmaking under John Willis.
His favorite form of art has likely changed over the years but right now – the one he’s with.
“To me the medium I’m with now – watercolor… It takes a while to get to a know a medium on different surfaces – how it works - how to respond to it. But during the earlier years I just got to know it and would have to get back to teaching. But now I have drained it for everything I can get out of it – in a successful way – and so that it’s a little bit more of what I’m into now – the joy of being free to commit myself to deeper research in the medium.
It just pulls me into another zone and it’s kind of a bubble, I guess. I love being one with art and I just love the challenge it presents to me. When I start a composition, I have to wrestle with it until I get it resolved to an aesthetic quality. At times if I just give myself a chance to get involved, it just pulls me out of myself too.”
Kendra has exhibited extensively and widely, and the accolades of Kendra’s work have been numerous. Those range from a First Place Award for Graphics at the 53rd National Juried Exhibition, George Walter Vincent Smith Museum Springfield, Mass., 1972 to first place award for Sculpture, Beth El Temple Exhibition West Hartford in 1979. Another honor came in the mid 1970s with a first-place painting honor from the Berkshire art Association for his piece Acropolis, acrylic on plywood 38 ½ x 48 x2. Funny thing is he didn’t enter the piece – a relief sculpture with painted pieces – as a painting.
“The juror for the show was an art professor from Dartmouth,” Kendra noted. “I entered as sculpture, and he gave me first prize for painting.”
Among his educational accolades was the honor of Connecticut Higher Education Art Educator of the Year in 1993.
Fellow artists note just how much Kendra has supported other artists, collecting work attending gallery shows throughout Connecticut, in New York City and elsewhere.