Ralph Slatton Interviews Robert Kennon
Robert Kennon is former Professor of Printmaking of Culver Stockton College, MO. He is currently doing independent research into a new series inspired by monolithic formations. He describes his work as a new exhibit titled “Monumental Mysteries” explores the prehistoric monoliths (single upright stones), megaliths (multiple stones), memoirs (squared top stones), dolmens (capstone tombs) and henges (circular enclosures) taken from sketches made on location during numerous trips to England. The prints represent the various stone monument shapes (i.e. Stonehenge and Avebury) constructed by prehistoric Neolithic people. I am attracted to these forms and the mysterious purposes they serve as objects in the landscape. They could have represented celestial observatories, calendars for the seasons, spiritual complexes for religious ritual or grave markers. The stones, as physical objects show the passage of time through erosion, sediment flow and melting of glacial layers of the earth.
The show consists of monotypes, relief woodcuts and intaglio prints. The monotype prints utilize metallic colors to reference the brilliant tones of minerals found in the earth. The woodcuts are made by carving two separate birch plywood blocks. The first contains the background color landscape and the second, the black foreground form. My intaglio prints are also produced by combining two separate images. The first plate made of zinc is etched with line and aquatint work and is printed in color. The second, a copper plate is engraved and printed in black over the first color print; this second plate contains the key image. The reason for using these layered techniques is to contrast the heaviness and solidity of the monumental stone structures of the top layer with the transparent atmosphere and ephemeral nature of the bottom layer. The finished images reflect the passage of time and create a transcendent feeling found in the spiritual nature of these mysterious structures.
Robert Kennon was born in St. Louis, MO. He is currently Associate Professor of Art & Design at Culver-Stockton College, Canton, MO. Bob received his B.F.A. in printmaking from Webster University, St. Louis, MO., M.A. & M.F.A. degrees in printmaking and M.A. degree in art history from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA.
His new solo exhibition is titled “Monumental Mysteries” and explores the prehistoric monoliths, megaliths, menhirs and dolmens of Britain taken from sketch books that he made on location. The prints represent the monuments constructed by prehistoric peoples along with the mysteries of the purpose for these objects in the landscape. They could have represented celestial observatories, calendars for the seasons and spiritual complexes for religious rituals or land markers. The stones throughout their history show the passage of time through erosion, sediment flow and melting of glacial layers of the earth. The intaglio prints mare produced by combining two separate plates, the first etched with line and aquatint work is printed in color followed by the second copper plate engraved to hold the key image.
Robert Kennon has shown his artwork in over 150 solo, group and juried exhibitions including, “Spiritual Visions,” Solo Exhibition, Webster University Regent’s College, London, England., “The Print Council of London Annual Group Exhibition,” Schenectady Art Gallery, Schenectady, NY., “Society of American Graphic Artists 68th National Membership Exhibition,” Stephen Gang Gallery, New York, NY., “20th National Print Club of Albany Members Exhibition,” Schenectady Museum, Schenectady, NY., “Artists of the Graphic Arts Council of New York,” Krasdale Gallery, White Plains, NY., “Tradition and Transition in the 90’s: California s Exhibition,” SOMAR Gallery, San Francisco, CA., “Remembrance: Los Angeles s Society Exhibition,” Mira Costa College, Oceanside, CA.
The following is my interview of Professor Kennon, performed many years ago and was published in the Maryland s journal.
Ralph Slatton begins with the first question:
Q. I have known you for some time and have always wondered why you work in the medium of printmaking, especially engraving?
A. The main medium for producing my artwork has always been traditional copper plate engraving. The process is unique in that it allows me to feel each line as independently lifted from the plate by the burin. The technique stimulates my response to the variation in the width and depth of the lines which can be created on the brilliant surface of the plate. I also love the tactile quality of the engraved surface and the resistance of the metal to the burin as my hand glides across the copper plate. It is a unique feeling which few artists have had the pleasure to enjoy.
Q. Where did you first learn the art of engraving?
A. I am privileged to have learned the techniques from two virtuoso engravers who studied under Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa. The first is Professor Leon Hicks who teaches at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. Leon introduced me to engraving and the unique sculptural qualities inherent in the copper plate. The second, Professor Virginia Myers at the University of Iowa taught me how to draw effortlessly across the copper surface with the engraving burin.
Q. What do you find unique about copper engraving and in what way does engraving lend itself to your imagery?
A. I like the challenge of the medium and the long hours needed to create an image using the strength of my hands. The composition also has to be thoroughly though out beforehand and each line has to be engraved with confidence, for one slip of the burin results in hours of scraping and burnishing the plate to remove the unwanted mistake. I also like the sense of control and the depth of the lines which can be made thin and swell to create various tonal values.
Q. Recent trends in art engage the viewer with large scale and installation type pieces. Is there any difficulty working with the smaller, finely crafted pieces when considering these trends?
A. At first I thought that there would be a great deal of criticism from fellow artists and gallery directors because throughout the history of art most engravings have been created on a small scale. I found out that most critics enjoy an image regardless of the scale if it is created with great craftsmanship. I also realized that my subjects could work on a monumental scale and I have recently been creating large engravings and oil paintings.
Q. In your series, "Spiritual Visions," you utilize an iconography expressing the subject of God. Could you please explain your choice of subject matter?
A. For the past three years I have been creating a series of engravings called "Spiritual Visions," which represent my interpretation of Immanuel Kant's essay The Critique of Theological and Aesthetic Judgment (1787). I have always been influenced by religious sources in 18th and 19th Century Romantic art and theory. To me, Kant perceived God as being a form of abstraction, an all powerful being which should be represented as a form of power, wisdom, justice and truth. Influenced by Kant's ideas, I began creating a series representing God and other religious icons in abstract form with attributes of vastness or infinity in an attempt to astonish the viewer. My intent is to create abstract representations of religious themes in art. My subjects are not based on traditional Christian iconography but represent my own theological symbols to help viewers see a unique way of perceiving religion and faith.
Q. From where did you get the initial inspiration to create this series of prints?
A. I remember going home to St. Louis and seeing an exhibit of engravings by William Blake illustrating "The Book of Job" at the Art Museum. I was overwhelmed by the spiritual nature of Blake's work and spent many hours observing the engravings and examining the monumental qualities found within the small prints, and soon realized that I had similar spiritual aspirations in my own work. Also, shortly after beginning the series I was hired at Mount St. Clare College in Clinton, Iowa. The inspiration derived from the Christian environment of the college also helped transform my works from earlier etchings of landscapes based on nineteenth century ideas of the Romantic sublime, to the abstract spiritual forms which are now found in my works. Last year I had the opportunity to visit London and was further inspired by the works of Blake and Turner at the National Gallery.
Q. In what direction so you see your art heading in the future?
A. Recently, I have been combining copper plate engraving with other direct printmaking processes such as drypoint and mezzotint to add more variety and spatial depth in my prints. I would like to begin printing some of the plates in color which is unusual for engravings. As for my subject matter, I will wait and see how this series concludes and then pray for more inspiration.