Kimler lounging in his Chicago studio.
Kimler lounging in his Chicago studio.
Share:

Wesley Kimler was surprised to find himself as a student at MCAD in 1978.

“I grew up on the streets, in the old South of Market area of San Francisco, which was all derelict wino hotels. I lived in all of them at one point or another, and I panhandled for money, I sold newspapers, I was a messenger boy, I worked at a restaurant as a dishwasher—whatever I could do to survive. I left home when I was fourteen,” Kimler says. When he was twenty, he moved to Afghanistan and worked as a carpet buyer. “That was kind of my initial college experience—the streets of Afghanistan. The people there, how noble and fierce they are and uncompromising in who they are, really influenced my sense of who I wanted to be, and it’s never left me,” he remembers.

A few years later, he moved to Austin and started thinking about college. First, he had to get his GED: “I didn’t finish ninth grade.” Then, he decided on MCAD. “I just liked the catalog. I went, ‘Oh, I’d like to go there.’” And finally, he had to make it there. “I didn’t even know how to drive, so I bought an old Ford panel truck and got a learner’s permit. I literally learned to drive on my way to Minneapolis,” he says.

Wesley Kimler Studio

A loud parrot squawk interrupts Kimler’s recollections—something I become used to over the next few hours. Kimler is telling me his story on his antique red French sofa in his studio, an old warehouse that originally belonged to Goodman Theatre in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor of Chicago. There are parrots of all colors and personalities in stacked cages—some that have accompanied Kimler for twenty years. Under the same roof reside Kimler’s ten-year-old daughter Amina, a black-and-white Chihuahua, and his colossal, dramatic, emotive paintings. He came here fifteen years ago when he was involved with Collaboraction Theatre Company. Before it was Kimler’s studio, the space was used for Sketchbook, the premier Midwest short play festival—so it makes sense that walking inside feels like stepping backstage—and has hosted other art gatherings and happenings since. It’s very much its own world—dark, moody, messy. A place for Kimler to dream up his creations and give them life. His towering paintings are lit with theatrical lighting while the rest of the studio is dim. “This is how I like to work—with things almost in twilight,” he says.

Wesley Kimler Studio

While attending MCAD, Kimler quickly found his calling. “I was going be a painter—and my paintings were controversial. There was a group of us painters and I guess I was sort of the ringleader. We made obscene, disgusting, slash-and-burn paintings, and we’d hang them in the cafeteria. I got in trouble for one I did. It turned into a big fiasco,” he recalls. Shortly after this, Kimler left MCAD only two years into his studies. “I was kind of a hothead.”

Wesley Kimler Studio

The four-note Mockingjay call from the Hunger Games floats into the air; Kimler answers his phone call. “You cannot buy any work from me anymore!” he exclaims into the speaker. There’s a response, and then, “I know, I know, but I’m telling you, I’m using reverse psychology on you.” Another response. “You can come in. Are you outside right now?” Kimler heads for the door.

The mystery visitor is one of Kimler’s regular art collectors, stopping by the studio to take a look at some pieces he’s interested in. There’s an easy camaraderie between the two men and a sense of mutual respect. Later, after the collector is gone, Kimler tells me the man owns many of the big paintings in the studio. Kimler likes him because he collects what he likes—not just what’s trendy. “I have some really good collectors like the man who was just here. He appreciates who I am, and there are those that do, but I’ve also made some enemies by speaking out and talking about what I think of the art world,” Kimler says.

Wesley Kimler Studio

In the decades-long painting career he embarked on after he left MCAD, Kimler has become known not only for his recognizable style, but also his shrewd, critical view of the art world, rallying for a new art scene. He has long called for eliminating the unnecessary middleman. “I think dealers can be a great thing, but to have an art dealer to show your work and you have to give them fifty percent? That’s over. I couldn’t afford to have someone taking half of the money out of my world every year and not doing enough to earn it,” Kimler declares. The strength of his feelings has only increased since the advent of social media. “I can put my work up immediately on social media each day and no one knows it or understands it better than I do.” And as an avid user of Instagram and Facebook, that’s exactly what Kimler does.

Wesley Kimler Studio

It helps that Kimler’s work itself is striking. Painting and drawing are closely related in Kimler’s practice and he creates drawings as studies for his paintings that he begins with minimalist mark making. “There’s a severity to my process that most people probably don’t get,” he says. He begins by tearing off extra large sheets of paper from a roll hanging above the main wall in his studio and spreading them out on the floor. Then, he thins a can of black theater paint, which he prefers for its heavily pigmented quality, mixing it with his hands to get just the right viscosity. Finally, he takes the can of paint and pours a little bit on each sheet, subsequently going in with a brush and moving around the paint to create amorphic blob shapes. After these dry, Kimler tears them apart and either pieces them back together in ways that make sense to him, then drawing on them with charcoal and graphite, or he deposits them in the existing detritus pile in the middle of his studio, leaving them for use in future projects.

Wesley Kimler Studio

These black-and-white pieces have an origin story: “As a kid, I worked as a bike messenger and it was grueling work. I would take stuff from one print shop to another, and in advertising there was a lot of black and white, and I loved that, so I started imagining everything in the world in black and white. I lived in this black-and-white world, and that’s where my drawings come from. The way I use color is very related still to black and white. I’m aware of value and I’m always thinking, ‘How will this painting look if it’s black and white?’”

His fluorescent-colored pieces do as well: “I always loved fluorescent colors and how they pop and how they live as they’re dying. One day I was walking down the street and I saw a fluorescent green poster on the sidewalk. It’d gotten trampled with mud and I just went, ‘There it is. That’s how you talk about this color in a way that makes sense to who you are now,’ and that was it. That epiphany has informed so much of the way I’ve worked with color ever since.”

Wesley Kimler Studio

As for his paintings, many of Kimler’s latest works depict themes of war. “I did a lot of work over the last few years about conflict and about the Pacific theater of World War II, and I think the next work is going to have a little more about Afghanistan, but more war, more conflict. I like making war pictures. I try to find beauty in brutality,” Kimler explains.

Kimler’s time is largely spent alone, painting, and it suits him perfectly. “I’ve been camped out in front of one messy oil painting after another for thirty-seven years. It’s a solitary thing. My idea of happiness is it’s three a.m., a painting’s going south, and I’m cool with that because I know that south might just turn into north the next brushstroke. It’s good it’s going south because I’m courting disaster, looking for great things,” Kimler says. “I enjoy the moment and I can stop and say, ‘Relax. Take a breath. Enjoy this. This is what you live for.’”

Wesley Kimler Studio

Photo by Wesley Kimler


Looking back, Kimler credits his time at MCAD, short as it was, for his success: “So much time has gone by, I just see the good things now. I went to a great school and it led me to being a painter today and to what painting should be. Even though I only stayed for two years, it profoundly influenced me and helped me become who I am.”

Wesley Kimler Studio

 

This story originally appears in NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.