The year was 2017. As an artist and a citizen, Kim Klabe was frustrated. Living in Rehoboth, DE, she was painting flawlessly rendered oil paintings of seascapes, old beach cottages, and boats, trying to sell them at art shows where she fought for notice in a sea of comparable work. The competition was brutal. After thirty years of putting in the work, her art was stagnating. Painting angles and the sharp edges of rooflines became a chore, and for what? She was paying more in fees to enter shows than she was making in sales. Then Tr*mp took office. (The spelling is hers; she refuses to spell out his name and give him the attention.) Klabe’s frustration as an artist was compounded by her outrage as a citizen. Before 2017, she would not have classified herself as a political person, but the antics of the current administration and the headlines they inspired began swirling in her head. Even more frustrating, she had nowhere to go with her unrest.
One July day of that year, while shopping at Staples, she saw a set of colorful markers on an endcap that reminded her of her art school days. She longed for that feeling of joy she had had in those early exploratory days of creating art. She put the markers down and kept shopping. Her (now) husband picked up the markers and bought them for her as a gift. At home, she sat with her new markers while drinking a glass of wine and watching the news. She had some cold-pressed watercolor paper in front of her. She got the idea to pour some of the wine onto the paper and see what kind of pattern she could get by swirling the ruby liquid on the white page. She did three such pours, let them dry, and looked for images in the resultant stains—the same way one might look at a Rorschach Test or at clouds in the sky. Images greeted her: a confrontational ostrich, a man and woman in a rather sexy position, a bird’s face. With her new markers, she flushed out the images she saw in the dried pools of color. Her years of representational painting served her well. She knew when to remain true to nature and when to deviate into the fantastical.
It was an exciting departure from her heavily planned-out landscapes. To me, the viewer, the spontaneity of her process reminds me of an old gem of an art school poster. (Both Klabe and I went to art school in the days before memes).
“When you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.”
It is true. Many art teachers and professors will not let a student throw away art when she insists that she has made an irreparable mistake. Push through it. The ability to solve problems is one of the unsung upshots of an arts education (and why we shouldn’t be quick to cut its funding.) We could take this line of thinking even further and say that Klabe wasn’t just making art out of a “mistake,” she was taking political mayhem and transmuting it into a thing of beauty.
Pablo Picasso once said (in another poster-worthy quote) “What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”
And so, Klabe named her first three “pours” after phrases she heard in the news: No Collusion, Dossier, State of the Union, and in the process, she gave them a time stamp. Not quite political cartoons, her pours exist as dreamscapes set within a real-world hourglass. They also wink at Dali’s surrealist masterpiece, The Persistence of Memory.
Klabe put these first pours on social media, and the response confirmed the power of the new work; they quickly sold. She knew she had tapped into something. She put aside her oil paints and brushes and hasn’t looked back. The ensuing years have been rewarding for Klabe as an artist. Not only has she shown her art at local galleries, but she also has had her work accepted to juried shows such as the 2020 FL3TCH3R Exhibit for socially and politically engaged art at the Reese Museum in Tennessee. Her art reflects the moment. All of her pours have a story and a historical reference point. Some are a commentary on current events, like COVID and the election. Others, like the series she is currently exhibiting at the Mezzanine Gallery in Wilmington arrived by way of inspiration from music, lyrics, and song titles.
If you visit the Mezzanine Gallery at the State Building on French Street (and I encourage the outing) you will see the detail and whimsy that goes into her pieces. A book of song lyrics accompanies the exhibit, so that art and music lovers can read the lyrics that inspired each work of art. Klabe’s politics aren’t invisible in this exhibit. You will recognize political figures in some of her pieces that will either make you smile slyly or wince, depending on your personal affiliations. But politics plays a smaller role here. A walk through the show reminded me of Vaudeville. Singers/performers, animals, puppeteers, fantasy creatures. Each work is accompanied by a tag that tells you exactly what drink was spilled. You may have the urge to stop at the wine store on the way home, which may be a good thing. In a short trip to the art gallery during COVID, you will feel as though you had the full experience of a night out. As you might imagine, the gallery is mostly empty. You must show ID and have your temperature taken to enter the space, but it is worth the extra steps. Before you go, check out brief (less than a minute) videos of Klabe’s process on her website. They are mesmerizIN’.
Kim Klabe’s exhibit Pours: Feelings of an Almost Human Nature will show from November 6, 2020 – January 8, 2021 at the Mezzanine Gallery located in the Carvel Delaware State Building, 820 N. French St, Wilmington. Hours Monday-Friday 8AM – 4:30PM. Additional Art Loop (First Friday) hours may be in effect.
Editor’s Note: Kim’s husband put together a video of the King of Pain triptych featured in this exhibition that explores the work in time with lyrics.