Exhibit reviews 67 years of Warren Kimble making art

MIDDLEBURY — Despite having produced nearly 70 years worth of work, Brandon artist Warren Kimble’s favorite piece of art has never been seen by the general public. That’s because he hasn’t made it yet.
In Kimble’s words, his favorite artwork is “the next one. Because when what you’ve done is finished, it’s done. So the excitement for me, as an artist, is the next thing. The excitement of the next thing. I’m already thinking about it.”
At 80, Kimble boasts a long career that led to being among America’s better known living artists, with collections including “Widows of War,” “Sunshine Series,” and his distinctive collection of folk art, for which he is best known. And now, 67 years after his first painting at age 13, his life’s work has been curated in an exhibition at Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum, called “Warren Kimble, All-American Artist: An Eclectic Retrospective.”
The show, which will remain on view until Oct. 18, was curated by Sheldon Museum Executive Director Bill Brooks and Associate Director Mary Manley. It features selections from Kimble’s life collection of work, ranging from an oil still life he painted as a teenager to a sculpture made just a few weeks ago.
Kimble’s series — all on display throughout the exhibit — vary in medium and palette. “House of Cards” incorporates found objects Kimble sourced from antique shops around Vermont and turned into sculpture. “Widows of War” — Kimble’s reaction to the Iraq War — contains a haunting bust of a woman with a barbed wire skirt. The following collection, “Sunshine Series,” portrays a more optimistic and brightly colored perspective.
The Sheldon exhibit also features Kimble’s assemblages from various households, alongside old boxes or drawers with found objects inside resembling miniature rooms and work of still life.
While the earliest painting on display at the Sheldon dates to when he was 13, Kimble maintains that even from a young age he was constantly painting and drawing. This interest developed into a teaching career — Kimble moved from New Jersey to Brandon in 1970 and taught art for 21 years at both Castleton State College, and in elementary and high school settings — as well as a serious attention to antique fairs, at which he sourced objects for his personal life as well as his art. Antiques play an integral role in Kimble’s art and his personal collection; many of his New England scenes are painted directly onto 18th-century tables or cabinet doors found throughout Vermont.
“People made pastries on them,” Kimble said, referring to the wooden tabletops. “What I like about them is they’re cracked and they’ve been used. I don’t have to pound them with chains, it’s already done through the years.” Kimble uses gesso to prime the old wood and then paints onto the dried base, creating grainy, slightly faded images of Vermont landscapes and animals that have become widely recognized and circulated.
Kimble describes his folk art as “sort of abstract. Because it has a look of the old, but there are no old details; there are no carriages, no old costumes. It has the look of the past but it also could be today… It’s whimsical. It’s serious and it’s whimsical, a little bit of each.”
Kimble’s art first gained significant recognition in 1995 when he licensed six folk art paintings to be made into a calendar. Since then, his artwork has been widely licensed and is featured in publishing, wallpapers, mugs, dishware and more. But while he is best known for his folk art, Kimble says he enjoys experimenting with form and color. The Sheldon exhibit features an impressive collection of sculptures made from found objects, such as a rooster made from an assortment of household brushes.
“That’s been my thing in life,” Kimble said. “Yes, I do series, and folk art has been kind of my thing that I’m known for, but it’s fun to try all kinds of materials and things and experiment.”
Brooks first approached Kimble about curating an exhibit of his life’s work about a year ago, though they have known each other since Brooks first moved to Vermont in 1997, when Brooks was executive director of the Frog Hollow Craft Center. Kimble says he has enjoyed returning to old artwork for this exhibit, and particularly appreciated seeing Brooks highlight and contrast its various artistic elements.
“As I bring these in (to the museum), a lot of these have been in storage so they have a new life for me,” Kimble said. “That’s exciting …. How Bill relates it all, how they interact, how you grow and change, yet you don’t ….”
As well as encompassing years’ worth of art, the exhibit also features collectibles from the personal collection of Kimble and his wife, Lorraine. These pieces, largely found in New England antique auctions, include a wooden statue of Abe Lincoln, a nod to Kimble’s years playing Lincoln in the Brandon Fourth of July parade.
“That’s the fun of this exhibit — it’s me, it’s things that people have given me but that also (showcase) what we collect, what interests us,” Kimble said.
Part of the fun of his art, Kimble said, is its ability to bring out the viewer’s past experiences through their individual reactions to his work. Due to his frequent use of surreal elements, such as the disproportionately small heads of farm animals in his folk art, guests at the museum often walk away from pieces with contrasting perspectives. That multiplicity of response is important to celebrate, Kimble said.
“I think that’s fun! Art is a total of one’s experiences. Yours, mine. Whatever I do, you don’t necessarily take away why I did it, or how I did it, and it really doesn’t make any difference … It has nothing to do with what I did. In a way it does, but not totally. You take from it because of your experiences. It’s fun, but it could be serious to someone, too.”
Brooks echoed Kimble, noting that with each group of museum-goers, the reactions to Kimble’s artwork has changed.
“It’s fun to be here when guests come and see how they react,” Brooks said. “I had one friend come in. She was just guffawing with laughter, so it’s fun to watch the public reaction.”
Looking back on more than a half century of work, Kimble noted that his artwork often contains grains of similarity despite differing mediums and pallets.
“I’m always trying to experiment, to try something different, to add a new dimension to what I already have done. And that’s the hardest thing to do, to change but not change.”
Getting to see and share a lifetime’s worth of art has been a rewarding experience, Kimble said. “How often does an artist ever see that? It doesn’t happen unless something wonderful like this happens.”
“THE ALPHABET” IS one of an eclectic collection of Warren Kimble’s art currently on display at the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury. The show includes work from Kimble’s six decades as an artist.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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