Compulsion To Paint, by Michael Humphrey, Kansas City Star Magazine, December 17, 2006. pdf version click here.

If you could view the world through the eyes of painter Wilbur Niewald, you would see relationships.

The relationship between colors, how they shape his images through an intricate dance of shades and tones. And the relationship to his wife, to his friends and to his school -- a connection that spans more than 70 years.

Niewald, a 2006 recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, naturally defies the facile stereotypes of an artist. Rather than flamboyant, he's a humble, soft-spoken man who owns one suit for church and otherwise wears denim oxford shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots everywhere he goes. Rather than unpredictable, he's steady -- a lifelong Kansas City resident, the son of a cabinetmaker, whose work habits astound artists half his age.

The artistic DNA in Niewald, 81, is found less in his persona and more in his brightly determined eyes as well as his work.

"The compulsion to paint, that's there," says his wife of 57 years, Gerry Niewald. "He doesn't like it when I say it, but sometimes it's very easy to feel that the work is more important than anything. He has to do this. And he will always have to do it."

Understanding the motif

As he studies a stand of pine trees in Loose Park on a cool, cloudy day, Niewald points out the subtle distinctions of green, which in turn flows into the brown of a branch, all encased in the blue-gray of the sky. He wants to see everything as it is, without preconceived notions.

"This may become a tree, but in itself, this is just a relationship of colors," says Niewald. "It's all linked together. It's not that the sky is separate, or that the tree and the negative space is separate. It's all positive, it's all one."

For two months prior, the thin, white-haired Niewald has spent three hours a day, five days a week, working on this painting. He has worn away the grass where he stood studying the image, then turned and leaned toward the canvas on his French easel.

The painting looks finished, but late in the morning he realizes one set of branches near the right edge of his motif is slightly out of alignment with a horizontal branch in the center of the frame. The average viewer of the painting would never notice, but Niewald must fix it.

"This is interesting," he says as he swirls ultramarine blue on his palette and sets his sable-hair brush to lowering a large part of the right side of the painting. He reconstructs the scene right on top of the old painting. Nothing is sacred when it conflicts with what he sees right then.

"It's in the moment of discovering what I see, in learning, in understanding, that is the deep satisfaction of the work," Niewald says.

After lunch, he will return for another three hours to work on another painting of the same pines from a different view, always with the sun at his back. From early spring until late fall, this is Niewald's daily pattern, even on the hottest days. If he's not outside, then he paints at his main studio in the West Bottoms or in his home studio.

"He paints every day," says Stanley Lewis, a painter and former Kansas City Art Institute professor now based in Massachusetts. "I mean, man, he still does that. That is a stupendous achievement. I'm just in awe of the guy."

Wonderful doggedness

Lewis is not alone. There's little debate that Niewald's tenacious quest for visual truth has made him one of the most important painters and art teachers to ever call Kansas City home.

Consider his sale of a nude to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, his induction into the National Academy of Design, his winning the national Distinguished Teaching of Art Award -- there's more than enough evidence to prove his relevance.

"He is that rare individual who is the highly accomplished painter and successful teacher," says Graham Nickson, painter and dean of the New York Studio School. "The thing that is most impressive is his sheer, wonderful doggedness. In a way, he's a maverick. It's quite likely it's the mavericks that stand up better over someone who's immediately fashionable."

His first brush with the Kansas City Art Institute came when he was 10, when he attended a weekly Saturday afternoon art program. He won a scholarship to attend KCAI at 17 but was pulled away to serve stateside in the Navy Air Corps during World War II. He returned to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees from KCAI and was asked to teach, eventually moving onto the painting faculty. He was named department chairman at 34 years old. In 1992, he retired from the Kansas City Art Institute after 43 years of teaching drawing and painting.

"It was just so clear it was time to retire," Niewald said. "I loved the students, but I just needed to put all of my time into my own work. I was always a painter first."

A Guggenheim fellow

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation must have agreed. By bestowing a fellowship on Niewald in April, the foundation made it clear there was more for him to accomplish. The foundation awarded 187 fellowships averaging about $40,000 apiece this year. Niewald was one of 2,778 that applied.

With the fellowship, Niewald was able to paint in Santa Fe in May, June and July. The remaining funds are being used to hire models for a series of figure paintings and to put together a 2007 exhibition, which will include a catalog.

"I applied twice before for Guggenheims and didn't make it," Niewald says. "So it's especially gratifying to receive it now."

Perhaps all of those years of work have paid off. But Niewald wouldn't say it that way -- the statement is too utilitarian, too goal-oriented.

"I paint because I love to, because I need to," Niewald says. "I don't paint to be remembered or to be honored, although those things are nice. But I paint because I can't imagine doing anything else."

Still, the product emerges in copious amounts -- he has finished between 400 and 500 paintings, he estimates. And he was working on six paintings in late fall 2006 -- the two Loose Park landscapes, a new portrait of his wife, a nude, a self-portrait and a still life of skulls. And he is producing quality work, says art critic Lance Esplund.

Commenting on a traveling retrospective organized by the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Esplund wrote in Art in America magazine: "This traveling retrospective of more than 50 paintings and drawings from 1951 to 2004 proved how much Niewald's devotion to painting and to the artists and motifs he adores has yielded. But the works completed in the past five years convey a newfound light and life, an urgency and presence."

A woman named Polk

Describing Niewald's philosophy of painting is like describing Zen Buddhism. That which appears pure in its simplicity on the surface offers a host of complexities if you peer beneath.

Here's the short version: "I paint what I see," Niewald says.

The key word being "I." Niewald doesn't mean to compete with the camera, does not paint objective, mechanical reproductions. The artist who views the picture -- and the palette the artist chooses -- is as important as the subject.

"Definitely Wilbur has a look on his palette," says John O Brien, owner of the Dolphin gallery, which represents Niewald in Kansas City. "A lot of people can look and know it's a Wilbur painting."

Sitting in a wicker chair in his large studio at the Livestock Exchange Building in the West Bottoms, Niewald talked about the influences that led him to his distinct manner of working.

He grew up on 66th Street and Wabash Avenue, near Swope Park. The second of five boys, he says he spent a large amount of his childhood exploring the natural world.

His father was a cabinet maker, his mother a homemaker during the Depression. There was nothing to guarantee Niewald would find art as his life's work until a woman named Miss Polk, who worked with children for the art institute, came to his school. Teachers selected him as a student who might have potential as an artist. Each Saturday, Niewald's father drove him past the newly built art museum on Oak Street, to the institute where a painter named Thomas Hart Benton had j ust become an instructor. But it was Miss Polk's influence that lasted.

"The way that we worked was very simple," Niewald says. "We worked with chalks, just primary and secondary colors, no black. She stressed simplicity. Evidently that meant a great deal to me and still does."

Seed of change

When he got to school, Niewald expected to become an illustrator, but he credits the painter and KCAI instructor Vincent Campanella for opening up a broader idea of art to him. As he studied the history of art, three European painters emerged as major influences -- Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti and Paul Cezanne.

A drawing by the Dutch artist Mondrian fueled Niewald's attraction to simple lines, mostly vertical and horizontal. Mondrian's influence is most obvious in Niewald's abstract paintings of the 1950s and 60s. In that period, Niewald says, he used colors to create a sense of space.

And the colors were simple. In the 1950s, his palette was "yellow ochre, burnt sienna, black and white" to create dark abstractions of trees, rocks and city views. In the 1960s, Niewald's vision expanded -- his canvases became larger and more colorful.

Then while on sabbatical in Italy in 1965, Niewald says a seed of change was planted.

"This was a little disturbing, a little difficult," Niewald says. "The red became the red of a red tile roof. Instead of just space, I was beginning to describe. You could begin to see images."

Six years later, while working in his home studio after returning from a painting trip in Mexico and New Mexico, that seed planted in Italy broke through the earth. He was looking at a pink house outside of his window when it struck him.

"I said to myself, Why am I working indirectly? Why don't I just paint what I see? "

"The Pink House" was the first result of painting directly from observation. Niewald has never looked back.

Love for Cezanne

One of Niewald's closest colleagues says it was a defining change of direction to be sure, but not something that emerged overnight.

"When I came to the campus in 1970, he was going through this transition, and he had pretty much shifted into a person who was now working from observation," says Michael Walling, a painter and retired professor at KCAI. "But he was working in a much broader way than he is now, and the broadness of the handling was quite similar to what he had been doing as an abstract painter. Except now images were beginning to make their presence felt in his work. And that has progressively moved to a more and more rigorous kind of observation of the motif."

This was the era, Niewald says, when he began to admire and learn from Giacometti's paintings.

"The singular focus, classical form and close color harmony was right for me at that time," Niewald says in the catalog for the Albrecht-Kemper retrospective.

But consistent through all of these phases was Niewald's admiration for Cezanne.

"I remember the first time I saw Cezanne's painting in the Nelson-Atkins," Niewald says. "It seemed honest, real. It spoke directly to me."

His love for Cezanne is no secret, says Lewis.

"I ve seen him talk about Cezanne, about his painting directly from nature, and tears will come to his eyes," Lewis says. "In fact, some have criticized him for becoming too influenced by Cezanne. That's totally false. Only in superficial ways were they alike."

Stuck with painting

After years of developing, Niewald has certain mantras that guide his work.

He paints only what is before him and always in the scale his eye sees. He uses primary colors -- a light and dark yellow, light and dark red and blue. He uses full-frontal views of his subjects, never wanting to tell a story about the subject. He does not believe in painting light, a hallmark of Impressionism, because he believes we don't see light.

"The big term of Cezanne, which he used over and over, was the study of nature," says Niewald. "And he talked about the sensations of color that he saw. We all only see one thing -- all we really see is color, sensations of color. We don't see perspective, anatomy, light. We just see sensations of color."

In the corner of the Hub, a cafe in the Livestock Exchange Building, Niewald sits with Walling and they talk quietly over lunch. Their conversations wind around the work of other artists, politics and the general goings-on of life.

"But never gossip," Walling smiles. "Never petty gossip."

They meet for lunch up to three times a week, a tradition started more than 20 years ago while they both taught at KCAI. It is the work that binds them first and foremost.

"We both believe very strongly in painting," Walling says, while Wilbur nods in agreement. "We're not quite so enthusiastic about installation, or performance, or video or the new genres. There is a wider, I guess, range of artistic expression in terms of media. But we have stuck with painting."

An uncluttered life

Just like his palette, Niewald is drawn to simplicity in his everyday life. That's most obvious in his clothes -- almost every article is a shade of blue. His home, which he designed and partially built himself in the 1950s, is minimalist -- straight lines, a flat roof, open living spaces and large windows.

Wilbur and Gerry eat at the same restaurants on the same day at approximately the same time each week. And Wilbur works at roughly the same times, guided by the natural movements of the sun, which regiment his days.

Consistency is no hobgoblin for Wilbur. Gerry says the purpose of an uncluttered life is to move Wilbur toward his work. Their home's walls are covered with his work, the dominant element of their house.

"If he didn't have someone who was supportive," Gerry admits when pressed on her role in his career, "well, it wouldn't last."

They were married in 1949, the same year Wilbur began teaching at KCAI. Gerry helped make ends meet while Wilbur established himself. And together they grew in their love of the arts, including painting, but also in music.

Kathleen Collins, KCAI president, says the Niewald marriage is a thing to behold, even from afar. "I've always had this sense, without knowing her very well, that there's a synergy there that's been really important to his being able to do what he does," Collins says. "She's a strong person, but you get the sense they don't compete. That's a great balance for an artist."

Gerry is quick to say that she is not a painter and has never helped Wilbur to paint. But Wilbur agrees with Collins that Gerry has been instrumental to his life as a painter.

"It's not just being supportive," Wilbur says. "I always had the understanding that she had an incredible eye. She seemed to understand what I was going through when I went through changes. She doesn't like it when I say it, but she is very definitely a part of my whole development."

Gentle, but not too gentle

Would Janet Niewald, the couple's only daughter, also a painter and instructor at Virginia Tech, describe her father as gentle?

"I think gentle is fine to describe him, but he also has a side that's not too gentle," she says. "Gentle could make him sound like he's soft and he's not soft. When he puts his mind to something he can focus more strongly than other people. He is very determined."

Does determined mean ambitious? That's a tough question for Niewald to answer.

"I like to think that you're involved with where you are, right now in producing," Niewald says. "But to think (the work) would last, or have some meaning, I think you give it some thought. But I don't really know how that influences me. It's something you can't be too concerned about. But to say I don't have ambition in that way is not true."

And what does Gerry, an astute observer of art history, feel about Wilbur's chances to being relevant in the future?

"That's like asking me about breathing," she says. "I live with his work and am nourished by his work, I don't think about it. But I tell people who buy Will's paintings that it will become such a part of them, they won't even know it. I know that is how it has affected me."

Painter Lewis is more willing to predict Niewald's place in art history.

"I think his reputation as a painter will grow," Lewis says. "He is deep and he is serious and his paintings are fabulous. They hold up. They have lasting power."