A Painter in Search of His Original Face

This photo was taken of James Kemp at work in his studio (in London, Ontario), which he converted from a garage when the family moved in there in 1956. (The author still lives in that house.)

How does a person find himself through art?  This was the question that impelled my father, Jim Kemp, throughout his life.  In my family, art was privileged; this was inevitable given that dad, painted. He was enthusiastically engaged in the excitingly expanding art scene in London, Ontario. Consequently, through the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, I grew up in a house filled with artists and art that was both by him and by his friends.

How did my dad become a painter? As a kid in Toronto, Jim loved to draw. His mother took him every Saturday to the Riverdale Zoo to sketch the animals. Mostly self-taught, Jim took one class at the Ontario College of Art (later the Ontario College of Art and Design and now OCAD University) with well-known Canadian artist Charles Comfort after high school. Somewhat colour-blind, Jim painted the bark of a tree dark purple, as he saw it. When Comfort objected to this depiction, young Jim walked out. He always had a strong sense of what he wanted to portray in a painting. He would study other artists’ works, however, to understand both painting techniques and ways to express emotions that could not otherwise be given form.

From his youth, Jim was a seeker after spiritual truth. He graduated in Religious Studies from Trinity College, University of Toronto, concentrating on pre-Socratic philosophers. Wartime experience drove him to using art as a way of expressing a resulting preoccupation with death and the macabre. Close calls during the War and subsequent coronary disease forced Jim to confront mortality as a constant, the dread best faced in and through his work. Emotional chaos could perhaps be resolved through painting. The inexpressible could be articulated. Fear could emerge and be confined within the frame. Jim’s horror of war and its aftermath is apparent in an early oil, Air Raid, now in Museum London’s collection.

The Death Goddess, 1940. Oil. Collection of Museum London

During the London Blitz, dad experienced a vision of the White Goddess in Her aspect as Death at the very moment a buzz bomb exploded the wall he was leaning against. Indeed, Robert Graves’s book, The White Goddess, was pivotal to my father as an artist: a book that he gave it to me to read when I was fifteen. Long philosophical discussions on Existentialism, Krishnamurti, and Buddhism ensued between us where I would sit by his easel as he painted. He and I formally became Buddhists (took refuge) in the Tibetan lineage with Kalu Rinpoche in 1974.

During World War II, dad served in the Royal Canadian Navy, 1939-1946, as Lieutenant-Commander. In 1940, he married Anne Bowley from Strathroy. They had two children, myself, Patricia (Penn) Kemp (1944-) and my brother James (1948- ). After the War, the family returned to London. In 1950, we moved to Canterbury Road, where I still live, surrounded by paintings.

Growing up in post World War I, the Depression, and then the Second World War, Jim always knew he was not in sync with the times. Nor did he fit into the stiff hierarchy of his employer, the London Life Insurance Company. But, imprinted by the values of the Depression, Jim thought it was his duty to provide security for his family. So he worked at London Life, butting heads with the powers that be to instigate new ideas into the stodgy conservatism of the time, as represented by the London Life building itself, solid and grey. He hired creative types like London photographer Don Vincent (who was active in the regionalist movement of his time) to subvert the system with new ideas. Working with advertising mavens like David Ogilvy, Jim brought ads on insurance to television for the first time. He ended up as Publicity and Advertising Executive. But people in the cafeteria were known to have thrown buns at him in their disdain for abstract art and his nudes.  Once when young, I asked why he painted naked ladies. “I like the flesh,” he replied, a gleam in his eye. I asked no more questions on the subject.

Dad had a wicked sense of humour that was expressed in satirical wartime cartoons, now archived in the Ottawa War Museum, and in 1946 published on the front page of The Montreal Standard. As an abstract painter in the staid Fifties in London, Jim stood out. His 1940s graphic story, George The Purple Spotted Horse (Pendas Productions), reflected this, being about a similar horse of a different colour who, despite obstacles, wins both race and girl.

Somewhat later, after dad became an invalid, I would find interesting objects for him to paint.  Cardinal eggs, dead birds and moths, even fish skeletons, were transmuted into paint by brushstroke! Quite a metamorphosis, this study in the importance of art that confronted mortality. This perception of mutability underlies all my father’s search for meaning: a constant in his life as he faced death, either as a bomb disposal expert in the Navy, on war-time Corvettes crossing the Atlantic, or through a series of heart attacks from 1955, when he was forty, to his death in 1983. 

Mythological archetypes play out in his haunting figurative paintings: clownish ghouls with carnival hats; Pan playing his pipes; and mysterious, darkly cowled women. On annual vacations south, he would pick up shells and take photographs of fish, alive or dead. When back home, he would depict marine life in lustrous underwater hues. These paintings are gorgeous, particularly his reds and deep blue greens (surprisingly, because he was red-green colour blind). Impressionistic dabs reveal an interior luminosity as colour fields merge in border sfumato, transitions that are almost imperceptible.

A master of texture and colour, in oil, acrylic and watercolour, dad’s influences included Bonnard, Turner, Vuillard, Matisse, Monet, Braque, Cézanne and Jack Bush.  Jim was always restlessly exploring and incorporating different styles and influences in and from different periods. Perhaps the , relentlessly variegated character of his quest (for the deeper self through painting) stopped him from being more widely acknowledged as an important artist.  No-one in the art world could pin his work down as immediately recognizable: “Oh, that’s a Jim Kemp!”  Though a handsome, charming and gregarious guy, my father showed an odd humility about his own work, always referring to himself as a painter rather than what he thought the more pretentious term, ‘artist’. He shared that notion with his good friend, the influential London painter and teacher Herb Ariss.

Recognizing the essential need for community, Jim was deeply engaged in London’s burgeoning art scene from the late ’30s through to the early ’80s. As well as being acknowledged as a fine abstract painter, Jim was pivotal in instigating several new institutions like the Western Art League, the Art Mart, Western University’s Artist-in-Residence program and the re-opening of Western’s McIntosh Gallery. Loved and respected by London’s old guard and the new, he acted as a mediator between both sides in the tumultuous ’60s art debates. He was a mentor to young artists like Hugh McKenzie, Bernice Vincent, and Wyn Geleynse. Iconic London artists Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe would often come over to engage in conversation about painting. He was a mediator between these artists and more conservative friends like museum curator Clare Bice in local cultural kerfuffles well described in Like Father Like Son by Herman Goodden (Centred.ca, May 29, 2021).

Untitled, 1963. Oil on canvas. Collection of Museum London.

You can get a sense of Jim’s significance in The Art of London 1830-1980 by Nancy Poole, which includes the author’s interview with him. He served on Western’s Art Advisory and Acquisition committees from 1960-70 and in an advisory capacity for the new London art gallery that become Museum London. He was President of the Western Art League (1950-53), giving painting seminars across Ontario. My parents often hosted painters from out of town, including Jack Bush, Clement Greenberg, A. Y. Jackson and other members of the Group of Seven.

Jim’s work was several times featured in The London Free Press in the glowing articles of the then art critic Lenore Crawford. He was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists. Renowned gallerist Leo Castelli twice asked him to exhibit his work in New York City but illness prevented him from showing. He was represented by Thielsen Gallery (London, Ontario) and Nancy Poole Studios (also London, and Toronto) and often exhibited there. His paintings are in many gallery and private collections throughout southwestern Ontario, including London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sarnia, Windsor, Woodstock and St. Thomas/Elgin as well as the Universities of Waterloo, Western, Windsor and Guelph.

In 1989, Museum London featured a major exhibition of Jim’s work along with his good colleagues and co-conspirators, Herb Ariss and Selwyn Dewdney. In 2021, his work was also included in the Museum London’s exhibition, Celebrating 80 Years of Our History..

Jim’s life-long interest in the unknown is reflected in later abstract water colours as an attempt to articulate the transience of things. He would pose Buddhist koans, and ask himself, “What was your original face before you were born?” He sought this face in painting after painting. The Zen watercolours of his last decade lead out and out into openness, expanding further into white space, as if reaching for whatever is beyond. He found himself in these paintings, after a decades’ long search for truth. And although he has been dead forty years, his pictures are still alive. 

Penn Kemp

Penn Kemp returned to London in 2001. She has participated in Canadian cultural life for 52 years, writing and publishing poetry and plays as well as editing anthologies. Penn’s new collection, Incrementally, is now available as e-book and album. For further writing and work by Penn Kemp, visit. www.pennkemp.wordpress.com and www.pennkemp.weebly.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Fascinating to read about your father, Penn. What an amazing time to be a painter, father, employee, and thinker. I recognize many parallels with my parents’ time trying to find their way in a time of shifting culture.

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