In Bemidji woods, painter Marley Kaul finds a quiet rhythm, brush strokes that stick

Marley Kaul is emeritus professor of visual arts.
Marley Kaul is emeritus professor of visual arts at Bemidji State University, where he served as chair and professor of art in the Department of Art from 1967-1997.
Matthew McLaughlin / For MPR News

Bemidji-area artist Marley Kaul took a break one day in his studio, stepping away from a painting with fresh, wet brush strokes. When he returned, a swath of the painting was gone. Licked off.

"I forgot I left the cat in the studio when I went for lunch," he recalled. "I came back and the cat had licked off maybe a third of the painting."

The cat lived, he reports, thanks largely to the painter's taste. Kaul is an egg tempera artist. He mixes egg yolk with water and non-toxic pigment for his colors.

Part of Minnesota Sounds and Voices

For those tired of a frozen Minnesota winter and pining for spring, his work satisfies the seasonal need with color -- red, yellow and orange. In the woods near Bemidji, Kaul, 74, paints scenes filled with plants and animals. Vivid colors to him mean celebration.

His newest work features an iris to illustrate rebirth, a favorite theme. "The residue of last fall and the seeds that have not yet come to life," he said, "but the iris has bloomed early."

Marley Kaul
Bemidji-area artist Marley Kaul is a southern Minnesota farm boy whose path was influenced by a farm accident that led to a long recuperation, during which he took up sketching. That in turn has led to a long and notable career as an art educator. His art is created with egg tempera, an uncommon technique.
Matthew McLaughlin / For MPR News

Natural themes come easily to Kaul. He grew up on a family farm near Good Thunder in southern Minnesota where he and his two brothers made their own entertainment, playing in the hay barn and apple grove and the river nearby. Even as a youngster, Kaul liked to draw.

When he was hurt in a farm accident - a "crush injury," he called it -- he had plenty of time to practice. "I remember having to spend lots of time indoors and so I drew constantly," he said.

Kaul the farm boy was enchanted, too, by the apparently glamorous life of Adolf Dehn, a Minnesota-born water colorist and lithographer, who was also a relative. He appeared at a family reunion once with a woman who spoke French. Postcards, he said, would arrive in Good Thunder from France or New York City.

Dehn's example convinced him to become an artist, Kahl said, though his father was not happy with the decision because, of course, artists don't make enough money. It was easier to take when Kahl told him his plans to become an art teacher and thus be able to support himself.

His master's in art education from Mankato State University won him a faculty post in 1967 at Bemidji State University where he worked for 30 years teaching drawing and painting from beginning to advanced.

Tubes of paint line the counters
Tubes of paint line the counters of Marley Kaul's studio, in the vibrant colors he uses in his paintings.
Matthew McLaughlin / For MPR News

Kaul said he found beauty in faculty meetings. He used the setting for sketches as he observed a pose or a line -- "the verticalness of the arm to the horizontal of the other arm with a cup and maybe the way the light was hitting them as well."

He calls his art back then more frenetic. He's retired from teaching but paints every day.

His studio has big glass windows on two sides that look out onto his 40 acres of property that he and his wife Sandy live on about three miles outside Bemidji. It holds mementos from his days playing infield for the Le Sueur, Minn., town ball team.

Their house, about 30 yards away is a converted barn, with a huge window that looks out onto a well-populated bird feeding area.

His farm background, a Lutheran upbringing and the influence of Buddhist teachings all come together in his work. He describes his approach to art these days as meditative -- one stroke after another, one layer on top of another. It's another reason the egg tempera discipline suits him.

Egyptians and others discovered egg tempera mixed paints really stick. Egg yolk-based paints have been found on Egyptian sarcophagi. "If you've ever left an egg on a plate and then tried to get it off," Kaul noted, "well they discovered that in their own kitchen, I'm sure."

Kaul's pieces have many layers that require diligence and discipline. As his cat discovered, they can be tasty, too. More importantly, the egg tempura colors seem to last longer, Kaul said. That suits him well.

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