Two to three credit hours away from earning his masters at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University), 24-year-old Kirk Richards still didn’t paint the way he wanted to paint. He studied at Amarillo College, then at WT. From there, he went on to Baylor and Texas Tech University. Failing to find what he was seeking, Kirk ended up back at West Texas State.
Although Kirk was close to earning his Masters in Art, he was no closer to becoming the painter he aspired to be. It wasn’t one of his professors that gave him hope, but rather, it was the 1971 summer issue of American Artist magazine, and an article profiling artist Richard Lack and his atelier in Minneapolis, that roused the young artist.
“I had visions of thousands of people waiting in line to go to this school and no spaces,” Kirk remembers thinking. “It sounded so great I couldn’t imagine it wasn’t overrun with applicants.”
Searching for a phone number or email address on Google was not an option in 1976, so Kirk scoured the magazine until he found contact information. He called Richard Lack, and explained his situation. He wrote a letter to Richard, sent him slides of his work, and just six weeks later, Kirk was venturing into the streets of the City of Lakes with no one by his side.
Kirk discovered later that Richard was playing games with him. Kirk was a little older than Richard preferred for a student, and it took some grappling to get there. Richard was looking for someone with a good attitude, and a good eye for seeing shape, color and light in nature, Kirk says, and Richard saw that Kirk was teachable and trainable, and quite eager to learn, despite his age.
Kirk recalls saying to Richard, “If you let me come up there, I’ll take a back row seat… Put me in a closet, I don’t care. Just let me get started!”
Kirk studied under the tutelage of Richard for four years, and they remained close until Richard passed away in 2009, but Kirk has continued to carry on the legacy of the Boston School that he inherited from his predecessors.
“It turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” Kirk exclaims, leaning back in the worn chair in his studio. He met his wife, Linda, made a lifelong friend in fellow artist Steve Gjertson, who shared his Christian convictions, and found a mentor in Richard.
“As my parents were those who led me from the standpoint of life and faith, Richard Lack was that person who took that place in my career,” he says. “He was so important to my development and my career, and I’ll always be thankful he was willing to teach and not just paint.”
Richard was a part of the Boston School tradition. It was not a brick and mortar school, but rather a philosophy and a way of painting, handed down training and tradition carried from one artist to the next. In the late 19th, early 20th-centuries, painters traveled to Paris where they could incorporate their academic training with the impressionist movement started in France. Richard Lack, Kirks says, was the personification of that synthesis, as far as the 20th century goes. What began with Jean-Leon Gerome, was passed down to his student, William McGregor Paxton. Paxton passed on the tradition to Robert Hale Ives Gammell, who taught Richard Lack.
“Having studied with him, I feel like I am a continuation of that tradition even though I never personally studied in Boston,” says Kirk, who founded his own atelier here in Amarillo during the 1980s.
After Richard passed away, his wife presented two, early 20th-century paint brushes of Paxton’s to Kirk, which were given to Richard by Paxton’s widow, Elizabeth. “He’s my great-great-grand-painter,” Kirk jokes as he fans out the brushes in his hand.
Whether it’s portraits, genres or figurative paintings, Kirk is primarily interested in painting people. A genre or figurative painting is a representation of a “slice of life,” Kirk says. It is not an official portrait, per say, but is the capturing of daily life, such as the painting of a woman playing a guitar or the painting of a child studying a snow globe. And although these two subject matters, for example, are not overtly religious, they contain undercurrents of Christianity and exemplify his faith, which is the foundation of Kirk’s work.
He strives to praise the Lord and enlighten the viewers of his paintings, revealing that being a Christian is more definitive of himself than being an artist, a mentality he has maintained since he began painting. “I could quit painting and still be a very happy person, but I could not disavow my faith and feel like I could continue a life I have known.”
The book he co-authored with Steve Gjertson, “For Glory and For Beauty,” delves into his message as a Christian artist. Kirk explains that a painting does not have to exhibit a Christian subject matter in order to represent one’s faith. “If you try to do your work, if you give your work unto the Lord and try to do your work to glorify God, a landscape is every bit as Christian as a painting of Christian subject matter,” he attests. “A vase of flowers, if you do it the best you can and give it to the Lord, then a little vase of flowers is as much a religious painting as anything else.” His 6-foot by 4-foot painting of Christ carrying the cross hanging at St. Anthony’s Hospice was created with the same Christian attitude as a still-life piece. Ultimately, Kirk paints for himself and for God. If the audience does not understand what the painting connotes, Kirk hopes the audience will still appreciate the art.
“The Sins of The Father,” for example, is a painting of a man enraptured by a captivating viper, his son at his side, mindlessly blowing a dandelion. The orange and white boa constrictor transforming into a rattlesnake, wrapping around the man, its tail beginning to entangle the boy’s ankle, symbolizes sin being passed down from one generation to the next, Kirk explains. The mist and vapor suggest life is short. The man is dismissing the shining light, which represents God, setting his gaze on the malevolent viper instead. The dandelion signifies redemption, a gift the boy carelessly fritters away.
“The nice thing is, even if people don’t know what that’s about, they can still appreciate it; it communicates with them,” Kirk says. “It can communicate with them as far as the imagery and the idea that there’s this symbolic struggle going on because obviously that’s not a painting of a realistic moment. People are aware that’s not a painting of a realistic snake.”
Steadily painting and teaching since 1980, Kirk has encountered lean times, financially, but he has not once regretted pursuing his passion as a lifelong career. What he regrets is when a painting doesn’t sell as quickly as he hopes, but that is “a common lament” of an artist, he says. Not all of his paintings are appealing to the average audience. He doesn’t limit his abilities to landscapes and still life because that’s what sells well in this area. A painting like “The Sins of the Father” isn’t going to have mass appeal he says.
“Not many people want a painting of a man fighting a snake over their sofa, but those are the paintings that maybe you do to put back into your own career,” Kirk avows. “They may be stacked up in the corner of my studio when I die, and if they are, that’s fine.”
To learn more about Kirk and his work, please visit his website.
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.