DescriptionKELLY FEARING (American, 1918-2011)
Pencil on cream cameo paper
14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Kelly Fearing 1947
Artist's label verso
From the Estate of Kelly Fearing.
Kelly Fearing: In the World But Not Of the World
When looking back at the life of William Kelly Fearing some familiar sayings apply. One of them is: He marched to a different drummer. His earliest aspirations pointed him toward a life in fine art, but also to a career in gymnastics, dancing, and professional ballet. Another is: He did it his way. Fearing taught art at the University of Texas at Austin for forty years, retiring in 1987. Afterwards, his career as a painter and printmaker continued uninterrupted almost up until the time of his death. A third saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, may describe Fearing's outlook the best: Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not. In a voluminous oeuvre of drawings, paintings, and prints, Kelly Fearing allowed us into his private realm-a place that straddled a physical world we recognize and a harmonious, unseen dimension that we hope and suspect is there.
One adjective placed on Fearing's work is the word 'mystical.' A marvelous retrospective, organized in 2002 by the University of Texas at Austin Creative Research Laboratory, was titled "The Mystical World of Kelly Fearing." For him, mysticism, the conviction that ultimate spiritual reality is attainable and knowable, was serious business. He took a leave of absence from his duties in Austin in the 1970s to spend a period of reflection with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh at the Bhagwan's ashram in Poona, India. For a time, Fearing continued to wear the orange robes of discipleship. When mystics and seekers of the truth first surfaced in his paintings in the late 1940s, they were placed there out of kinship with the artist.
Fearing's path from the schoolyards of Camden, Arkansas, and Monroe, Louisiana, to his iconic mountaintop studio in southwest Austin was anything but direct. His parents moved from Monroe to Ruston in the late 1930s to give him access to schooling at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University). There, under Elizabeth Bethea and Mary Moffett, he received his first professional art training. Through field trips organized by Bethea and Moffett, Fearing met Grant Wood and was treated to eye-opening performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Working as a teacher following graduation, Fearing came to Texas in 1943 to seek employment in the defense industry and landed a drafting job in Fort Worth. Through his job at the Consolidated Vultee heavy bomber plant, he came into contact for the first time with experimental artists of his own age who viewed art as both a serious pursuit and a way of life. Today, these artists are collectively known as the Fort Worth Circle, a group that included Fearing, Dickson Reeder, Bill Bomar, Bror Utter, Veronica Helfensteller, Marjorie Johnson, and others.
In 1945, near the end of World War II, a surreal Fearing composition called The Kite Flyers won a competition judged by University of Texas art instructor Loren Mozley. The painting's imaginative subject matter and exquisite brushwork made an impression. At war's end, Fearing joined the art department at Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth, where he taught students almost as old as he was. After two years of teaching, and with the financial backing of local collectors, Fearing left for New York and prepared to enter the graduate art program at Columbia University. Just before 1947 fall classes started, he was invited by Loren Mozley to join the art faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.
Fearing's embrace of highly personal themes began innocently enough. His earliest paintings drew from his Arkansas and Louisiana roots and took the form of farm scenes, street dances, depictions of old wooden houses, and images of rusty automobiles. In Dickson Reeder's wartime printmaking salon, he was exposed for the first time to the abstract ideas of Stanley William Hayter, Fernand Léger, and Henry Moore. This exposure inspired him to create imagery that was far more experimental than any he had attempted before. Access to the private collection of Bill Bomar and the holdings of Nierendorf Gallery in New York engendered in him a deep admiration for the art of Paul Klee. As a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, Fearing embraced the central theme that would dominate his art for the rest of his life; how could he express wonder and admiration for the physical world and, at the same time, question his place in it? Using painterly figures clothed in robes or wearing nothing at all, Fearing confronted the conundrum of vulnerability. He frequently invoked the imagery and symbolism of sea and sky, earth and rock, and the cycle of life, but these symbols represented a natural order that was permanent and independent of human presence. These things would exist whether Fearing's figures were in them or not. Human existence must somehow draw into balance with all other forces of nature, and finding the balance point became Fearing's challenge to his peers and to us.
As a teacher and author, Kelly Fearing influenced countless young people who looked to art as their career choice. As an artist, he enjoyed statewide respect and the enduring support of collectors. For those of us who came to know him late in his life, Kelly Fearing's depth of experience, approachability, and willingness to share of himself made his art, and that of his generation, real and indispensable components of Texas culture. It is impossible to look upon one of Kelly Fearing's exquisitely painted owls, or fishes, or four-legged creatures and not wish that we had known him sooner.
Scott Grant Barker
Fort Worth, Texas
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