Sharing art and life: Springfield exhibit celebrates artistic couple from New England

  • “Antrim Hills,” oil on board by William Jurian Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “The Little White House (New Ipswitch, N.H.),” oil on board by William Jurian Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • William Jurian Kaula in his studio, undated photo. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • Lee Lufkin Kaula in her studio, undated photo. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “Woman in a Dress,” oil on canvas by Lee Lufkin Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “The Orange Kimono,” oil on canvas by Lee Lufkin Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “Barbara,” oil on canvas by Lee Lufkin Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “Courtyard in Normandy,” oil on board by Lee Lufkin Kaula. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Fry Fine Art

  • “#2 Face Jug Fetish,” ceramic piece by Peter Lenzo. Donald Clark Collection Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Donald Clark Collection

  • “Pachyderm Teapot,” ceramic piece by Michael Kline. Image courtesy Springfield Museums/Donald Clark Collection

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2018 3:50:17 PM

The art world has had its share of fractious couples: think Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and perhaps Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.

But William Jurian Kaula and Lee Lufkin Kaula, New England impressionist painters of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, had a more stable relationship — as well as productive careers. Both enjoyed critical success and solid sales, but today neither is generally that well known.

But at the Springfield Museums, an exhibit series dedicated to rediscovering American artists has put the Kaulas’ work front and center this summer. “Two Lives, One Passion” displays the great technical skill and eye for detail both artists brought to their work, whether in William Kaula’s rich landscapes or Lee Lufkin Kaula’s evocative portraits of women, children and occasionally men.

The exhibit, curated by Carol Scollans of the art history program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, comes from a collection from Stanley B. Fry and Fry Fine Art in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Karen Fisk, public relations director for Springfield Museums, says Fry has acquired numerous pieces by both artists over the last several years as a means of bringing renewed attention to their work.

“They really do deserve more recognition,” Fisk said during a recent tour of the exhibit. “They were both extremely talented painters who were also a part of an important school of Boston impressionist painters” in the early 20th century.

Both artists had traveled and painted in Europe, where they first met, and William Kaula especially became a devotee of French plein air painting, or painting outdoors with direct observation of a subject — a technique he even employed in the dead of winter to depict the New England landscape under a mantle of snow.

The exhibit, in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, is one of a number of shows currently at the D’Amour, including “Beyond Function,” a display of dozens of both beautiful and sometimes bizarre ceramic works from the personal collection of Donald Clark, a Springfield resident and ceramics connoisseur who once worked at Pinch Pottery in Northampton.

Sharing a life

“Two Lives, One Passion” uses paintings, photos, old journals and a few other artifacts like sketch books to tell the story of the Kaulas, whose personal relationship was very much tied to their work. As exhibit notes put it, they both felt the other’s fulfillment as an artist was critical to their happiness; they shared a studio throughout their marriage.

The couple, both originally from New England, met in the 1890s in France, where they studied painting in Paris and traveled in other countries, including Belgium and The Netherlands.

One wing of the exhibit is devoted to their work from Europe, including some landscapes by Lee Lufkin Kaula; she depicted village scenes from Normandy, France and other locales before later going on to focus almost exclusively on portraits.

Fisk says journal entries that William Kaula made at the time attest to his powerful and immediate attraction to Lee Lufkin. “To be frank, he hadn’t had a lot of good things to say about many other people he’d met before that,” she noted, but he was clearly swept off his feet by Lee Lufkin and her talent.

“She can paint better portraits than any of the fellows I know in Paris,” he wrote.

The couple married in 1902 and settled in Boston, where they were part of a circle of painters that included Edmund C. Tarbell, an influential American impressionist painter and the leader of what became known as the Boston School of painting. Some of their work was later sold through the former Gill’s Art Gallery in Springfield, a business that started in the 19th century.

William Kaula made light, shadow and cloud formations a particular focus of his New England landscapes, many of which came from southern New Hampshire after the couple bought a summer home there in 1919.

“Rift in Clouds,” for instance, is dominated by a swirl of dark clouds that hang above a pastoral scene of a creek winding through a meadow, a wood off to the right; a small patch of light in the center of the sky seems only to accentuate the brooding nature of the clouds.

Paintings like “Winter Perfection (Winter in Southern New Hampshire),” by contrast, shine with the kind of bright light that’s generated by a snowy landscape on a sunny day. The oil canvas depicts a small, mostly open valley nestled beneath low hills, with fluffy clouds casting shadows here and there on the otherwise sunlit scene.

As much as her husband’s canvasses were usually empty of people, Lee Lufkin Kaula’s richly colored paintings made people the focus. “Woman in a Dress” offers a warm portrait of an elegantly dressed woman at a small writing table, her right elbow crooked on the table and her right hand resting on her cheek as she gazes at the viewer with a somewhat enigmatic smile.

The back of her head, in an interesting detail, is reflected in a mirror on the wall behind her. It could be a portrait by Renoir or another late 19th century painter.

“Barbara” is another careful study of a more pensive-looking woman, but this time she’s wearing a 1920s outfit of a loosely tailored dress, colorful blouse and a cloche hat — as exhibit notes put it, the painting reflects the changing societal norms of that time for women that allowed them a more casual look in public. 

The couple had one big advantage in their art: Lee Lufkin’s father was a wealthy lawyer who evidently left his daughter a comfortable income that allowed the painters to concentrate on their work without needing other jobs.

Form, not function

Donald Clark’s “Beyond Function” exhibition is built around two themes: that a ceramic vase, jug or other vessel does not have to be functional to be valuable, and that collecting can be something of a vice.

As Clark says about his extensive inventory of ceramic pieces, “I collected because I was overcome by the vice. I still am.”

But he’s amassed a fascinating trove of items, including multiple pieces by some artists, so that viewers can trace changes in their work. For instance, the show includes three “pachyderm teapots” by North Carolina potter Michael Kline, with spouts like trunks and other projections that conjure tails and feet. The three have obvious differences but some, like a certain stretching in size, are less obvious unless you view the pieces side by side.

For social commentary, there’s “Greed” by South Carolina sculptor Russell Biles, a porcelain piece that depicts Judy Garland as she looked playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”; she rides a horse as a pig-like creature on her head clutches bags of money. The piece aims to recall the way Garland’s personal life fell prey to the machinations of the big Hollywood studios.

But for pure wild spirit, perhaps nothing tops “#2 Face Jug Fetish” by Peter Lenzo, also of South Carolina, which is a conglomeration of everything but the kitchen sink. The stoneface jug is studded with small ceramic pieces like arms, heads, a small teapot, a ghoulish figure and a chicken — suggesting the sculptor as mad scientist.

As the exhibit notes put it, who says that form must follow function?

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Two Lives, One Passion” is on view at Springfield Museums through September 9 and “Beyond Function” through September 2. For more information on  these and other exhibits, visit springfieldmuseums.org.


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