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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

At 80, Folk Artist Warren Kimble Is Going Strong, And Branching Out

Nina Keck
Warren Kimble has lived and worked in Brandon since 1970. His timeless folk art took off in the 1990s, but he has recently begun experimenting with 3-D assemblages. Three separate galleries in Vermont will be showcasing Kimble's work this summer.

The paintings of Brandon artist Warren Kimble are easily recognizable, even to people who may not know his name. His folk art portraits of plump cats, picturesque barns and stately roosters have been put on everything from greeting cards to salad plates.

Now, three separate Vermont galleries will be showcasing more than 50 years of Kimble’s work this month. 

In Kimble's studio

The rambling 1820s home Warren Kimble shares with his wife Lorraine is filled with antiques and artwork. So is a small two-story garage out back that Kimble uses as a studio.

“So come up and see my studio, my mess,” says Kimble.

He climbs up a set of stairs to a small beautifully-lit space with large sun-filled windows. An easel stands at one end with tin cans and mason jars filled to overflowing with paintbrushes. “So this is my latest studio, and you can see what I’ve been working on.”

Kimble points to a large table covered with small wooden boxes and all sorts of oddities: children’s blocks, clothespins, lamp bases and odd shaped industrial parts; bits of whimsy that he transforms into boxed collages and three-dimensional art he calls assemblages.    

“It all comes together,” says Kimble. “The whole thing … the love of the old, the art of the old, going to museums and seeing the old antique paintings."

At 80, Kimble has absorbed a lot. “Art is the sum total of one’s experiences. The Jersey shore, the boardwalk, the color … I love the circus. I was taken to the circus every April. That’s art,” he says enthusiastically. “So you may not use it tomorrow or you may not use it 10 years from now, but the experience always comes back to you and makes the creative process happen,” he adds.

A departure from Americana 

“This is my new work over here,” says Kimble, pointing to several paintings that are part of what he calls his "Sunshine" series. The new work is a departure from the quaint farm animals and patriotic flags that have made Kimble famous. It’s bolder and more abstract. In one, a glowing orange sun rises over blue green waves, creating an image that almost pulses.

Credit Warren Kimble
A piece from Warren Kimble's "Sunshine" collection. His new work strays from the folk art style he became known for creating.

“People say when they see the newer things, ‘Who did that?’" laughs Kimble, "And I say, ‘I did.’” 

“Because it’s a little heavier,” he says, commenting on their disbelief. “But they usually start to appreciate it. “But some people don’t want to see it,” he admits. “They want to see the folk art and how I do that. That’s the main act — act one,” he says laughing. “This is scene two or something.”

A musical, entrepreneurial childhood

Kimble was born in Belleville, New Jersey in 1935. Despite the depression, he says his dad had a good job with the Prudential Insurance Company and his mom was a homemaker.

One of his earliest memories is singing along with a player piano in his parent’s living room. “My parents were wonderful,” he says smiling, “full of love and life. We were exposed to the player piano and sang every old song known to be. ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,’ ‘Tea for Two' ...Oh, I could go on and on.”

“My brother started taking dance lessons in New York when he was about 3,” says Kimble. His brother Bob was 11 years older and something of a dance prodigy. “He danced on Broadway with Ethel Merman, in the chorus," Kimble says proudly. "So I traipsed into New York every Saturday in a 1937 Chevy and watched him take his dance lessons.” 

Credit Warren Kimble
Warren Kimble's three-dimensional "Boudoir" assemblage features many odds and ends found in his Brandon studio.

While Kimble says his parents pushed his brother hard, and were kind of frantic with his dancing career, “They left me alone. I was just given art supplies and encouraged to do artwork,” he says. “And that was good for me. That was a gift.”

Kimble says early on he blended his love of art with an uncanny knack for making a buck. “I used to make these crazy little angels and I would paint people’s windows for Christmas. I was always thinking about doing the art and selling something — I was very entrepreneurial in my youth.”

In high school, Kimble was class president, a cheerleader and involved in all sorts of activities. But his home life changed drastically when he was 16. His mother died of cancer and Kimble says he was on his own a lot. It was an early lesson in self-reliance he says.

After graduating from college, Kimble got married, was drafted into the Army for two years and around 1960 went into advertising.

But about the same time he also began to dabble in the antiques business. “I started refinishing old trunks and that got me into it. Then I started learning about antiques and buying and selling folk art and doing shows and so forth as a sideline.”

The early days and the big break

In 1970, Kimble, his wife and his son Chris moved to Brandon, where Kimble's wife had family. Kimble taught art and worked at Castleton State College. After he and his first wife divorced in 1974, Kimble raised his son and remained in Vermont.

Two years later, Kimble met and married Lorraine, his current wife who brought two children of her own into the family“When I was teaching at Castleton, I was being a father, a husband, buying and selling antiques, painting like crazy — and just having a love of teaching.”

But to continue at Castleton, Kimble says he needed a master's degree. And with three children and a wife to support, there wasn’t the time or money to complete it. So he began to focus on art and antiques full-time. He says it all came together in 1990 at an antiques show in Woodstock.

Credit Warren Kimble
An example of Warren Kimble's older, folk art style, "Vermont Cow" showcases the quaint, classic look found in his paintings.

A local couple who were launching a publishing business saw and liked his work and wanted to make prints of his pieces. "And I said, 'Prints? I’m an artist!'” Kimble admits, laughing. “But I said 'OK,' and Lorraine said, ‘Well, maybe we can make some money on it, since the antiques business hadn’t been going so well.'”

John and Laurie Chester of Wild Apple Graphics chose six of his paintings, reproduced them and headed for New York City. “So there we are in New York at Art Expo,” says Kimble, “The big, huge, art show and they’re selling these reproductions like crazy.”  

The paintings included a couple of animals, a painting of a house on a hill and two cows with the state of Vermont on their rumps kissing. "I just did that for fun,” says Kimble, who says that’s just his sense of humor.

“But it just took off — it just went bananas,” he says.

"I get an agent who gets things put on pillows and wallpaper and fabric and all of a sudden we’re in business. [My wife] Lorraine and I are in business ... but especially Lorraine is in business." - Brandon artist Warren Kimble

Kimble’s quaint folk art was the perfect antidote to the slick, glitzy art of the 1980s. “The time was right, the mood of the nation was right. It just happened,” says Kimble.

“Then I get an agent who gets things put on pillows and wallpaper and fabric and all of a sudden we’re in business. Lorraine and I are in business ... but especially Lorraine is in business.” 

Kimble says his wife Lorraine became indispensable as a business partner. “Every artist, in order to be successful if it hits like it did for me, the pure luck of it, has to have someone to take care of them. Because you can’t do both,” says Kimble. "You can’t be creative while at the same time think about the commercial side of things."

'Art for the people'

Kimble thinks his art resonates with both men and women because of its simplicity. He uses a special glaze to make his paintings look old, but there are no cars or carriages in his art, no costumes, nothing that can give you a sense of time. Kimble believes that makes it easier for his paintings to hang in anyone’s house.

And while the Brandon artist admits to feeling typecast as a folk artist, he says with 6 million reproductions of his paintings circulating worldwide, he can live with that.

"My art is art for the people and of the people. I'm in houses and I'm in bathrooms! I mean, please. That's the fun of it. That's what makes it real."

“My art, no, it may not be in New York and I may not be Jasper Johns or Norman Rockwell or somebody, but I have as many prints out as Norman had. I shouldn’t call him Norman," Kimble admits, smiling. “Norman Rockwell. And I love his work."

"But I’m sort of…my art is art for the people and of the people.  I’m in houses and I’m in bathrooms! I mean please,” Kimble says, laughing. “That’s the fun of it.  That’s what makes it real.”

Losing a son, and giving back

While the early 1990s were a heady time professionally for Warren Kimble, whose art was popping up everywhere, they were difficult years personally. Kimble’s son Chris was diagnosed with AIDS and he was in and out of hospitals in New York and Vermont for two years until his death in 1992. And while Kimble says he could dwell on the sadness of that event, he says there was also something profoundly wonderful that happened between him and his son.

Credit Warren Kimble
An assemblage created by Warren Kimble called "City Sunrise" shows his multimedia approach to creating three-dimensional art.

“He gave me a great gift,” says Kimble. Chris was 29 when he died, and Kimble says the two spent a great deal of time together at the end. “We had such wonderful conversations that he gave me the gift of being able to go on. Some people may not understand that,” says Kimble, “but it’s a gift.”

Kimble says the outpouring of support he got from neighbors in Brandon at the time was also a gift.

To give back, Kimble helped found the Brandon Artists Guild 15 years ago, an organization of 50 artists who sell their works in town. Over the years he’s also served on a number of collegiate and artistic boards.

On to the next one

"I don't like the word retirement because I don't think artists retire. I don't think I'll ever retire. It's not in my vocabulary."

Kimble turned 80 this year, but has no intention of slowing down. “I don’t like the word retirement because I don’t think artists retire. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. It’s not in my vocabulary.”

And while Kimble has been making art for decades, he says his favorite work will always be the next one. “Because after it’s painted, after it’s done, it’s done. And when you sell a painting, you never see it again. So the next one is the creative spirit coming out again,” says Kimble. “So my favorite is always the next one."

There will likely be plenty of next ones, since Kimble says he still paints nearly every day, usually while listening to Broadway show tunes on satellite radio. “Sometimes I sing along,” admits Kimble with a laugh. “Nobody’s there to hear me, right? And once in a while I get up and tap dance, too. Not normally, but once in a while.”

There are currently three separate exhibitions of Kimble’s work this summer – the Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, theBrandon Artists Guildin Brandon and the Vermont Artisan Design Gallery in Brattleboro.

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