Remembering Ed Kienholz
By Richard Twedt.
The first time I met Ed Kienholz was in his small gallery, called the Beyond Hope Gallery that was nestled in the woods on a peninsula jutting out into the north side of Lake Pend Oreille. It was part of Ed’s compound consisting of a stunning rustic log home, studio and several guest cottages. The occasion was the opening for a small Francis Bacon show, Ed had curated from private collectors throughout Europe and the United States. As I entered the gallery, it was empty except for Ed who loomed larger than life from behind a wooden desk at one end of the gallery. There was a chair next to the desk so I decided to sit-down and introduce myself. His demeanor was gruff, which I learned later on was a false front as Ed was an extremely personable fellow. Being somewhat intimated, I decided my approach would be to give him a compliment in the form of a story. He seemed game for it.
I started out telling him I had studied and toured in Europe a while back and one of my last stops was Amsterdam where I visited the Steglig Museum of Modern Art. As I was leaving the museum, something caught the corner of my eye. I turned around just as was opening the front door and saw just the merest part of Ed’s “Barney’s Beanery”. Walking into the historically significant contemporary art tableau, I physically got goose bumps. I told Ed this was the high point of my European trip and remember it as it was yesterday. This was the end of March 1976. A great big smile crossed his face and he thanked me for the story. That night, Ed hosted the world’s leading expert on Francis Bacon who gave a talk about Bacon’s art in the garage below the gallery. There were probably 80-100 people present for it. I remember Ed relished the idea of having a Bacon exhibition in the woods of North Idaho and spoke about the difficulty of getting the various artworks to the site. One had to be brought in by helicopter. Insuring the pieces was another nightmare, but Ed loved it. Later that evening, we were all fed a great dinner catered by the Gardens, an excellent Sand Point restaurant, which was to become a tradition at all of the opening receptions.
No invitations or exhibition postcards were ever sent out to a mailing list. It was word of mouth completely. But, it attracted art world luminaries from around the country. The Monty Factors, the Groehneke family from Germany, who later built their own compound adjacent to Ed’s, museum directors and curators from Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, etc. etc. were frequently in attendance; and of course numerous artists, from the famous to not so famous. Art writers, art educators and hanger ons, all had heard about the opening and would make the annual pilgrimage to the compound.
Finding the place was an adventure, as usually it had been at least one year since the last visit and you never knew which dirt road to take. I was always tempted to take the road named “Kienholz”, but that was a dead-end and far from where you wanted to be. A branch of the Kienholz family had pioneered this part of Northern Idaho and it obviously had been named after them. Ed actually grew up in the small farming community of Fairview, Washington and had attended Eastern Washington University for one quarter or so, but dropped out. During this time, he was a night attendant at the mental institution in Medical Lake. Several of his iconic tableaus were inspired by his experiences at the institution.
As Director of Galleries for Eastern Washington University, I was continually trying to get Ed to sell us a small affordable piece. But, I learned Ed hated the institution and would never consent to letting us having any of his art no matter how insignificant it might be. I finally found out why several years after first meeting him. His first art instructor was an incredibly eccentric female artist, named Opal Fleckenstein. As legend has it, one of her drawing assignments was to incorporate an image of an animal into it. Ed’s unique response was to attach a dead fish to a piece of wood and presented it to her as his finished project. He received an A+ on the assignment. Opal was a major early influence on Ed who admired her eccentricities in the face of the staid academics. Coincidently, I had taken my first art class from her too, while I was a business major at Eastern. She had a profound effect on me too. I subsequently took a couple of other classes from her that had very little to do with art, but there was much discussion about the Viet Nam war and current national politics. The founding father of the SDS organization on campus, Vince O’Leary, was a student in the class and precipitated many of the debates. As, many of the other students were wives of Air Force personnel stationed at the local air base, and Vince and Opal loved to stir up controversy with them.
Opal challenged the faculty and administration with her sense of freedom and eventually was pushed out of the Art department in an early retirement. This is the reason Ed hated the institution and would never consent to letting one of his pieces be in the permanent collection.
The next time I saw Ed and Nancy was on the streets of Spokane, Washington. My wife and I were having dinner in a restaurant across from the Opera House and spotted them walking along in front of it. We knew they liked to eat/drink at a couple of local haunts so we hurried up and paid and took out looking for them. We ran into an art student friend of ours at a local watering hole and asked Scott if he would like to hunt for Ed and Nancy. When found, we would get back together and go where they were and pretend we were just there for a drink. I located them in a favorite Japanese restaurant eating dinner. We mosey into the back bar and told the waitress to bring them what ever they were drinking. In a few minutes, “Big” Ed was towering over our table and asking if we were the generous persons who had bought drinks. We admitted to it. Ed sized us up and said when they were finished with dinner they would be over to have a couple of drinks with us. Thereafter ensued, several hours of Ed gracing us with Ed and Nancy stories. They had recently returned from Africa and had purchased a Masi hut from a tribesman and were going to incorporate it into a tableau of some kind. Apparently, the Masi tribesman thought Ed was crazy and offered to sell him several other huts for the price he had purchased his. I asked Ed what was the most current piece he was working on and he replied “something they can’t buy”, which seemed to be a small insight to Ed’s resistance to the commercial driven art market. I think he was referring to the bronze installation that had been commission by Claus Groehneke for his compound in Idaho. It would eventually grow to over 2,000 individual cast bronze pieces, which recreated a hunting campsite. It was featured in Sculpture magazine a couple years later with about a six-page spread.
At the next reception, Jane and I had arranged to sell Ed a stuffed bobcat and bear skin rug. Jane brought along a beautiful vintage alligator purse she had found “junking” to give to Nancy. In the middle of the reception, we approached Ed and asked him to tell us when it would be a good time to bring in the curiosities. In about a half hour and Ed approached us and gave us instructions where and when to meet him. In fifteen minutes, we were to go around the side of the gallery past the carport and enter the first door on the right hand side. We beat feet to the car and extracted the dead animal carcasses and made our way back to the reception. As you can imagine, we got a few strange looks from the partygoers as we passed them with a 50 lb. stuffed bobcat and six-foot bear skin rug. We did as Ed had instructed, venturing deep into the Kienholz complex, walking past and admiring a perfectly restored vintage 1934 Packard in the carport and entering the door. Ed had set the stage. He was sitting behind a huge desk with Nancy standing next to him. Another person was casually hanging around. We greeted them and Jane gave Nancy the purse. Jane started off by telling the origin of the beasts and told Ed the approximate value of the bobcat, which was in the neighborhood of $150, but said she would be happy with $80. Ed’s retort was “I won’t give you a penny less than a $100 bucks”. Deal sealed, Ed turned to the other person, who turned out to be an artist in residence at Ed’s converted school for visiting artists he would invite to work there in the summer, and asked her if she wanted the bear skin rug, because he wasn’t interested. The answer was yes and I believe the agreed upon price was around $100. A night to remember, making deals with “Big” Ed.
One summer at the spur of the moment, two friends and I took off to Ed’s in hopes of getting a glance of the exhibition that was in the gallery that was suppose to return to Germany soon. The artist created meticulously carved wooden kinetic figurative sculptures that were of particular interest to one of the artists as he had been a good friend of H.C. Westermann’s and created work for several years in a similar vain. Arriving at the compound, we knocked on the screen door and saw into the dining room Ed, Nancy and several people were having lunch. Ed called out from the table and asked what we wanted. Once, he knew we were artists and had come from Spokane to see the show; he came out and called for his son to bring the keys to the gallery and let us in. After considerable time investigating the sculptures, he invited us into his studio and showed us what he was currently working on. I was amazed to see several very beautiful realistically rendered paintings with bird images in them. When asked about the inspiration, Ed said they were about Chernobyl with no further explanation.
Another time the urge to spontaneously drive to Ed’s was when the New York/Tel Avi artist, Buky Schwartz, was staying at our house. I had brought him to Spokane to create a video installation in the University’s downtown location. Buky had finished the installation and wanted to relax from a solid week of 10-14 hour days of working on the installation that encompassed two inside floors and the sunken garden area of the building. He had mentioned his desire to meet Ed and I offered to take him up to Northern Idaho. When we arrived, there was a huge 600 series Mercedes Benz out front of the house and I falsely deduced it was a wealthy collector making a deal with Ed and refused to stop and intrude. Sometime later, I mentioned this to Ed and he said, “what the hell, you should have knocked on the door, I would of loved to meet Buky”. The car was probably Ed’s.
The last time I saw Ed was at the reception for an exhibition of an Australian sculptor who specialized in casting sheep in aluminum and creating various metaphorical arrangements with them. The Kienholz’s were enthralled with the artist’s work and Ed had done a trade with him for a sheep sitting in a traditional outback wooden chair that is designed to keep your feet off the hot desert floor. So, the sheep was placed with feet up on the chair’s platforms normally reserved for a human. The exhibition’s centerpiece was a 12’ cast aluminum ladder with a 3’-4’ platform at the top. There were two sheep climbing the ladder and one at top on the platform ready to jump. Presently, it would make a good metaphor for Bush’s administration. After dinner, we crashed the party in the bar with a pool table where Ed and Noah were shooting pool. Several dollars later, they had wiped out all of my cash and I had to retreat to drinking with the Aussie at the bar. What a great night. At one point, I had Ed in a headlock telling him the next time he and Nancy were in Spokane they had to stay with Jane and I. In typical fashion, Ed’s response was “we only stay in hotels”.
I ran into Bob Helm after Ed had passed away, and we were reminiscing about Ed. Bob said the last time he saw Ed, in response to Bob’s greeting “how ya doing?” Ed’s response was “just trying to stay alive”. It wasn’t too long after that Ed had the massive heart attack and left us all alone. He is sorely missed my many.
Little did I know back when Jane and I passed the Packard in the carport, it would become Ed’s coffin. Bob Helm tells the story to Chris Sublet, one of my artist friends that went to see the German artist’s wood sculpture show. Ed owned several hundred acres around Hope including the mountaintop where he is buried. Ed’s son, Noah, drove a backhoe to the site and dug a huge hole with an approach way to it. Ed was positioned sitting upright in the passenger’s seat of the Packard and Nancy drove it into the hole. Good friends were gathered and as the story goes, Mrs.Groehneke was the first to say her good byes to Ed and tossed some wild flowers down upon him. Several followed suit and soon Ed was covered with wild flowers. Then, one of Ed’s poker buddies remembered he owed Ed some cash and greenbacks were showered down on him. This was cause for several others of Ed’s poker debtors to grace Ed with their losses. Now Ed was covered with wild flowers and several hundred dollars in cash. I don’t think he scripted that part, but if he did, and if any pictures survive, they should become part of a traveling art memorial to Ed, much like his wonderfully simple, but effective “Portable War Memorial” on silk-screened on galvanized metal.
Several years passed, and over the local grapevine I heard Nancy was going to open the complex up for an exhibition of Terry Allen’s work. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away for that. So I made my last sojourn to the Beyond Hope Gallery to see Terry’s most recent work. The incredible bonus that night was Terry treated the audience to probably two hours of his music on the patio. At one time, Nancy had beautiful lit candelabras brought out and placed on top of the piano at each side. Truly a magical evening being graced with the genius gifts of Terry, but a very sad sense of loss was in the air without the presence of “Big” Ed and his larger than life personality. I sat next to Jo Harvey and across from Nancy. I chose my moment to express my sincere condolences for her loss and how much we all will miss Ed. A major force that helped create a chapter in Contemporary Art History.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Twedt is an artist and public art program consultant in California.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 9th, 2009.