When Mike Kemper was a child, he went to the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts more times than he could count. His mother, Gillian Kemper, was an established artist who exhibited here off and on for 30 years.
“I’m an art festival baby,” Mike Kemper said Wednesday at his booth.
For the Kemper family, painting and creating art is as natural as breathing. Gillian Kemper surrounded her son with art materials and parents who never said “no” to his artistic fancies. Quite naturally, he followed in his mother’s footprints.
Now, the two travel the country, showing their art at various shows and festivals. They are best friends, Mike Kemper said. For several years they even shared studio space in the Paseo art district.
Kemper’s booth at the festival is 19D, the same booth one of Oklahoma’s most revered artists, Bert Seabourn, usually occupied when he attended the festival. Gillian Kemper took this year’s Oklahoma City festival off.
Defining an artist
How to describe Kemper’s work? Years ago, he said, he was having a conversation about art with a young teen at a festival. Later, the teen returned to Kemper’s booth, pointed to the art and simply said, “Urban pop surrealism.”
That’s a rather accurate description, especially to someone with an untrained eye. It’s urban, and definitely unconventional. It’s pop, certainly, in its bright colors, strange content and concepts. And its surrealism is impossible to miss and almost as impossible to describe.
One might point back to his childhood decor to find an unconventional sensibility. “Our house was filled with these beautiful paintings of naked women,” Kemper said. “I never thought it was unusual until I was in my teens and I’d have a friend spend the night and they’re like, ‘What is going on here?’”
Some parents disallowed their children to visit the Kemper home. The “cool” parents just shrugged and said, “Oh well, they’re artists.”
Kemper admits his art isn’t for everybody. The richly saturated watercolors he adores lure patrons into his booth, but once they stand before his paintings, he said, they often find themselves confounded, trying to understand the bizarre characters, trying to deconstruct and make sense of the abstract strangeness that emotes.
Once you see Kemper’s work, you’ll recognize it a mile away.
The characters in Kemper’s paintings are extensions of himself, and his journey of discovering himself as an artist and a man.
“It fulfills me, so I work out my own queries and interests and questions through the characters. There’s a part of me in all of them,” he said. “Someone takes a piece of your work home, they’re not just taking a painting home, they’re taking a part of that whole thing that you are and what you do with your life.”
Each of Kemper’s portraits is stamped with two chops (an Asian colloquialism for a signature stamp) that honor his parents. Kemper’s father, Thomas Kemper, was a translator of Mandarin Chinese during the Vietnam War. The chops, in Mandarin, read “Gillian” and “Kemper.”
“I kind of honor my mother and my father using those chops on all my work,” Kemper said.
A traveling lifestyle
Kemper embraces the traveling lifestyle he’s created by making a career of art shows and festivals.
“I love it. There’s this whole gypsy existence I have, where I go from town to town and there are other artists that you befriend,” he said. “You work hard, you play hard, and go to these cities that have collectors, people that follow you and you become friends with. The world becomes small as much as we travel.”
Kemper recently bought a home in Oklahoma City, where he stays up all night most nights, and paints. He is inspired by the stillness of the night, the solitude he is able to achieve when he is one with his paintbrushes.
“My house looks just like my work,” he said. “I’m a junker, I have all kinds of collectibles, toys, bizarreness. The obscure and bizarre is my thing.”
An Okie at heart, and for most of his life, for Kemper, the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts is more like a social occasion for him.
“This for me is a huge social event. I may not get rich and famous with the paintings, but I see everybody I don’t see the rest of the year,” he said.
“Someone takes a piece of your work home, they’re not just taking a painting home, they’re