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Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts: An artist's life is perfect for Mike Kemper

His work is described as urban pop surrealism, his lifestyle is nomadic, and Oklahoma artist Mike Kemper wouldn’t have it any other way. His work is on sale at the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts in booth 19D.
BY HEATHER WARLICK, Staff Writer Published: April 23, 2014

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.

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“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.”

Mike Kemper


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