Blue Walk poster

Kortlander Works Featured at Decorative Arts Center of Ohio

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The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, located in Lancaster, is a large brick building that serves as a nonprofit museum. John Kortlander describes it as an “elegant space (and)…beautiful old mansion,” that both of his parents loved.

It seemed only fitting, then, that this museum be the space to display his father’s only full retrospective art gallery.

William Kortlander was an Ohio University professor of art history and studio art from 1961 until he retired Professor Emeritus in 1995. He lived the remainder of his days in his Athens home, where he died at 89 years old on April 29, 2014.

Nearly two years later, the Decorative Arts Center is preparing to wrap up the exhibit, Blue Walk, curated by William’s children, John and S. Elizabeth Kortlander. It has been on display since Jan. 23, and will be available — free to the public — until Sunday, April 24.

“We liked the title because ‘Blue Walk’ kind of reflects the fact that nobody’s life is just a beautiful path,” John said. “There’s a little bit of the blues to every life…so we just thought it was an appropriate title and it was a great painting. It really covers the entire duration of his activity as an artist. There are works from as early as the 1940s until recently, until just before his death in 2014, and there are a variety of media he worked with.”

Primarily a painter, the Grand Rapids, Michigan native also experimented using charcoal and sketches, and was one of the first artists to involve himself in acrylics (he published the book Painting with Acrylics in 1972).

William’s earlier works fall under the category of regionalism. John spoke of the works progressing over time: in the 1940s, they reflected the WWII veteran’s experiences — one of William’s “blues” in his life. In the 1960s, figurative works represented social rights movements and women’s liberation, earning a lot of his national attention. After his move to Athens, he began focusing primarily on southeast Ohio landscapes and the natural environment.

“From my house on a hilltop, I am constantly aware of the sky, its changes and moods. Days that would be dreary in town are beautiful here, for light modified by atmosphere and the time of day alters the colors and shapes – the entire character – of these ridges dramatically. Pale grasses take on a metallic sheen against a gray sky, dull tree trunks turn black or violet in the rain.” – William Kortlander from the catalogue for More than Land or Sky.

One of the most popular paintings on display in Blue Walk, John said, is a vignette of sketches depicting Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address to the nation, soldiers marching, people huddled around the radio, extra newspapers being sold and more.

John has curated a number of art exhibits before, but curating his father’s only full retrospective exhibit in a museum that he admired was a much more personal experience. Museum representatives were “immediately” on board with the idea, and accepted many more works than John had expected.

Although he and his sister might have had a few minor disagreements along the way, he believes they met goals of exposing the public to William’s works that they had never seen before, and have them resonate well with each other. They would not be opposed to curating another exhibit filled with their father’s work, but would likely focus on a more narrow category of his work, such as charcoal works only, or a particular time period.

John still comes to his parents’ Athens home, out in the country and filled with paintings, and where the Blue Walk works will return when the exhibition ends.

“(It’s) in a beautiful location, so it’s a great weekend place for me to come and relax with my wife and be surrounded by nature,” he said, later adding, “I may be turning the house in the country into a vacation rental property that also functions as a museum house for primarily his artworks, but artworks of others as well.”

Until then, John said he has run into Athens friends every time he has visited Blue Walk in the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio. Athens residents and others interested in William’s art can view the exhibit through April 24.