Ars Voces: Kim Sessums – Listening with the Eye

Eudora Welty told me when I was doing her portrait bust and we were talking about where the creative muse comes from that she was just a listener. If you sit in a restaurant or go to a football game or sit in a mall and listen to a conversation, there are stories there, stories all around you. For me, those types of experiences lead to visual art; sometimes it’s portraying a particular individual, or it may be something about that individual that prompts me to carry it to an image.

The subject doesn’t always tell me that it’s a piece of sculpture or a watercolor. It’s more the emotion of it and how I’m going to get it out. But I usually start everything with loose sketches, on a napkin in a restaurant or on the back of a medical chart. Sometimes it’s a study in words; when I did the Civil War sculpture in Vicksburg, I probably wrote forty or fifty pages of text about what I thought that piece was about before I put anything into a form that someone could look at. It informed what the piece eventually became.

I grew up on a dirt road in Scott County and started studying physiology and human anatomy in college, which appealed to the artist inside me. I was already doing art. In 1976, when I was a senior in high school, a buddy of mine was working for a publishing company as a salesman. He had a big tabletop book of paintings and studies by an artist named Andrew Wyeth. It just set me on my ear. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But it wasn’t how did he do that; my question was why did he do it and what was he trying to tell?

It took me a lifetime to work through the process of reading and studying and looking at the images, trying to figure out what he was doing and mostly learning that he was expressing emotional content through a visible image. Wyeth might have done a painting of a deer hanging by a chain from a limb at Keurner’s house, but really, for him, it was about Keurner fighting in World War I and using a rifle to kill people. Keurner had told him about shooting humans and seeing human blood spilled. So there were these different meanings to paintings that looked like one thing to somebody but something else to the artist.”

That really intrigued me because I’ve got a lot of stuff inside that I want to get out. There are some things that are appropriate to create, and other things that are a little bit hard to create. How do you communicate human loss? How do you communicate loneliness? How do you communicate trauma in childhood? How do you get those things out? Well, for me it came out in things like a portrait of Uncle Bennie sitting in a rocking chair that meant all sorts of personal things to me.

I was really surprised to find out that when other people saw my work, if it was good enough, it took them to somewhere in their own life. It prompted them to think of something completely different than what I was thinking, but they would look at it and were moved by it.