Kim Peterson: Inside the Art and Mind

Kim Peterson, 287

By CARRIE SHEPPARD, January 2020

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” - Edward Hopper

When I first saw the body of work that Kim Peterson created during his 50-year career as an artist, I was struck by the vibrancy of his color palette. Whether it is the realistic watercolors of his early days or the abstract expressionist pieces in the later years of his career, there are colors that hold the viewer’s eye, drawing them into Peterson’s world in ways reminiscent of Van Gogh or Matisse.

A Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s class of 1959, Peterson’s work initially focused on what he observed from his local surroundings in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Inspired by the rising popularity of Abstract Expressionism, Peterson began to experiment with form and media. His etchings, woodcuts, and charcoal work are imbued with a dynamic use of line that creates organic forms full of texture. This technique, this understanding of line, he began to fuse with his intense color palette to create works in chalk pastels and paints. The early 1960s was an exciting period in his career that was unfortunately cut short when he received notification that he’d been drafted for the Vietnam War. At this time he was working as a campus mail carrier at the University of California, Berkeley, his first foray into the landscapes and cultures of the American West. Now, his drafting proved to be a turning point in Peterson’s life and art.  

On his way across the Atlantic for military training in Europe, Peterson fell ill and started to hear voices. When he arrived in Germany, he was brought to the hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. For weeks his mother did not know where he was nor did she receive any word from the military about his well being. Never deployed to Vietnam, Peterson eventually returned to his mother’s house in Minnesota. He turned back to his art practice. However, his focus became less about observing the outside world, and more of an investigation into the self.  

Kim Peterson, 58

His nephew, Ryan Norgren, remembers his uncle’s studio in the basement of that house: “small, a single bare bulb hanging down, but filled with art supplies, canvases, and other pieces of art. We just saw him as the fun uncle who was creative with us and would break out some pipe cleaners for art projects.” He would often ask for unusual items like pipe cleaners to use in his artwork. He was the kind of uncle who was “ready with a goofy face,” who would fasten cardboard tubes together to run marbles through or take his nephews mini golfing. Occasionally, Peterson would not be interested in going on family outings which was often excused away with a simple “not feeling well” to conceal the fact that much more was going on. It was much later that Norgren and his brother learned that their uncle struggled with schizophrenia.

When medicated, Peterson would produce imagery that pushed the boundaries of landscape and portraiture. During bleaker periods, the images would often include text and appear darker in theme, more chaotic in composition. He used artmaking in part as therapy, a way of exerting a sense of control over the disconnect of his internal and external worlds. It was also, importantly, a way of communicating outwardly the reality of his inner world. It’s an approach to creativity that resonates with many artists: the intention of making visual images that represent internal worlds. Yet Peterson’s internal world, affected by schizophrenia, was so tumultuous and unknowable to the observer that the sense of urgency and poignancy in his work is utterly unique. A self-portrait from 2004, for instance, is a jumble of thick blue, white, and red lines with deep-set eyes represented with smudges of navy. The image is almost cadaver-like with its blank-like stare. Nevertheless the movement of color and line on the page imbues the work with a pulsing energy. This push-and-pull, anguish mixed with beauty, representation mixed with abstraction, is a throughline in Peterson’s body of work. It invites the viewer in while never agreeing to provide a comfortable space. 

Kim Peterson, Untitled, 1958, oil on board

Peterson’s exploration into imagery that both seduces and repels stems in part from the practical outcome of his diagnosis. He lived with his mother until her death and was afforded a medical stipend, allowing him the freedom to work fulltime as an artist. This unfettered him from any constraint pleasing an audience might put upon an artist. That his work was made with the intention of being seen is made clear by the shows he participated in and the awards he won over his five-decade career, but the work was never burdened by the need to conform to popular tastes throughout the ensuing (and evolving) decades.

During this five year period, however, his late mother’s house began to become unlivable. He filled the place with artwork and materials to the verge of hoarding. At this point his family decided it was best for Peterson to relocate to California, where many of them lived, and where he had once tried to start a life before the draft. When his nephews, David and Ryan Norgren, returned to the house in Minnesota, he found “every room in the house was filled, canvases leaning against all the walls.” It was 2005, and decades of work and mental struggles had taken over.

Kim Peterson, Man and His Parrot, 2006

For the next three years Peterson was in and out of assisted living facilities in California. Often his bedroom in these places would become more studio than living space. “He’d make art anyway he could. Painting on foam core—he didn’t have access to many art supplies—or things he found,” Norgren remembers. What art supplies Peterson did have were often delivered by Norgren’s brother, who spent much of the earlier part of the time in California with his uncle. 

A cycle had begun, however, where Peterson would establish a studio space for himself but then either drift away to the streets or be asked to leave the facility. His artwork from this time was prolific but hard to hold onto. His nephews did their best.

Some of the work from this time, like Man and his Parrot from 2006, is done in what had become Peterson’s particular sense of Abstract Expressionism: energetic line and bold color capturing a subject and an atmosphere or feeling. Other pieces, however, seem like repeated studies, reminiscent of artists such as Matisse, who was known for repeatedly painting an image until he could distill the purest way to express the subject. For Peterson, work from this period in California is often his most abstracted—repeated wavy lines of color across a page—various versions of the work being made, striving again to communicate a tangled internal world to an external audience.

In 2008 Kim Peterson passed away. His sister and two nephews are left with the task of cataloguing Peterson’s 50 years of work. “It’s just the three of us left,” says Norgren, “and it’s been a process of honoring his work.” So far they have catalogued over 800 individual pieces. 

For Ryan Norgren there is also the memory of the uncle who first lead him into the art world. Now himself an artist and an art teacher, there hangs a photograph in his classroom of a boy being sketched by an older man. People often think Norgren is the artist in the painting. He is proud to point out that he is the boy. Of his uncle he says, “his life definitely had value, and so did his work.”  WM  



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