Kurt Lightner

Artist Q&A with Kurt Lightner

Kurt Lightner was born in Troy, Ohio. He received his BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design, OH, and his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, NYC.

Lightner’s works have been included in many significant group and solo exhibitions; Greater New York, PS1 MOMA, Kurt Lightner: Five Acres, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Queens International, Queens Museum, Other Worlds, Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, and A View almost Picturesque and Slow Dissolve, Clementine Gallery. Lightner’s works have been critically reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, Artnews, Freize, Beautiful Decay, Brooklyn Rail, New York Times, The New Yorker, Sculpture, and the Village Voice, among others.

He has been a recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and The Headlands Center for the Arts Project Studio Residency in San Fransisco. Lightner’s works are included in many private and public collections both nationally and internationally.

He currently lives and works in Queens, New York. 

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

Of all Time? That’s tough.

My favorites ebb and flow but here are a few that always stick in my mind. Charles Burchfield, David Milne, Early Vuillard, Lois Dodd, Alice Neel, William H. Johnson, Giorgio Morandi, Edvard Munch, Jacob Lawrence, William Hawkins, Arlene Shechet, Millet, Van Gogh, Horace Pippin, and Peter Doig. Not necessarily in that order.

“Planting Lesson”, acrylic on canvas, 98 x 70 in | 249 x 177 cm, 2021

How did you become a professional artist?

Since I was a child, I was always using my hands creating, making, growing something. I grew up in a small town in a farming community out in the country pretty isolated until I could drive. This environment allowed for a lot of time to find ways to entertain myself. I would draw and go on made up “archeological digs” in the woods on my parents’ land and bring back specimens of plants and objects that I found. My earliest education in art supplies were in the form of the craft sections in stores like Kmart, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and terrible plastic brushes were my tools. PBS was a huge influence on my artistic endeavors specifically Bob Ross. This was before video and Netflix you had one chance to see the show and plan accordingly. I would paint along with his tutorial learning the basics of light and shadow, foreground, middle ground, background. A family friend noticed my enthusiasm for art and brought me along to her Tole painting classes taught by a women in a small barn on her property. It was a crafty, how to paint apples on plaques sort of class, filled by mostly older woman and a few retired men. I was an outlier being about 10 years old but the teacher allowed me to go rogue and paint what I wanted once I learned the basics of painting techniques in oils. I took as many art classes as my high school schedule would allow. I didn’t go to any kind of art museum until my senior year of high school on a family trip to Washington DC and it was eye opening. 

I attribute becoming a professional artist the moment I decided to go to art college. The education didn’t make me a professional artist. It broadened my scope of what art could be but the act of dedicating some portion of my life to the pursuit of my artistic endeavors was the moment I became a professional artist. 

What are the influences and inspirations in your work?

My studio practice is one that looks deep into my family’s history with farming in the Midwest and the importance of work that defined an individual’s worth and pride within the family and their community. Through the use of landscape imagery I convey the importance of the land itself and the passed down knowledge of it from one generation to the next. Also focusing on the over looked workers, and behind the scenes laborers that keep food on our tables and products on the shelves. Using the mediums of painting and sculpture I shed light on these lost, overlooked, and forgotten elements of our daily lives that keep us all fed, clothed, housed, and alive.  

Kurt Lightner, portrait by Ken Morton

How is your work different than everything else out there?

My work is drawn from my own unique story. It comes from my experiences. I approach my work from this perspective. 

When is a piece finished for you?

Usually the point at which I feel I’ve reached an equilibrium within a work. The process for me is usually not linear, like how a sentence has a specific beginning and ending, but more of a push and pull till the piece has a balance. 

What’s different about your current body of work?

My most current work that just came down from the show Land at the Beeler Gallery in Columbus, Ohio is a continuation of the theme’s I’ve mentioned above but now bringing back the larger landscape as the vehicle. 

What would you like collectors and curators to know about your work?

That the work comes from a personal narrative. I don’t expect viewers to understand my personal history I bring to it but I hope they can view it and find a connection within their own personal experiences to want to know more and be engaged. 

“The Middle Border”, acrylic on canvas, 99 x 174 in | 252 x 442 cm, 2021

Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?

There have been many people and circumstances that helped me keep pursuing art. Here’s a few pivotal ones. 

Growing up I was a member of our 4-H club and I would enter paintings and show pigs at the county fair. One year my painting won and I was asked to represent my county at the state fair. The judging was based not only on the painting itself but my knowledge of design principals and painting techniques. I won my age division; I believe I was around 10 or 11 at the time. That was the first time outside my circle of family and friends that I had validation of my artistic pursuits. A pivotal moment. Getting into the Columbus College of Art and Design and receiving a partial scholarship based off of my portfolio was huge. Cutting my teeth in the Columbus, Ohio art scene. Having opportunities to show at the non-profit spaces, coffee shops, really anywhere I could, helped build confidence as a young artist. Going to grad school in NYC was a major leap of faith in my art career. My first solo show in NYC at Clementine gallery opened a whole new world and level to my artistic practice. Being included in The Greater NY show at PS1 MOMA expanded my audience greatly. The chance given to me to have my first solo Museum show at the Kemper Museum by then curator Elizabeth Dunbar was an extraordinary opportunity. My first residency at The Headlands Center for the Arts meeting amazing artists and it is where I came up with the idea of a project, that after 15 years of working on it, is now in a show that opened at the Beeler Gallery in November. The loss of representation with the closing of Clementine Gallery NYC. It was a very difficult adjustment, but it forced me to refocus on my studio practice in a way that I don’t think I would have come to otherwise. Creating space for me to produce the work that I am now.  Studio visits. I would not be making the work I am today if it wasn’t for a simple evening get together with a fellow artist Gilda Edwards back in the late 90’s and her words to me to go home and dig into where I came from. These simple acts of getting together with other artist, collectors, curators are some of the most inspiring and motivating actions artist can take for themselves. 

What’s coming up for you?

I just closed a 3-month show at the Beeler Gallery at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio at the end of February. I have an online show with Mark Moore Gallery in LA opening in March of 2022. I have work going to the Palm Beach Modern + Contemporary art fair with Contemporary Art Matters Gallery at the end of March. 

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?

You have chosen a lifestyle that is not typical in a world that doesn’t always reward untypical things. Be prepared for the highs and lows that come with a life making art. Create for yourself and from what you know. Don’t let others make you believe you are not an artist because you have to have a day job. Don’t let how you make money define who you are. Make a lot of messes in the studio, experiment, fail, continue to learn. 

Who are some of your favorite underappreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?

There are so many great artist out there under noticed. I will miss many that deserve to be listed here but here are a few. Ben Charles Weiner, Narsiso Martinez, Sarah Fairchild, Michael Drury, Almond Zigmund, Luke Murphy, Kira Nam Greene, Charmette Young, Laura Sanders, Daina Higgins, Clinton King, and many, many, more. 

“Work”, carved boxelder tree and steel, 37 x 27 x 17 ft | 11 x 8 x 5 m, 2006-2021

To learn more about Kurt and his work, please visit www.KurtLightner.net.