This is not the woods, really.
It just seems that way when you enter the low-slung, asbestos-sided cow barn where William Kent sculpts. It could be the swarms of pollen-like sawdust, or the musty, loamy scent, or the forest of seven-foot-tall wood sculptures that seem to sprout from the cement floor like dandelions in a neglected field. The place seems enchanted, which would make Kent, a ninety-two-year-old wood sculptor who has been compared to Brancusi, a kind of Merlin, if he would accept the role.
But the irascible and phenomenally talented Kent is not a mirthful figure. In many ways, he is a bitter one, and if anyone has a right to bitterness, it is he. Entering his seventh decade in wood sculpture, he is an artist who has been overlooked.
"They are fools, these people who run the art world," says Kent, a bald, lithe man who looks like a thin-lipped Picasso with hooded hazel eyes. "They are managerial types, slick politicians, culture vultures. My work doesn't fit into the New York style. Woodcarving is out. It's hard for people to understand that. People think if you're good, you'll sell, you'll make money. That's not true. Not in this country."
William Kent, whom one Massachusetts gallery owner called “the greatest living carver of wood in the world,” crosses his arms emphatically across his narrow chest. He lives alone here, with two cats, and a grove full of six- to seven-foot-tall, elegant sculptures of glowing mahogany, red cedar, poplar and pine. These organic works, from bulging bellies to erotic chickens, laze beneath bare light bulbs in former cow stalls, like fossils in an ancient deciduous civilization. Everywhere one looks there is a buried grace.
“He's brilliant,” says fellow sculptor Marv Beloff of Meriden, who has known Kent since the 1950s. “He’s a philosopher. He is a very deep and very sensitive man who feels very strongly about things. He’s lived a long time and he’s done something that not a lot of people do, which is to think.”
Kent has lived here in this former barn since 1964, carving masterworks of wood sculpture that recall Brancusi, removed from the fickle art world. These astonishing abstract sculptures are études of form and shape. They boggle and offend; caress and cajole. They are at once satirical and seraphic, rapier-like in wit and rhapsodic in tenderness. An unabashed ’60s liberal prone to stinging political invectives, Kent has chiseled more than his share of artistic derision. His sculptures, from his craven Donald Duck, to his erotic Greek odes, are oxymoronic and occasionally obscene. In Bill Kent’s world, small things become big, ordinary things become extraordinary and sacred things become profane.
“People ask, ‘What does it mean?’” Kent shrugs dismissively. “It doesn't mean anything. Shapes and forms. That’s what it's about. Shapes and forms.”
Sense, No. Ambiguity, Yes.
Here in this cement-floor workshop, giant sugar peas bulge with fertility. Electrical plugs take on an erotic mien and corkscrews as large as a bureau swivel with lubricious energy. A straightedge razor takes on the aura of a mythic instrument and Donald Duck replaces the bald eagle as the talon-toed symbol of our national character. A ladle becomes eroticized and a hot water bottle takes on the gravitas of a military memorial. A giant key slips into the belly of a huge light bulb, another of Kent’s fantastic oxymorons.
“It doesn't make any sense, I know,” says Kent , twisting in his wheelchair and bringing his coarse fingers to his mouth. “Ambiguity, they say, is one of the keys to contemporary art.”
If Kent wanted ambiguity, he went at it in a big way. It is not just the subjects that raise eyebrows in his work, but their enormity and their classic beauty. Kent is surely a contemporary artist who revels in the beauty of the ordinary form, but he is a classicist at heart. All of his work has the finely finished sheen of a Renaissance marble. And Kent, who never married and passes his time playing Rossini on a piano held up by a cinder block and a jack, has something of the monastic about him.
“He’s sort of an ascetic in a way,” said Johnes Ruta, an independent curator from New Haven. “He’s an extremely literate guy. He knows music inside and out. And he knows his art history.”
But Kent’s prodigious talent has not translated into success in the art world. That has left him bitter and contemptuous, but it has not extinguished his artistic impulse or his intrinsic hopefulness. As engaging as he is censorious, he can be delightfully warm and astringently bitter — often in the scope of five minutes. Kent, who is as agile physically as he is intellectually, has a riveting glance that, like his sculptures, can either pierce with contempt or comfort with warmth. With Kent, who has been called a “curmudgeon,” “recluse,” and “eccentric” you never know which will receive you until he has pulled the lance out from your chest.
He has thrown many potential admirers and inquisitive reporters out of his studio and most people are dismissed as “boobs” or “fools.” His contempt for the art world is vigorous; he is so bitter about past rejections he has received from major galleries that he has not only kept the rejection letters; he has annotated them. “Too shiny,” they said. “Too satirical.”
“Too big.” “Unsalable.” And the best: a rejection that came with an apology for spilling coffee on his prints.
“Here’s a man who works everyday, seven days a week, from 4:30 a.m. to 12 noon with the full knowledge that he has been rejected by the world of art,” said Beloff. “He’s very angry. He’s hostile. And he has a right to be.” Beloff puts the analogy this way: “Suppose you spent fifty years of your life becoming the best chef in the world and you cooked the most remarkable meals and every day you cooked and you waited for someone to come in and eat them and no one ever did.”
But Kent, who sleeps in a twin bed in what is essentially a back hallway, keeps sculpting. “He’s smart enough to know that one day his work will be respected as it should be,” said Beloff.
Idealist or Cynic?
Under a metallic lightshade next to his workbench, Kent has thumbtacked a quote in French from Brancusi, written in cursive pencil, which roughly translates: “Don’t look for obscure or mysterious forms; It is pure joy that I give you. Look at them as you like; The closest to God have seen them.”
For most of his career, Kent has been hearing from critics and sycophants, and their palaver has left him bitter and abrasive. “We’re an uncreative, uncultured country,” says Kent, coiled on a stool adjacent to his workbench. “We have contempt for art, and artists. How many artists make a living from their work? Unless you want to be one of these superficial interior decorator types, no one does.”
Kent is either an idealist or a cynic — and at times he is both simultaneously. He spends his mornings chipping away at enormous blocks of wood, turning these coarse leviathans into supple, sensual forms. In the afternoon, he retreats to his narrow living quarters to pump out a Chopin Mazurka or Étude before he pads out to his back porch to read. There, in an oddly cozy room invaded by outdoor vines and protected from the afternoon sun by a dilapidated set of Venetian blinds, sits the book he is currently reading, The Albigensian Crusade, a story of a thirteenth century massacre in southern France. The Middle Ages are his current fascination, mainly because a few years ago he realized it was one of the few periods he knew nothing about.
In his workshop, festooned with chisels and clamps, plastic baby dolls, and withered footballs, hangs a print that Kent made in the 1960s that reads Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, a quote from Lucretius meaning “There are tears for things.” Certainly there could be tears aplenty for Kent. A Kansas City native who came to Yale in the 1930s to study music composition and theory with Paul Hindemith, began sculpting in the late 1940s, purely, he says, by chance.
Initially, his works were in stone, but he soon moved into carving into slate, and those works mix the solemnity of old gravestones with the satire of Mad magazine. As the New York Times wrote, “Though an undeniable anger resides at their heart, they are built to last. Masterfully rendered and highly refined in technique, they smolder with a timeless power, like the satires of Juvenal or Swift, the prints of Daumier or Goya.” The slate works have the quality of fossils; finely chiseled works of organic figures embedded on highly finished onyx-like rock. The monoprints Kent made of them have a biting edge; most were made during the Vietnam War and seethe with contempt at politicians and a society torn asunder by dashed hopes and doublespeak. Many are sexually satirical, like American Victory, a red, white and blue image of a woman carrying her husband’s castrated and winged penis over her head like a heavy weight belt.
There are hundreds of these images stacked against a piece of cardboard, which he used to sell at very low prices. If not for Social Security, he says, he could not make ends meet. But it is not something he is unused to. His artistic ambitions were never acknowledged or embraced. His father was a tool-and-die manufacturer and his mother had a scant education and never learned to drive. Neither understood when he expressed his musical ambitions.
“When I was a child I used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera, when I was fourteen, fifteen years old,” says Kent. “Saturday afternoons. They broadcast even back then. And I couldn’t do it when my father was in the house because he’d say, ‘Turn that garbage off. We don't want to listen to that.’ I got no help from my parents whatsoever. My father said, ‘You don’t need to study that stuff. Just go out and get a good job.’ He was stupid. He was ignorant. He had a fourth grade education. My father was a dummy, really.”
Kent threads through the back room that holds most of his large sculptures, crossing his arms across his oxford shirt occasionally and staring at the enormous works. “Sometimes I wonder how the hell I did these things.” That’s part of the mysterious allure of his work. The sculptures are not only jaw-dropping for their workmanship, but awe-inspiring for their execution.
Certain motifs show up frequently, like the carved balls that sit in a chiseled encasement, or the latch links fashioned from different colors and types of wood. The works have a ship-in-a-bottle effect: Was the ball carved first, or last? Was the latch glued or added? In fact, all of these works were carved from a single block of wood. Kent created his own method of fusing different types of wood — poplar, cedar, pine and mahogany — into one large block.
From there, he carves out forms like his latest sculpture, which features a ball resting in a box. On either side are links to buoy-like forms. The links are embellished with artichoke-like ornamentation. The buoys are attached like a latch-and-eye on a door frame. It is such an extravagant and ingenious sculpture that one is apt to wonder what it represents. But to Kent representation is not important. It is the forms he worships and their harmonies he composes.
In that, he is not far from his original love of theory and composition. Just as twentieth century composers said that eggbeaters or lathes could be as musical as pianos or French horns, Kent says that an eggbeater or ladle can serve as an exquisite artistic form. So he bristles when, for instance, one viewer suggested he take his eight-foot anthropomorphic bean sculpture to a restaurant lobby. “Suppose I did a nude woman,” he says. “Would I take her to a local whorehouse and put her in the lobby?” But Kent can only shrug his shoulders in resignation of what he said has become “a backward, dumbed-down culture.”
It has not stopped him from chiseling, clamping, and carving and imagining, breathing in the sweet fog of saw dust. A doctor once asked him what he did. When he told the doctor he carved wood, the doctor seemed pleased that a man of his age could relax with a nice hobby.
“It’s the only activity they can conceive of, you see,” Kent sighed. “The general public is really illiterate.”
— by Tracey O'Shaughnessy. This is an updated version of the article originally published 10 June 2001 in the Republican-American, Waterbury, Connecticut.