Emerging figures

Deborah Kahn: Paintings and Drawings on view at WSU

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Deborah Kahn, Remembering, 2015


Deborah Kahn’s figure drawings don’t begin in her head. They emerge from paint.

“I don’t start with a source,” Kahn says. “I start just moving colors, lines and shapes.”

And when those colors and lines start to form a character that feels real, she goes with it.

“I paint because they convince me of their reality. I keep working until they come out,” Kahn explains.

Kahn is the artist behind Wright State University’s Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries’ fall exhibit entitled Deborah Kahn: Paintings and Drawings. It features some of both her oil paintings and graphite drawings (though, Kahn notes she will draw with whatever’s around—be that graphite, pen or charcoal).

Kahn has been in the art world since the early ’70s. Throughout her career, she’s taught at six different colleges, including Indiana University, Yale University and American University. She’s been a visiting artist and faculty member at numerous institutions and schools and has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and Mellon Grant for painting. Her work has been featured in galleries across the East Coast and some of the Midwest, although this is her first time exhibiting in Dayton.

Kahn has been on Wright State Assistant Professor of Art Jeremy Jay Long’s radar for more than 20 years, since he first met her at The Chautauqua Institution. The institution is a vibrant arts community that plays host every summer to nine weeks of lecturers and entertainment on the Chautauqua Lake in New York. Long was a student and Kahn one of the faculty members that summer.

Wright State Department Chair and Professor of Painting and Drawing Glen Cebulash was also familiar with Kahn’s work from his studies at American University in the late ’80s. They are thrilled to finally bring her work to the Wright students and Dayton community.

Evolving art

Kahn didn’t start as a painter. Right after high school, she was in the fine arts department at Boston University for two years. All the students were required to take fundamental classes in art, such as drawing, painting, sculpture and design. Kahn found she really loved that arena and wanted to attend a specific art school, so she transferred to the Kansas City Art Institute in 1972.

That was where she “really fell in love with painting.” Kahn continued her education with a master’s degree in painting through Yale University.

Her training was as a figurative painter, but over the decades, it has evolved into abstraction. And in Kahn’s converted garage studio, abstract figures do not come easily.

“Painting is a struggle,” Kahn says. “It’s not so peaceful, but I love it.”

The struggle comes from the creation, from trying to let the figures emerge from the chaos.

“It’s not a relaxing thing. I keep exploring, keep searching, keep finding. I want to tell a story that feels real. I want to get to a place where everything comes alive,” she says.

Kahn calls her figures “elusive,” but when she finally seizes on who they are, that’s the sweet spot in her drawings and paintings.

“When the world feels real, that’s when the painting takes on a life of its own,” Kahn says.

However long that takes, Kahn’s willing to wait.

“It’s almost like an addiction—I keep getting in there, hoping today’s the day,” Kahn says.

Kahn and her husband, Ed, live in Silver Springs, Maryland. You can meet her at a free public talk at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13 in Wright State’s Creative Arts Center, with a reception to follow in the Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries until 5:30 p.m.

The exhibition is made possible with support by the Ohio Arts Council, individual supporters of the Galleries and the Wright State University College of Liberal Arts.

Deborah Kahn: Paintings and Drawings is on view through Oct. 4 at the Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries in the WSU Creative Arts Center, 3640 Colonel Glenn Hwy. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays and 12-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, please visit liberal-arts.wright.edu/art-galleries/exhibitions/deborah-kahn-paintings-and-drawings.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at JoyellNevins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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