Sexton and Kemp: Kindred creative spirits on exhibit

Michael Kemp and Sean Sexton [Photo: Kaila Jones]

The March exhibition at the Center for Spiritual Care in Vero Beach features etchings and drawing in ink and color pencil, by Florida artists – and longtime friends – Sean Sexton and Michael Kemp. Titled “Sun Circles and Land Lines,” the exhibit continues through March 31.

Sexton is a Vero native, known as much for his art and poetry as for his management of Treasure Hammock Ranch, a working cattle ranch that has been in the Sexton family for three generations. Kemp, a resident of Florida for most his life, is a printmaker who, until recently, made his home in Micanopy.

The friends, compatible in intellect, interests and outlook, first met in Gainesville during Sexton’s college days at the University of Florida.

“We’ve been friends since 1979,” notes Sexton.

Although his 1979 bachelor’s degree was awarded in animal sciences, Sexton, a talented draughtsman from childhood, haunted the art department and the Gainesville art scene, where Kemp, according to Sexton, was a “fixture.”

Kemp’s B.A. in painting was awarded in 1974. He subsequently decided that the graphic arts – especially prints – suited him better. He returned to UF for study under noted printmaker Ken Kerslake, receiving his MFA in printmaking (summa cum laude) in 1990.

By that date both Kemp and Sexton were married – Kemp to a psychologist, Marilyn Sokolof, and Sexton to artist Sharon Koerner – and growing families and demanding jobs kept the men close to their respective homes. Kemp earned a living as a branch manager for the Alachua County library system and Sexton bred and raised cattle – a full-time job and then some.

Kemp and Sexton still managed to spend time together, making art, discussing art, visiting art museums and presenting their works and ideas together in art exhibitions, gallery talks and at least one panel discussion.

Despite the passage of years, you might have trouble distinguishing who did what in perhaps one or two of the works on display in their current show.

The majority of Sexton’s works address the shape, form and texture of his subject matter, drawn in large part from minutely observed flora and fauna. Kemp’s work, no less than Sexton’s, is observed from nature, but recorded as abstract arrangements of line and tone.

“Michael and I have had our evolution as artists, and have drifted in different directions, but there is always that common thing,” says Sexton.

“Yet, I think in many ways he is the better artist. One of the reasons I feel that way is I think he is more willing to try anything. He’s a much less product-oriented artist,” says Sexton. “His approach to art is not toward an end point; it’s an ongoing exploration. I admire his courage and also his willingness to experiment, at the expense of all of our understanding what the hell he’s doing.”

Kemp, in turn, describes Sexton’s manner of getting to the heart of his subjects.

“When Sean paints a slash pine tree, you can tell that he is responding to the individual scales in the bark, unveiling the mystery in it,” says Kemp. “I love that kind of description in art. It’s a meditative kind of thing; his work is not about how something looks, it is about how it is.”

If you haven’t gotten the idea already, “Sun Circles and Land Lines” is a kind of love letter between two artists who have remained close despite the major events and myriad minor distractions of their lives.

Sexton points out that the title, “Sun Circles and Land Lines,” slyly refers to a means of electronic communication. “We were tying into the 21st century with the ‘land lines.’ There is also the allusion to simply drawing the land. With ‘sun circles’ we were trying to get into an ephemeral dimension.”

As an example, Sexton points out Kemp’s brush and ink painting on paper titled “Covered Road.” In it, Kemp used silvery areas of ink wash to suggest gentle light filtering onto a wide path through overarching trees.

On the postcard announcement for the show, the image “Cover Road” appears next to an image of Sexton’s latest etching, “Locust,” which was printed at Kemp’s printmaking studio. Sexton’s print of an up-close view of a grasshopper clinging to a stem of grass is also in the show.

It is fitting that the works of both artists appear side by side on a postcard; the U.S. Postal Service has been one of the means by which they have stayed in touch all these years.

Beginning in the 1990s, Kemp and Sexton exchanged handwritten letters – often illustrated with a sketch or two – to keep each other apprised of what was happening in their art and their lives. With the advent of the smartphone and other devices, the habit of lettered writing dropped off considerably.

In 2019, however, they found a renewed correspondence in the hand-made postcards they have sent each other during their various travels.

“I decided to drive across the country this past summer,” says Sexton. “I actually had a poetry gig at an Angus farm, in Nancy, Kentucky. After I got done there, I rented a truck at the Lexington airport and drove to Vancouver, Washington.”

That is where Sexton’s daughter Julia, her husband and their two children live. On one of his postcards to Kemp, Sexton drew a still life in color pencil of seven small green apples and a few maple tree samaras (winged seed pods) that he found on the ground outside Julia’s house. On the apple nearest the center of the picture, a wrinkled brown spot denotes the passing of time and the brevity of life; themes that run throughout Sexton’s oeuvre.

On the back of the framed work in the show is affixed a photocopy of the back side of the post card. Sexton explains that he sent his postcards to Kemp with a drawing but no line of greeting.

“He actually wrote on his,” Sexton says. “There are great messages on his.”

One of Sexton’s favorites from Kemp contains an ink painting executed in different shades of gray, with a few black strokes added as punctuation to the composition.

Titled “Young Struggling Oak,” Kemp painted the picture during a two-and-a-half week sojourn with his wife to a friend’s house in Maine.

While Kemp’s handwriting was legible, his abstract communication on the front of the card was not so easy to read.

“I had to ask which way I should look at it. It seemed like a field painting when I viewed it the wrong way. Right-side up you can see the subject of a tree in an environment,” says Sexton. “Michael reduces the scene to marks. But it’s also all about what it’s about, too.”

“I did quite a few postcards,” says Kemp. But because Sexton was on the road so much last summer, Kemp says he wasn’t always sure how to address the cards so that they might reach his friend.

“Sean doesn’t know this, but I ended up sending some of the postcards I made for him to other people,” Kemp admits with a chuckle.

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