Painter Warren Rosser designs the perfect space.
As a young man in the early ‘70s, Warren Rosser traveled from his home in Wales to London, to see an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist paintings, an experience so profound it prompted Rosser to make another journey. In 1972, Rosser left the United Kingdom for Kansas City, to paint and teach painting. In the last 43 years, Rosser has become an internationally collected artist, chair of the Kansas City Art Institute’s painting department and a pillar of the KC art community.
Today, Rosser is preparing to retire from KCAI, but he isn’t slowing down his artmaking.
Known for his large, colorful abstract paintings and equally colorful fabric sculptures, he is preparing for two exhibitions, one at the UMKC Gallery of Art with teaching colleague and former student Jim Woodfill, the other a group show of retiring and departing KCAI faculty at the school’s H&R Block Artspace. After nearly 40 years of rented studios and residencies with local arts organizations, Rosser purchased a studio of his own, marking a new phase of his art career, firmly planted in Kansas City.
Rosser’s new studio is in a nondescript warehouse in the Crossroads Arts District. From the outside, the large garage doors and signs reading “property under surveillance” give no indication of the building’s function. Upon entering, the immaculate 20-foot-high white walls, skylights and racks of paintings tell a different story.
The property wasn’t always so clean and perfect. When Rosser’s friend Brad Nicholson, a local developer, first found the studio, it was in serious need of renovation. There were holes in the roof and ruined electrical, heating and cooling systems. The whole building was flooded. According to Rosser, “You could float a boat in it.” Undaunted, he purchased the property at auction in 2010 and hired El Dorado Inc. architects to rehab the building. Walls were torn out, skylights were cut into the roof, new systems of all sorts were installed, and by 2011 the studio was ready.
But it wasn’t until just about now, in 2015, that the studio has blossomed, so to speak, or as Rosser put it, “The studio has developed a residue.” By this he doesn’t mean dirt or grime (the studio is clean and well organized), but an artistic residue of materials, tools, partially finished works, new ideas and personal touches.
The main painting studio is bathed in sunlight diffused through skylights. Enormous 10-foot paintings hang on the walls; there is a stereo cabinet and a stack of jazz records. Another room contains dozens of his artworks going back to 1968, all cataloged and archived by his intern, Trevor Sparks. Rosser’s office has a mini-fridge, a tidy desk with stacks of papers and a huge collection of art books—only “small part of my library,” he says. And he partitioned his extensive woodshop with an area for a new etching press.
Reflecting on his studio, Rosser is particularly excited about his etching press and a recent exhibition of prints at Haw Contemporary gallery. Though he does welcome his wife, artist Yvonne Rosser, to use his studio and print shop, having his own press gives him privacy, something that you rarely find in communal printing studios around KC. “The privacy frees my mind.” Rosser says, “It lets me take risks.”
“Take risks” is a piece of advice Rosser often gives his students, and this risk-taking in the privacy of an individual studio is so important to him, that in 2006 when KCAI built the new Dodge Painting Building, he insisted that every student in the painting program be given an individual white-walled cubicle. According to Rosser, these individual spaces give each young student artist a place to be different, “to not mimic the other students, professors or a department style.” Famously, or infamously to some, the KCAI painting department does not mandate its students make paintings, letting them work in whatever mediums they see fit.
This past winter, Rosser stepped down as chair of the painting department, handing the reins to fellow painting professor Julie Farstad, although he will continue teaching studio classes for another two years. But he has built a strong program founded on his principles of privacy, individuality and diversity. You can see it among his faculty—experts in diverse fields like collage, minimalist sculpture and representational painting— and you can see it in the students who bring their knowledge of newer genres like performance, video and net art.
Rosser, as grounded as he is in the traditions of 1950s Abstract Expressionism, has stayed true to the revolutionary and experimental nature of those early days, when abstract art was unfathomable to most people. While his paintings will stand on their own, his embrace of today’s diverse interdisciplinary art scene will be his legacy as an educator and mentor of countless other artists.