Remembering Wilbur Niewald (1925-2022)

Wilbur Niewald (Photo by E.G. Schempf)

He has been described as an exemplary artist, teacher and human being. To this, “KC Studio” adds its voice in paying tribute to Wilbur Niewald, who passed away April 30, 2022, at the age of 97.

Born in Kansas City in 1925, Niewald spent his life in the Kansas City area. Attracted to art at an early age, he was awarded a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned his BFA and MFA and to which he returned to teach in 1949. He retired in 1992 as professor emeritus of painting.

Niewald’s work can be found locally at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, and further afield in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Wilbur Niewald was captivated by nuance, whether it be within a grove of trees, a downtown skyline or a rocky cliff,” said Bruce Hartman, former director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum. “He invested countless hours in an effort to capture the vital essence of these scenes. They were his frequent muses, and he never grew weary of their allure.”

For many years following his retirement, Niewald could be spotted in Loose Park or in the West Bottoms, not far from his studio in the Livestock Exchange Building. As this reviewer observed, most who passed by in the park never knew who the straw-hatted elderly fellow standing before his easel was but were intrigued by his presence. Others who knew him usually respected his privacy and passed by in silence.

Although already well known, in 1970 Niewald shifted his work from abstraction to realism, attracting more widespread attention that led to his being awarded short-term visiting teaching positions at the New York Studio School, Yale University, Boston University and the Aspen School of Contemporary Art.

“Aspen” (1963), a large oil on canvas in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, is one of the artist’s early abstractions, predating his turn to realism. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

He had nearly 30 one-person exhibitions in such places such as Kansas City, St. Joseph, Columbia and Springfield, Missouri; Dayton, Ohio, and New York City. Among his numerous awards and honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Kansas City’s Charlotte Street Fund, Distinguished Teaching Awards from the Kansas City Art Institute and the College Art Association of America, and election to the National Academy of Design.

Kathleen Leighton, manager of media relations and video production at The Nelson-Atkins Museum, and her husband, journalist Kevin Collison, were close friends of the artist and own one of his early abstractions. “Wilbur was a brilliant artist and passionate about his work, but he was also a gifted storyteller,” Leighton said. “Long after dinner dishes had been cleared, he continued to talk about his travels, his experiences during World War II, his early years with Gerry (his wife) and the next exhibition on the horizon. He was gentle, thoughtful and wise.

One of his beautiful abstracts hangs above our fireplace, a constant reminder of this talented man I was so privileged to know.”

Niewald’s many students during his tenure at the Art Institute included John Ferry, now a professor of illustration at the school, who recalls a treasured letter he got from Niewald in 1999, when Ferry was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“Wilbur was in his 70s, and I was a fledgling instructor,” Ferry said. “In response to my insecurity, Wilbur wrote that he felt ‘progress,’ adding, ‘That’s all we can hope for as a painter. If we feel progress we are learning, and WE ARE invested in the activity of painting.’

“I think about Wilbur’s kindness in taking time to write to me, a student who only took a single drawing class from the master. His simple yet profound statement on ‘progress’ is all I want to experience as I continue to paint.”

Niewald’s 18 x 22” oil on canvas, “Still Life with Onions and Green Bottle” (2017), is on view in his “Still Life” exhibition at Haw Contemporary. (Courtesy Haw Contemporary, Photo by E.G. Schempf)

Niewald spent much of the past year making paintings for an exhibition at Haw Contemporary. Titled “Still Life,” the exhibit features works from 2011 to the present, including many new still lifes.

“Still Life” opens June 30 with a memorial reception at the gallery’s Stockyards location, 1600 Liberty St., with remarks at 6 p.m. by Kansas City Art Institute President Tony Jones, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art CEO & Director Julián Zugazagoitia, and Haw Contemporary owner Bill Haw. In conjunction with “Still Life,” the gallery will screen a short documentary film on the life and work of Niewald, directed by Steve Snell and Elizabeth Stehling; also featured is a special showing of paintings by Niewald spanning the mid-1950s to the present. The exhibit continues on view through July 30. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.842.5877 or www.hawcontemporary.com.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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