Milind Nayak Writings


Dust on butterfly’s wings, Wolf Kahn and the pastel story

Shortly, during one of my shows in the US, I came to know, that Wolf Kahn, one of the best known pastel artists worked out of Brattleboro in Vermont in the fall. As my show was in the same town I called him and arranged for a visit. It was the height of fall when I visited him. All around me were leaves turning into myriad shades from bright greens to deep crimsons, oranges and browns.

Wolf greeted my friend Elena Dodd and me at the entrance of his studio which was a well lit huge barn. There were three huge canvasses being worked on in different stages of completion. Very apologetically he said “I’m afraid almost all my oils have already been shifted to New York.”  I was amazed at the blends of seemingly unconnected colors he seemed to integrate in his work. Wolf was working on a canvas of eight by six feet when I went to his studio.  There were two other canvasses of similar size in different stages of completion. He explained how he was fascinated by grays and a pale shade of violet. He handed over a tube to me and said that Gamblin had mixed this color exclusively for him. This shade which he called brilliant violet is a part of my palette till date. He then explained if I diluted dioxizine purple with titanium white I would get the shade.

We then moved toward his house before standing and having a conversation before his pond. He pointed out to a large fish which was swimming on the edge of the pond and said “I call him Jackson Pollock because of the patterns on him” .I shot a couple of photographs by the pond and then we made towards his house a few feet away on a raised ground by the side of a hill.

We sat down for a cup of tea and ate some cookies which Wolf’s wife Emily Mason brought out. Emily also is an eminent artist in her own right. Wolf regaled us with stories of how he went chasing Emily all over Europe when they were seeing each other and then the conversation turned towards how Elena Dodd’s father in law bought a painting from him. He had an impeccable sense of humor and the conversation went on for a while when I quietly asked him if I could see his pastels. “Why not, I was hoping you would ask me” he said with his inimitable laugh and we went next door into his pastel studio which was around twenty feet square with windows overlooking the landscape outside.

The room was lined with a table facing one of the windows and there were tables lined on two sides with pastels of all shapes, sizes and colors. As he picked  up a stack of work began showing me the works, he picked up a pastel and rubbed it into some of the works and smiled at me and said that a pastel is never finished as he had the tendency to look at an area and rework it all the time. We must have browsed around more than fifty works when he said” You better have a look at Emily’s work too – she is readying them to be packed to be taken to New York.”
Emily led me out to another studio and there were dozens of these small works lying all round each one exuding a rich brightness.

In a way, those few hours I spent with Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason have stood out in my mind as an unforgettable experience. For an artist like me who has had no experience in studying painting, Wolf Kahn’s kindness towards an artist who was a total stranger to him, have taught me a lesson in humility – that no matter how much we grow, we should also have time for young artists.

My painting has drawn on Wolf Kahn’s inimitable style sparingly. What I imbibed in those few hours was his essence at looking at things in a different way. Looking differently is the beginning of better work.

Introduction to the exhibition “Dust on butterfly’s wings”