The day after I called Cal to set up a time to visit his studio and home, I ran into him at the opening of the Taft Museum’s excellent FotoFocus show, “Paris Night and Day”. He handed me an eyeball. OK, it was cheap plastic with red capillaries and round like a marble. Unintended though it may have been, I took it as a Cal-ism. Was it his way of saying to “look”, use your eyes, absorb? It is what he has done his entire life, as a maker, viewer and critic of photography in all its modern forms. And, like the best of photographers, by looking, processing and composing he turns the mundane into the interesting and unusual.
This would apply to the house and studios he shares with his wife, the artist Anita Douthat. Off the AA Highway in a rural corner of Northern Kentucky, they’ve made their home a bit like their art—collaged of unlikely elements: a 1950s original structure that has been appended from both ends, rambling from kitchen to living spaces to Cal’s studio, a large light filled room that looks out over their 3 ½ acres. On the other end of the house, a few steps leads to Anita’s studio, a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, built from a $50 kit 50 years ago.
We sit in his studio. We talk about FotoFocus. It’s something he is clearly excited about. Cal will attend many of the events: lectures, openings, pop-up shows. Although retired from the Art Academy, he still immerses himself in all things photographic. We talk about various artists and curators, and he is direct and honest. Brian Shollis: “unpretentious, academic, doing a lot right”. The Taft show: “beautiful, what an amazing collection of photographs”. Digital versus film: “with digital it feels like you can get lucky more easily. There was more mystery with manipulation of film.” I take this to mean more artistry. Of curators: “There are some great curators in Cincinnati and I think they should be allowed to curate”. The conversation meanders, names are named, some are praised, a few are skewered. I will spare the skewered.
Cal has great respect for the history of the art of photography. You can see this in his personal collection of photos, many of which are black and white and clearly pre-digital. But, his and Anita’s collection is an eclectic blend of folk art, contemporary non-photographic prints, paintings, and great photos.
I thought I knew a bit about Cal Kowal, as the Art Academy photography teacher and as an artist in his own right. Our paths have crossed in our respective professions and at art events and openings. But, a quick Google search and my visit with Cal at his studio in Kentucky revealed that what I knew was exactly “a bit”.
Cal was born and educated in Chicago, earning a BA in art and architectural history from the University of Illinois, Chicago and a MS from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. From 1971 to 2002 he taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. But, education and educating are but two facets of Cal’s life.
Many museums hold Cal Kowal’s photos in their collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Norton Simon Museum, the University of Arizona, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Cincinnati Art Museum. He also had a solo show at the Art Museum.
A few days after my visit to Cal’s studio, I’m at the opening of the Art Museum’s excellent FotoFocus show “Eyes on the Street“. Cal and Anita are there. He is impressed by the show—I believe he says “probably the best FotoFocus show”. A few minutes later I see them studying the Barbara Probst set of 12 related photos (“Exposure #106 NYV Broome & Crosby Streets, 04-17-13 2:29 pm”). I had really only given them a cursory look, not taking the time to connect the photos to each other. I join Cal and Anita and give the piece the time it deserves. His observations on camera angles and positioning make me appreciate the work’s complexity. The photos were all taken at exactly the same moment from 12 different viewpoints, apartment to window to street. It is a mesmerizing group of pictures. And I wouldn’t have given it the time it deserved or understood the complexity of angles if not for Cal. I guess I forgot the unintended lesson of the eyeball—I hadn’t stopped and really looked.
Catching up with Cal toward the end of October, I ask for his impressions of FotoFocus. “The Vivian Maier show at the Old Violin Shop was a real plus. The CAC show was strong. The Cincinnati Art Museum show was good and the installation was wonderful. The Taft Museum has been exemplary with its FotoFocus shows. I liked what Brad Smith was doing in his studio…I’d like to see more of that kind of thing—artists in their studios.”
As for FotoFocus as a whole: “I think the whole thing is feeling its way along. I think it was good to have a central location (Memorial Hall) and I liked the open discussions, but I wish they were not just in the middle of the day and middle of the week so more people could attend.”
I turn the conversation toward the Cincinnati arts scene in general. Cal would like a stronger commercial gallery scene, perhaps with some cooperative galleries. “The 1980s were the golden years, with 4 or 5 successful galleries on west 4th Street…there was a lot of excitement then.”
Cal Kowal has been an integral part of Cincinnati’s art and photography scene for 40 years. He still has a keen interest in what is happening. He and Anita are constantly attending shows and lectures, listening and looking. And he is still helping others to “see” what they are looking at.