Interviews with Engraver: Robert Kennon

An Interview by Prof. Ralph Slatton

The Kantian Deity, by Robert Kennon, engraving and mezzotint, 18 x 24 in.

Q. I have known you for some time and have always wondered why you work in the medium of printmaking, especially engraving?

A. The main medium for producing my artwork has always been traditional copper plate engraving. The process is unique in that it allows me to feel each line as independently lifted from the plate by the burin. The technique stimulates my response to the variation in the width and depth of the lines which can be created on the brilliant surface of the plate. I also love the tactile quality of the engraved surface and the resistance of the metal to the burin as my hand glides across the copper plate. It is a unique feeling which few artists have had the pleasure to enjoy.

Q. Where did you first learn the art of engraving?

A. I am privileged to have learned the techniques from two virtuoso engravers who studied under Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa. The first is Professor Leon Hicks who teaches at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. Leon introduced me to engraving and the unique sculptural qualities inherent in the copper plate. The second, Professor Virginia Myers at the University of Iowa taught me how to draw effortlessly across the copper surface with the engraving burin.

Q. What do you find unique about copper engraving and in what way does engraving lend itself to your imagery?

A. I like the challenge of the medium and the long hours needed to create an image using the strength of my hands. The composition also has to be thoroughly though out beforehand and each line has to be engraved with confidence, for one slip of the burin results in hours of scraping and burnishing the plate to remove the unwanted mistake. I also like the sense of control and the depth of the lines which can be made thin and swell to create various tonal values.

Q. Recent trends in art engage the viewer with large scale and installation type pieces. Is there any difficulty working with the smaller, finely crafted pieces when considering these trends?

A. At first I thought that there would be a great deal of criticism from fellow artists and gallery directors because throughout the history of art most engravings have been created on a small scale. I found out that most critics enjoy an image regardless of the scale if it is created with great craftsmanship. I also realized that my subjects could work on a monumental scale and I have recently been creating large engravings and oil paintings.

Q. In your series, "Spiritual Visions," you utilize an iconography expressing the subject of God. Could you please explain your choice of subject matter?

A. For the past three years I have been creating a series of engravings called "Spiritual Visions," which represent my interpretation of Immanuel Kant's essay The Critique of Theological and Aesthetic Judgment (1787). I have always been influenced by religious sources in 18th and 19th Century Romantic art and theory. To me, Kant perceived God as being a form of abstraction, an all powerful being which should be represented as a form of power, wisdom, justice and truth. Influenced by Kant's ideas, I began creating a series representing God and other religious icons in abstract form with attributes of vastness or infinity in an attempt to astonish the viewer. My intent is to create abstract representations of religious themes in art. My subjects are not based on traditional Christian iconography but represent my own theological symbols to help viewers see a unique way of perceiving religion and faith.

The Creation of Eve, by Robert Kennon, engraving and mezzotint, 12 x 18 in. Q. From where did you get the initial inspiration to create this series of prints?

A. I remember going home to St. Louis and seeing an exhibit of engravings by William Blake illustrating "The Book of Job" at the Art Museum. I was overwhelmed by the spiritual nature of Blake's work and spent many hours observing the engravings and examining the monumental qualities found within the small prints, and soon realized that I had similar spiritual aspirations in my own work. Also, shortly after beginning the series I was hired at Mount St. Clare College in Clinton, Iowa. The inspiration derived from the Christian environment of the college also helped transform my works from earlier etchings of landscapes based on nineteenth century ideas of the Romantic sublime, to the abstract spiritual forms which are now found in my works. Last year I had the opportunity to visit London and was further inspired by the works of Blake and Turner at the National Gallery.

Q. In what direction so you see your art heading in the future?

A. Recently, I have been combining copper plate engraving with other direct printmaking processes such as drypoint and mezzotint to add more variety and spatial depth in my prints. I would like to begin printing some of the plates in color which is unusual for engravings. As for my subject matter, I will wait and see how this series concludes and then pray for more inspiration.

Robert Kennon was born in St. Louis, Mo. He received his B.F.A. degree in printmaking and a M.A. in art history from the University of Iowa. He is currently Head of the Art Department at Mount St. Clare College, Clinton, Iowa.

Ralph Slatton was born in Truman, Ark. and holds a M.A. degree in art from Arkansas State University, and a M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He is currently Associate Professor/Head of Printmaking Department at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tenn.