When you look at Linda Ackland Kolb’s work, it’s easy to find yourself staring. That’s okay; I don’t blame you. Touching on inspiration from nature, fashion, and her musical background, Kolb utilizes pastels and beeswax to produce vibrant, controlled pieces suspended in soft, soapy deliciousness. Having spent several years working with mixed media, she has rendered some of that technique to her wax pieces, and it reads incredibly well. I was excited to view her work in person, and was even granted the pleasure of being walked through the technical nature of her creative process.
That is what I treasure most with these interviews, the opportunity to see an artist’s work space, to see their progress pieces, to see their home. A residence is an embodiment of a person; small nuances giving circular direction right back to the source. A home resonates with memories, motives, little bits of your soul wrapped into those things your hold most precious. With Kolb, her Sioux Falls home is just as warm and bright as her seemingly perpetual smile. Several months ago, chatting by the warm glow of a fragrant Christmas tree, Kolb shared with us the necessity of creativity as a child, and the strength of perseverance when pursuing your goals. Her thoughtful and articulate words gave soft guidance and strong advice. I found myself pulled in by her kindness, and hope that it translates through to you, the reader. Breathe in, breathe out, muster a smile and treat yourself to a great read about a lovely person. ~Amy
What is the path that has led you to where you are today?
My mom had a great influence over me and my siblings. We got along with what we had, and we used basic things to entertain ourselves, to be creative in some way. I grew up on a farm, so we pounded nails in some boards and floated them across the stock tank. She made our prom dresses. She was a seamstress, along with my grandma, so I’m sure I picked up some of that from her. She would put flower arrangements together. She loved to garden. I would say, even in elementary school–I went to country a school for the first three years, so that dates me right there–we would have an art teacher come out…I think it was once a month. And we would have one piece to do then, and I remember there was one where we had to make a hat and decorate it. And we had to bring all these things from home: ribbons and whatever you were going to decorate the hat with.
I didn’t really decide what I was going to do until the end of my sophomore year in college. My college counselor said, “Linda, you’ve got to decide pretty quick here.” So I transferred from Waldorf Junior College to Mankato, because I’m from Albert Lea. I decided, I guess I’ll do some art, since I liked it when I was at Waldorf. Then I got a teaching degree, because I wondered, what do you do with an art degree? My parents never questioned me. There was never anything like, “What are you thinking about doing with this art degree?” It was expected that you go to college and find your job and fit in. I came from a generation that assumed, what you start in is what you do your whole life. Your whole career is based on what you graduated college with, which is totally not the real world today. Nor is it as possible today as it was in my time to be able to keep right on going with that. So I did my career teaching art in one form or another. I had some pretty interesting experiences teaching on the reservation, Rosebud, during the summers.
Now being able to leave one job…I don’t want to say the “r” word [retire] …it’s kind of like a death sentence feeling. I don’t want to look at it that way. It’s working from one thing and then transitioning into something else. I am very fortunate to be able to take the amount of time I want to produce my own artwork.
Are you still teaching right now?
No, I’m not. From public schools, I’ve been retired for five years. I haven’t been teaching on the reservation for two or three years.
What kind of age range were you teaching for art?
I started at Edison, so that was junior high, for about seven or eight years. I took a sabbatical. That was another encouraging part of why I am where I am. There was an instructor I had as an undergrad [before] I did graduate work at Mankato. I said [to him], “I hope you don’t remember me.” I don’t think he did. I’m quite sure that I was not a standout because I was focused on education. So we had a new start, which was nice, and he encouraged me. When I left the district for the sabbatical, it had to be in education. He said, let’s get you into a program that has the least amount of education, but still qualifies for your program. So, I changed my focus three times before I settled on that third one. That’s where I met my husband, John. He is very encouraging, and anyone who encourages you is part of your support system. We met at grad school, we got married and then we kept right on going. We went to UND for our Master of Fine Arts.
When we did our MFAs, they wanted us to live on campus. Being the rabble-rousers we were, because we both had jobs here and needed to support ourselves, so we kind of broke that mold and worked a couple of summers. We’d move up there in the summer and stay for their summer school sessions and then come back here. Then we would work during the school year and send up slides or works small enough to send in envelopes up. When I think about now, [I wonder], “Was that the best way to do it?” But you’ve got to make ends meet.
What kind of mediums were you really drawn to or focused on in college?
In college, even in grad school, it was kind of the traditional supplies that you used in undergrad. I started working with mixed media at UND. I was working with a lot of colored pencil and getting into more collage kinds of things. I did that for a lot of years before I decided I needed to go in a different direction. That was at the end of my teaching career. Then I found this woman who got me onto this pastel and beeswax . She did some quickie classes at the Pavilion, and I decided I wanted to see how this stuff worked. And it was a more painterly technique, which I was itching to get back into. I don’t use paint brushes to apply pastel, but rather color blenders to mix and blend to get forms.
Can you tell us more about the technical aspects?
She, Janet M. Jensen, did a workshop and was open to telling people what she did. I can walk you through the process. This is a [sketch]book that my husband and the kids gave me [for] Christmas in 1990. I work out of here and try to get ideas. From its beginnings, every piece of artwork has a life cycle, from the beginning stages to the assessment after the work is done. This is mat board which has been blocked out for the size that I’m going to work. [Then] I use these palette knives to apply melted wax [laying it over the area I’ve blocked out]. I look at some fluid-looking painterly style pieces, and I think, “Oh. I’d like to do that.” But I haven’t yet. I think I need that control. This part is quite controlled.
Then I take a dark pastel. They’re extremely soft; you pick it up and it comes right off onto your fingers. I take an X-Acto knife and scrape it onto the whole thing. It goes [all over] the mat board. It’s good to wear a mask while you’re doing this. Some of those colors are poisonous. So I put my rubber glove on and smear it all over. Then I take paper towels and my odorless turpentine, and that will, of course, absorb into that board anywhere you haven’t applied wax. If the wax covers areas that you don’t wish it to be, you either scrap it or deal with it because it isn’t going to go away.
Knowing that the [turpentine] will eat away the wax and level off some of these areas, I have to be mindful of how much I’m taking off and where I can really accent the little ridges and have them be a part of the image. After I clean it off, then I start applying the color that I’m going to use. My paint palette is an 8½”x11″ sheet of printer paper. That’s all I use. I just mix the color, blend it and apply it.
Do you work the color in any particular order?
You want to work from light to dark, because you will never reverse the darkest colors. You could never add enough white or lighter color to an applied dark color to make it lighter. Some of Janet’s images are bigger and approached differently than mine. She would say, “Just scrape it on there.” I need more control with what I am doing. It’s not that she wasn’t in control. She has beautiful work. But I just couldn’t do it that way. You can also add [the color] with your fingers using gloves. The colors go on quite vibrantly onto the wax surface. And it sticks nicely so I don’t have to spray-seal it. Janet said there are some pastel artists out east [who said] if you spray-sealed it, you couldn’t claim to be a pastel purist, because you’ve already applied something else to it.
Are you still in contact with Janet?
No. I’ve been trying to get in contact with her. She called when I wasn’t home, unfortunately.
How do you choose your subject matter?
[Some of my pieces were inspired] by a magazine left on a plane. I was thumbing through it and thought that I could do these women’s jacket collars [in a fashion ad]. Whether they come off that way or not, I don’t really care. I don’t really care if you see some kind of fashionistas or an instrument. I love music. I like all kinds of music, except maybe acid rock or hard rock. Variety is better than the same old stuff.
Do you listen to music while you’re creating?
I used to listen to classical music, because it was just kind of there. It felt good to be working and listening to classical music at the same time. It was peaceful. Now I don’t do that very much. If I choose music, it’s not classical. I also listen to a lot of stories on CD. It depends on what kind of story you pick. If I pick something too complex, I lose it. There are times where it’s gone, you don’t even hear it, because you’re focused on the piece. But it’s something there. And it’s not that I mind being by myself.
What is a typical day like for you now that you get to spend more time focusing on your art?
Right now I’m moving along pretty well, and it has to do with finding myself and where I want ago. When I started with [my new technique], I was working with rock formations. And I thought, maybe this comes from my childhood. We had to go out in the fields and pick rocks. I’m not kidding. It was fun. I like to create some kind of tension within the piece, and I really was able to create that kind of effect with rock formations. Then it was like, what’s next? So I’ve just been playing. This one over here was inspired by the rock formations, but it’s like a vessel. And it became a kiln-fired vessel, and I just kind of built on that. This one is more musical, instrumental. Some of these just come from playing with forms in that sketchbook and finding what might work for me when I get it as an image on a working surface.
So you’ve been doing thumbnail sketches in that same sketchbook since 1990?
Probably not. They gave me that book for Christmas, and it took me a long time before I found my way into it. It’s kind of like reading a book when you first start.
Do you start off with an image or series of images in mind? Do you revisit images?
Not necessarily. I had the privilege of going to Greece with the Augie Band, so I did a couple of Greece pieces. Mask-like faces have always kind of intrigued me, so I did some of those. I do revisit those drawings, seeing where this one is going, asking if I can work with this one and add something to it. I was looking at Matisse’s work. I like Matisse, especially his cutout pieces. I like the work of Stuart Davis. He has lots of kind of things he’s using over and over. Matisse did the same thing. So it convinced me, why not use this [drawing] in what I’m doing with this?
Are you showing anywhere currently?
I do have some pieces in Red Wing, Minnesota in the Anderson Center. It was a farm, but they’ve rebuilt the whole thing. It’s very nice.