Athlete turned artist Caroline Kent ’98 returned to campus on October 15 to be honored on Alumni Day and to commemorate the opening of an exhibition of her work. The exhibition, Caroline Kent: What the stars can’t tell us, takes place in the university galleries until December 16, 2021.
“Being back at ISU has been so nostalgic, so wonderful, and I’m so happy,” said Kent. “I think this is the first time my parents have had the opportunity to see me speak, and it made them so proud.
His parents, James and Victoria Kent, traveled from the family’s hometown of Sterling. It was the first time they had returned to campus since watching their daughters’ last track competition in 1997.
The three Kent sisters — Caroline, her identical twin, Christine, and their older sister, Angela — were all members of the Illinois State track team. Middle distance sprinters and high jumpers, they were pretty darn good.
The trio were part of a state champion relay team at Sterling High School in 1991. Caroline Kent was the Missouri Valley Conference 600 indoor champion in second year, a difficult event. She said there are parallels between being an athlete and an artist.
“My identity was tied to athletics, but athletics can only last for a while,” she said. “I put this residual energy into art, painting and drawing. Art is like a long distance race. You need a work ethic and determination. As a runner, I didn’t tire easily.
She didn’t start her art studies at university, but a friend convinced her to reconsider her decision.
“He was a wise student by the name of Norman Bilsbury,” said Kent. “He told me to follow my heart.
It turns out that Bilsbury, who later married one of Kent’s good friends, was onto something: Kent the star athlete is now a successful artist whose work is gaining attention in the world of art. His work has been featured in collections as important as the Art Institute of Chicago; DePaul Art Museum, Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the New Orleans Art Museum, New Orleans, among others. She has had exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago; DePaul Art Museum, Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; African-American Museum of California, Los Angeles; and others, including museums and galleries in New York and San Francisco. It was written in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Artistic news, to only cite a few.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently discovered Kent and even purchased a painting for her family’s personal collection. Kent gave him a private tour of his MCA show.
“She wanted to know more about me and my job,” said Kent, looking amazed. “It was unreal, wild.”
In addition to his Illinois State bachelor’s degree, Kent also earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota. Chicago-based artist, she works as a teacher and consultant at Northwestern University in Evanston. She is also the wife and mother of two young children and a teenage daughter-in-law. She loves coming back to the great outdoors that she misses in Chicago.
Kendra Paitz, MBA ’06, MA ’11, Director and Chief Curator of University Galleries, brought Kent and his art back to Normal and appreciates his gifts as an artist.
“We are delighted to be surrounded by the extraordinary work of Caroline Kent every day,” said Paitz. “It was a joy to plan and carry out this exhibition with Caroline and to share it with our students and our community, especially since she was once a student and visited university galleries.
“Our visitors can see seven of his monumental abstract paintings, including some new ones, as well as an installation adapted to the site of his recent Victoria Veronique series, which is rooted in a semi-fictional story about twins communicating telepathically.
When she appeared at college galleries, Kent was enthusiastic when she spoke about her art and answered questions from interested audiences. His paintings, 8 to 9 feet high, surrounded him in pastel colors on black backgrounds hung on the walls of the gallery. There was a warmth between Kent and the audience as she spoke comfortably about her work and her journey to becoming an artist.
“These works represent a coming together of early collages,” Kent said. “He found his form on a black canvas.
She works with acrylic paints and describes herself as an abstract painter. The choice of the black canvas was carefully considered over a period of time.
“I’m trying to create something mysterious in the material, and I always fight against convention,” she said. “For example, I chose the black canvas because I liked the way the light shone on the dark canvas; he didn’t absorb it but rather turned it on.
His work is not limited to painting. In addition, his art includes painting, drawing, performance, installation pieces and writing.
“I’m a painter though, and everything else stems from or connects to my painting,” she said.
Her influences are eclectic and include foreign films, which she watched extensively during her undergraduate years at Illinois State, claiming she could relate to the “otherness” of the characters. Russian artists were an influence in his early search for form. And, her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania had a lasting impact on her.
“The landscape was so different and contrasted so much with the Midwest,” she said. “Thinking that people could live in such beautiful colors, a pastel color palette. It really marked me. I was really looking for my own shape.
The late Jacqueline Richards, an art teacher in the state of Illinois, also deeply affected her from an early age. Sadly, Richards, who was an abstract painter, passed away just weeks after Kent met her.
“Having a black female art teacher was a rare treat,” Kent said. “I can only imagine how much she impacted me on my own journey to abstraction.”
Additionally, Kent was influenced by Pamela Blum and Harold Boyd, both members of the art faculty when she was a student here. Boyd visited Kent at the University Galleries on a recent trip.
For Paitz, seeing Kent and Boyd reconnect and watching his “generous interactions with curious students” were among the best moments of Kent’s return to where his artistic life began. Paitz also took note of Kent’s appreciation for those who taught him, including Richards.
“She used this exhibit to draw attention to the legacy of another influential former professor, the late artist Jacqueline Richards,” Paitz said.
Kent encourages artists to take risks and avoid chasing the familiar, which she says can be fatal to an artist’s practice. An artist, she said, should avoid being comfortable with their own status quo.
“Art doesn’t happen by magic,” Kent said. “There is a reflection on the form. Painting is not immediate; it is a slow and contemplative activity to produce and observe and reflect on the temporal aspect. I think about that. “
Spoken like an artist and a runner.