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Tributes pour in for revered Minnesota artist and professor Marley Kaul

Marley Kaul was so much more than a teacher of art. He and Sandy, his wife of 58 years, became active leaders in the arts community in Bemidji, their home since 1967. The Marley & Sandy Kaul Gallery is the largest display area at the Watermark Art Center.

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Artist Marley Kaul and poet Geri Wilimek share stories from their book "For Now" at a reading and exhibit at First Lutheran Church on July 15. Kaul died last week after a lengthy illness with pulmonary fibrosis. Contributed photo courtesy of Julia DeLeone / Special to Forum News Service
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FARGO — Karen Stoker had never heard of Bemidji, Minn., artist Marley Kaul when she started selecting art for the Hotel Donaldson in the early 2000s. It was artist Mike Marth who told her about Kaul and his colorful egg tempera work.

"When he told me Marley made his own paint, I was ready to get in the car and head to Bemidji right then," the hotel owner recalled.

When she finally saw his work, she was so impressed she gave him his own room. Nearly 20 years later, Room No. 7 is adorned with his vivid paintings of landscapes and still lives.

Kaul died earlier this month after years of living with pulmonary fibrosis, but his works live on in collections at the Hotel Donaldson in Fargo and the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks. Artists, patrons, friends and former students have been remembering him not just for the vibrancy in his art, but for the brightness of his heart.

"The first time I met Marley was at his and Sandy's home in the woods near Bemidji," Stoker said. "We went out to his studio, with large glass windows, wonderful light. I was enjoying the view. Growing up near there the woods are like a hug to me. I turned around and hanging on the wall was a painting of the view. I almost cried."

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"He was very authentic to himself," said Laurel Reuter, the founding director and chief curator of the North Dakota Museum of Art. "He didn't follow trends or respond to the art market. He simply made art he cared about."

Reuter and Kaul were longtime friends and over the years the NDMOA developed the largest collection of the artist's paintings. The museum hosted a solo show of his work in 2017. The Hotel Donaldson also featured solo shows in 2015 and 2006.

Reuter says his art was as endearing as he was as a person.

"He was a beloved man and that made his influence more powerful," Reuter said. "He was exceptionally supportive of the arts community."

Lisa Robinson wasn’t sure about enrolling as an art student at Bemidji State University in 1994. At 29, she was older than most students. But Kaul, a compassionate professor, gave her the confidence she needed, and to this day Lisa is sharing her paintings with the world and teaching others because of that professor.

“I was really hesitant about going to BSU,” Robinson said. “I thought I was too old. I had already been doing art and traveling. Marley sat down with me and told me I was exactly the kind of student they needed because I had a lot of life experience and came in the door with my own passion for art. From day one there was a really strong connection to the type of painting and the depth that went into it.”

Kaul was so much more than a teacher of art. He and Sandy, his wife of 58 years, became active leaders in the arts community in Bemidji, their home since 1967. The Marley and Sandy Kaul Gallery is the largest display area at the Watermark Art Center.

After retiring from BSU in 1997, Marley focused even more on his work in egg tempera painting. His studio on the couple’s property became a place of solitude and sharing.

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“I would go and spend time with him in his studio and see his new work,” Robinson said. “One time we were in his studio just talking about everything for seven hours. I didn't even go outside once. There were a lot of times like that. We just had a lot in common in terms of spiritual beliefs and our relationship to the land. He made a huge difference in my life in many ways. He was an incredible human being. He was a really deep soul.”

In addition to his painting, Marley published three books in the last six years. All three were adorned with his paintings. The first, titled “ Letters to Isabella ,” won a Midwest Book Award for design. It contained letters Marley wrote to his granddaughter, Isabella DeLeone, after he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2014. The next two books, " We Sit " and " For Now ," were collaborations with local poet Taiju Geri Wilimek, pairing her words with his art.

Among the many people who shared Facebook tributes to Marley upon his death were Carolyn Jacobs of Bemidji and Monica Hansmeyer, a jewelry artist from Turtle River.

Jacobs credited Marley and Sandy Kaul with helping create an art gallery more than 20 years ago at her business, Uptown Caffe (now Wild Hare Bistro).

“They studied the space and its natural light, and offered ideas on wall colors and texture and effective placement of lighting fixtures,” Jacobs wrote. “Those walls have hosted hundreds of artist exhibits over the past two decades and, I believe, helped expand the concept of galleries in our community.”

Hansmeyer met Marley when she was completing her studies in the art department at BSU. She appreciated his guidance as a teacher and his friendship as a fellow artist.

“Marley was a kind, direct and talented professor,” Hansmeyer wrote. “When I’d see him around town, conversation always came easy.”

Another local artist, Alice Strand, wrote about Kaul’s popularity among BSU art students.

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“He was a wonderful man and an artist beyond compare,” Strand wrote. “I remember in college half a century ago it was very difficult to get into his classes because EVERY art student wanted him as a professor. Thanks, Marley Kaul, for what you have meant to this community.”

Related Topics: ARTMINNESOTA
Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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