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Creative Connections: Personal evolution as an abstract art


Sarah Valentino
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Steamboat Springs artist Marion Kahn describes her painting as bright, full of movement, playful and joyous.
Marion Kahn/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Marion Kahn loved drawing as a child but was never comfortable using the bright colors that are her signature style today. For most of her life, she did not see herself as a painter.

Kahn grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied political science and Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the years, she’s worked in a tapestry of fulfilling roles that took her to Washington, D.C.; Paris, France; and Ghana and included researcher for National Geographic books, editor for a national legal journal, construction worker, theater reviewer, model, actress and owner of her own marketing firm.

Kahn’s adventure as a fine artist began only a decade ago, a few years after her permanent move to Steamboat Springs in 2007. After a career in promoting others’ work, including her two years as the executive director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, she decided to finally create her own.

“Most people have a secret desire in their heart, but we put up these barriers for why we can’t do it,” Kahn said.

She remembers holding back, making the excuse that her mother and daughter were already the gifted artists in her family.

“I gave myself permission to at least try,” Kahn said. “I didn’t know if it would work or not. If you don’t try, you’ll never know, and I really wanted to try.”

Kahn began by taking a plein air painting class. Plein air refers to the artistic discipline of painting outdoors, creating what you see in a short time before the light changes. At the onset, Kahn recalls how uncomfortable she felt. 

“Illuminations: May Lillies at the Yampa River Botanic Park” by Marion Kahn
Marion Kahn/Courtesy

“It’s like learning a language. … I didn’t know which end of the paintbrush to use. I was so embarrassed,” she said. “I just didn’t know how to think about it.”

Nevertheless, Kahn saw this new endeavor as a personal puzzle to solve. She is fascinated by the process of creativity — one that she has used all her life but now applies in a different way.

“There’s a technical side to it, but also a spiritual side to it — of continuously working, finding the next painting and then sharing it with others,” she said.

Kahn expanded from plein air in search of more freedom of inspiration. She describes her work as bright, full of movement, playful and joyous, with elements of surprise.

Kahn vividly recalls and strongly agrees with an insight from her 6-year-old granddaughter, who said, “You know what you feel by what you paint.”

“Gershwin Series: Rhapsody in Blue” by Marion Kahn
Marion Kahn/Courtesy

Sometimes, Kahn enjoys purely abstract projects in which she can immerse herself in the process and have no expectations of the end result. Kahn calls this a “responsive exercise” in observing the canvas and adding what is needed. She recently painted to music by George Gershwin, visually recreating the movement she hears in the music.

Other times, Kahn is inspired to create what she sees in nature: wildlife, flowers, snow and, as a self proclaimed “cloud-aholic,” an array of skyscapes. Even when painting from photographs, she likes to put the image away halfway through.

“A painter should put his or her soul into it … a painting should be what you feel about that subject, not just what you see,” she said. “Every painting is abstract, if you will, because you will never be able to recreate exactly what you see.”

Since the novel coronavirus began changing the way creative businesses operate, Kahn adapts her process in the same way she responds to her canvas in creating art.

“It’s an opportunity to focus,” she said. “I know when the pandemic started I really couldn’t concentrate … because I lost the structure of my days. As I’ve been able to create my own structure, it’s gotten better. It could be better still.”

She has applied this mindset of growth to her own work. In response to the pandemic, she created a piece working in a warm color palette that was less familiar to her.

“Disruptive” by Marion Kahn
Marion Kahn/Courtesy

“Wonderful paintings can come out of shifting from your comfort zone,” Kahn said.

She painted a clash of red in front of a yellow forest. She calls the new piece “Disruptive.” To get through these unprecedented times, Kahn imagines that others can find growth outside of their comfort zones.

On her own journey, she thinks, “I know I’m in the right place now. I’ve gotten to see and do a lot and just going in to the studio every day, that satisfies me. And then there is the hunt for the next painting — that is part of the fun.”

“Maybe there will come a day when I don’t want to paint another color story,” Kahn said about the future. “I’ll just use the colors I want to paint. Maybe those won’t be the colors I like today. [I’m] always evolving.”

In Steamboat Springs, Kahn displays and sells her work at Windfall Gallery. As of June 15, Kahn and four other Windfall artists will be transitioning to an entirely virtual business. View more of her work and contact her at marionkahnfineart.com.

“Yampa Valley Big Blue” by Marion Kahn
Marion Kahn/Courtesy

Routt County is home to a diverse collection of creative people and practices. Inspired individuals thrive at our crossroads of the wild outdoors, rustic grit, and fun lifestyles. To share your creative story, contact Sarah Valentino at sarah.e.valentino@gmail.com.


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