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Father And Son Embrace A Difficult Medium For Painting Iconic Kansas City Landscapes

Large puffy, clouds float overhead as Alex Hamilmixes water and pigment in the shadow of Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. "Bag of tricks: brushes, water for watercolor," he says as he pulls out supplies.

Alex has entered a plein air painting competition and is trying a new style of painting he knows well but has been reluctant to explore.              

"I started a new process using powdered pigments. Some people call it gouache, but it’s basically called watercolor," says Alex. "It’s something I haven’t tried in a while because Dad has kind of the crown on watercolor. I thought I’d try it, get an appreciation for it. Maybe it’s an homage."

Alex’s father is J.R. Hamil, known for landscapes of the prairie, the Country Club Plaza, and other iconic regional landscapes. At 78, J.R. doesn’t get out to paint as much as he used to, but the walls of his home are covered with the work of more than five decades.

Sitting at the drafting table in his studio, J.R. is working on a new painting of Parkville — one he hopes to include in an upcoming show with Alex.

"I’m going to put a little more shadow back there behind that, pick up some of that shadow," J.R. says as he paints. "I don’t need that much there."

Despite suffering a stroke two years ago, he says he's driven to keep working.

"It’s in your heart. It’s something in your psyche that motivates you to keep going and keep working at it," J.R. says. "The fact that people know who you are, maybe they haven’t ever met you in person, but they have some of your artwork, or they’ve given it as a gift or something like that. It gives you a real boost."

But being the son of a well-known regional artist is complicated. Alex says it took years before he felt comfortable painting in a medium so closely associated with his father.

"That was hallowed ground for a long time and there was nothing to be gained in that realm as long as my name was attached to the media of watercolor," says Alex. "That’s what he does and I need to find my own course, my own direction."

J.R. says finding your own path in art takes time, persistence and luck.

"It’s going to be bad some days and it’s going to be good some days and you never know what it’s going to be until you try it. You get lucky on some things and that’s the way it is with watercolor," he says. "Alex, he used oils for a long time, but he finally just kind of moved over to try it and he liked it. And I was really amazed and pleased."

J.R. says he was also pleased that Alex wanted to show some of these watercolors – with him – in Parkville. They’ve displayed work together before, but never watercolors. 

Alex says he realized it was more than just a chance to show a few paintings.

"This is a great opportunity to be with my dad. As we all get older, of course, we come to realize there are certain things that we do owe to our parents."

His father inspired him, Alex says. 

"It’s time for me to return that favor and encourage him to recognize the artist he was and the artist that he still is and the work that he’s created.”

J.R. says it's an ongoing challenge to set a good example for a child without overshadowing him. 

"What you want to do is get the next generation started and encouraged," says J.R. "He has a great imagination for things," he says of Alex. "He visualizes things really well and then does them. And some of them just amaze me and I like that.”

Back at the plein air competition, Alex uses swift brush strokes to fill in the sky.

"To be an artist because my dad’s an artist, to be these things — they are unavoidable," he says. "You can put them off but they're there. It’s in your DNA. If you avoid it, you’re probably cheating yourself out of a big part of your potential.”This story is part of an occasional series called Artists as Parents. 

J.R. Hamil and Alex Hamil’s father/son watercolor show opens September 10 at the Cathy Kline Art Gallery, 8701 NW River Park Drive, Parkville, Mo. 913-449-4460. 

TELL KC: If you’re an artist, how has having a child or children affected your work? Click here to tell your story. Or become a source for our Tell KC network, a collaboration of KCUR and KCPT in Kansas City. 

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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