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Why This Kansas Painter Is Being Compared To 'Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali And Dr. Seuss'

Julie Denesha
Artist Paul Seiwald in his basement studio near Vermillion, Kansas.

Paul Seiwald, who is now 89, painted in his basement studio for more than 60 years, following his own unique vision. A chemist by day, he created a surrealistic vision of Midwestern life by night.

Lately, his work has been getting some attention.

"He's kind of a combination of Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali, and Dr. Seuss," says David Bohling, who owns Gallery 1029 in Lexington, Missouri, with his partner Patrick Berry.

"The colors are vibrant yet a little subdued," says Berry. "They don’t jump out and scream at you, but they sit and they go, 'We’re beautiful.'"

Much of the gallery, in historic downtown Lexington about an hour northeast of Kansas City, is filled with the kind of regional art you might expect: watercolor landscapes, still lifes and photographs of area landmarks. But Bohling and Berry have devoted an entire room to Seiwald's mid-century-feeling, otherworldly work.

In one painting, a wild-haired blonde in a green dress stares into a paper sun. In another, knobby prairie trees touch the clouds outside a red barn.

"He's really completely self-taught," Bohling says of Seiwald. "All of this just evolved by itself over 50-some years. But his technique is gorgeous."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
David Bohling (from left) and Patrick Berry take a closer look at one of Seiwald's still lifes at Gallery 1029 in Lexington, Missouri.

Seiwald taught himself using a paint-by-numbers kit when he was a young soldier just back from the Korean War. By the time he retired from his career as a chemist at the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, he had been painting for decades. 

Except for a few small-town art shows, Seiwald's work has basically gone unnoticed.

Bohling and Berry discovered him through an old friend and made the trek to his home near Vermillion, Kansas, where Seiwald lives with his wife Mary in a modest, two-story house deep in the countryside.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Seiwald developed his style over the course of 50 years. Bohling describes his painting as a cross between Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali, and Dr. Seuss.

Tall with a shock of white hair and kind brown eyes, Seiwald says he likes to keep everything neat and tidy in his basement studio, where he has more than 300 paintings all finished, framed and titled. He no longer paints but still likes to spend time there.

"These are just some paintings that I've set back for some reason," he says. "We're kinda running out of space."

"I don't always understand. But I love to just look at Dad's thoughts," says Seiwald's daughter, Karen Faust, on a visit from her home in Olathe.

Seiwald has a little trouble remembering things these days, but Faust's visit brings brought back a lot of memories for her. She used to like to watch her father work.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Seiwald's daughter Karen Faust says she remembers watching her father paint when she was a little girl growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas.

"He really amazes me,” Faust says. "I grew up with this and I've always been so amazed that not everyone's home was like this. But I used to love to bring people home and they were just like, 'Oh my gosh.' I thought, 'Don't you all have paintings all over?'"

She's happy that people are beginning to discover her father's work.

"Sometimes I think I know what he's thinking and then sometimes I'll look at it again and think, 'I have no idea,' but I'm drawn to it," she says. "And, for that reason, I think it speaks to people in different ways."

At Gallery 1029 in Lexington, Seiwald's paintings have been up for about a year. Not a lot of them have sold yet, but David Bohling says there's a place for him.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Red barns populate Seiwald's surreal landscapes.

"I think he really, really deserves to be at least regionally well known as a regional painter," says Bohling.

Berry says Seiwald's signature red barns made him take a closer look at the landscape.

"I hadn't really paid attention before to the barns in Kansas and Missouri until these pictures," says Berry. "I saw something that I'd looked at most of my life and didn’t realize it was there."

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

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