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Wilbur Niewald, 'the ultimate artist’s artist,’ dies at 97

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Five years ago Wilbur Niewald, at 92, was still spending six hours a day, six days a week dabbing paint on canvas either in his studio or outdoors. His paintings embraced the subjects he returned to again and again: pine trees at Loose Park, West Bottoms landscapes, still lifes and the occasional nude.

Artist Wilbur Niewald taught at the Kansas City Art Institute for more than 40 years. These days he’s probably best-known as a plein-air artist — in all kinds of weather.

If you’ve walked near a stand of pine trees at Loose Park in Kansas City, Missouri, not far from the tennis courts, you’ve likely seen artist Wilbur Niewald, a shock of white hair tucked under his straw hat and wearing a light blue denim shirt and blue jeans as he painted on an easel or worked on an etching.

Beginning in the 1970s, he drew and painted from direct observation. In the blazing heat, in the freezing cold, on sunny and cloudy days.

Niewald died on Saturday, according to family and friends. He was 97.

“He was the ultimate artist’s artist, always capturing the environment in the best way that he could in every season, painting outside no matter the weather or conditions,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Niewald is reflected in the glass of a painting propped up against the walls of his studio in the Livestock Exchange Building.

“He was in constant pursuit of perfection whether he was painting nature, the human figure, or a still life.”

Bill Haw Jr., owner of Haw Contemporary, a gallery that represents the artist in Kansas City, said Niewald "kind of embodied the concept of perfection through repetition."

"I think what it also did is it just made people feel this comfort that he's there doing this same thing," Haw said. "So that's a really kind of sad thing that that's lost. But it's also kind of beautiful that it was there for so long."

Niewald was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His connection to the Kansas City Art Institute began in 1935, when, as a 10-year-old, he won a drawing contest at Blenheim Elementary School — and the prize was free Saturday classes for a year. He also started taking classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art a few years after it opened in 1933.

After serving in the U.S. Navy Air Corps during World War II, Niewald earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the Art Institute. He was a member of the painting faculty for 43 years and chaired the painting department from 1958 to 1985. He retired in 1992.

In 1970, Niewald’s work shifted from abstraction to realism after he returned from a painting trip to Mexico and New Mexico.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Niewald said he painted strictly from direct observation. He taught generations of students as chair of the painting and printmaking department at the Kansas City Art Institute.

“I asked myself, 'Why am I painting indirectly? Why don't I just look out the window and paint what I see?' And it was one of the most liberating, freeing experiences of my life," Niewald told KCUR in 2012. "It opened up a whole new world."

In retirement, he spent hours each day, often six days a week, painting outdoors in Loose Park or the West Bottoms or in his fifth-floor studio in the Livestock Exchange Building.

Artist Nina Irwin rented a studio on the same floor as Niewald for 21 years and was inspired by his dedication.

"I just feel so lucky to have worked with him all these years," she said. "And he became a very, very dear friend."

"He's just a tremendous force," she added. "And I honestly can't imagine it down here without him."

Niewald earned numerous accolades over the years, including induction into the National Academy of Design and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 2006.

"How could such a gentle and kind man also be a true fanatic? But Wilbur was," Kansas City Art Institute President Tony Jones said. "He was utterly devoted to two things: his family and paint."

Jones added, "A wonderful man, a great teacher. He was painting last week, just days before his passing. He was the real thing, and one of the finest people I have ever known."

Niewald's work can be found in corporate and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and local institutions such as the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
North light pours into the room as Niewald mixes paint on a well-worn palette in his studio.

Nelson-Atkins Director Julián Zugazagoitia rotates the works on his office walls from the Nelson-Atkins collection, including one of Niewald's paintings, a 1960s abstract work called “Aspen.”

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilbur,” Zugazagoitia said. “I have so much admiration for the tenacity he showed in his pursuit of art, both as an artist and as a teacher.”

“I will not forget the simple joy he took in having a meal in Rozzelle Court and, of course, his steadfast devotion to his late wife, Gerry. He will be missed very much,” Zugazagoitia added.

Niewald’s wife of 73 years, Geraldine Niewald, died in February, in the house in Mission, Kansas, which the couple designed and built in the 1950s. He is survived by his daughter, Janet Niewald, also an artist, and his son-in-law, David Crane.

"He was just always gracious and a gentleman," Haw said. "It's definitely the end of an era. There's nobody like him. There never will be, the world's just changed too much."

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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