Does the name Starr Kempf ring any bells? The late artist created those towering steel kinetic sculptures that look like birds or windvanes in his Cheyenne Canyon front yard.
One of them gently spins in the breeze downtown beside the Plaza of the Rockies, and a local furor has surrounded the legacy of the behemoths. But those sculptures — called monumentals — are only the biggest and most visible examples of Kempf’s art. His “hidden” gems are bronzes he sculpted for nearly two decades before embarking upon the sky-high, sparkling monumentals. The works were born in the artist’s basement after he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. A new exhibit, presented by Kempf’s grandson Joshua Kempf, displays some of them. It opens today at the Smokebrush Gallery. “This is 15 to 20 years of his life that has been cooped up for so long,” Kempf said. “It’s a chance to see what some people call his dark side. The bronzes aren’t nearly as fun as people think the monumental sculptures are. They’re much more serious and telling about Starr’s personality and artistic vision. They certainly speak to his mindset much more than the monumentals do.” The bronzes were gifts to the artist’s children and are stored at the Kempf house. None are for sale, and they will be returned to the house when the exhibit is over. The works are mostly figurative and full of movement, Kempf said. “They give the impression of being fluid or in motion. He believed, like Rodin did, that you should be able to take a sculpture and flow it down a hill, and still have it be a work of art when it gets to the bottom.” The sculptor fatally shot himself in 1995, leading to the legal chaos surrounding the monumental sculptures. Ten of those pieces adorned the Kempfs property and became the star of more than one frontpage news story. His daughter, Lottie, advertised the home in Cheyenne Canyon as a for-profit museum in 1998. Buses and visitors traveled through the small side streets at all hours of the day, causing friction with the neighbors who deplored the traffic. They protested to city officials, who decreed that city zoning laws were being violated. Lawsuits and counterlawsuits, with Lottie Kempf at their helm, followed, and finally a district judge ordered eight of the pieces removed. In May 2003, Joshua Kempf shipped three pieces to Traditions, N.M., halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They stand on private land 100 feet off the highway, patiently waiting as Kempf completes a long process to bring them back to an undisclosed location in the Springs. Fear kept much of Starr’s work away from the public and critics for many years, according to his grandson. “I think he’d be absolutely petrified and horrified by all the things we’re being open about his personality,” he said. “He had a drinking problem, he was a workaholic, he had temper tantrums. He shot a hole through one of the pieces you’ll be able to see.” Even though some of the Kempf family is uncomfortable revealing the personal details of the artist’s life, Joshua isn’t one of them. “Starr was a character, and I intend to tell that story.” details First Friday Art Walk with “Fire and Fury: Works by Starr Kempf,” “Shifting Arcana: Works by Lin Fife,” “Fluid,” by Kim Drennan and Abigail Kreuser and a live metal casting demonstration by Mark Guilbeau and Rian Kerrane When: 5-8 p.m. today Where: Smokebrush Gallery, the Chapel of Art and the Commons Gallery, 218 W. Colorado Ave. Cost: Free, 444-1012