Dorothy Kellner (seated, left) poses near plein air figure paintings at the Oxbow School of Art, in Saugatuck, Michigan, in 1945.

Carolyn Karch, a painter based in Nevada, recently posted this photo on Facebook of her now 90-year-old mother, Dorothy Kellner, at the Oxbow School of Art, in 1945. Kellner reports that most of the figure painting done at the school, which was set up like a summer camp, was accomplished outdoors. And no one ever called it “plein air”– not even the famously cosmopolitan artist responsible for the painting on the far right, noted Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell.

“Joan Mitchell was a great woman,” recalls Kellner. “She was a contender for the Olympics, but I think she had a strained muscle or something so she couldn’t go. Her dad was a doctor and her mother was an editor of poetry. I was one of the few people she seemed to like.” As proof of this, Kellner recalls that when the photographer from Chicago asked her to pose for this photo, she sat in poison ivy. (“I couldn’t sit down for a while because I was itchy, so I stayed up and learned how to make a lithograph,” Kellner adds.) Mitchell’s father mailed some “purple powder” to put in Kellner’s bath, but there was an issue about the bathtub. “People didn’t want me to contaminate it with poison ivy,” says Kellner. Mitchell snuck Kellner into the bathroom and guarded the door while Kellner bathed. “I think the purple powder really helped,” she says.

Dorothy Kellner painting in 2011 in Santa Barbara, California.

Kellner, who lives in Denver and still paints with her grown children, also rubbed elbows with Diego Rivera at one point. “I spent a little over a year in Mexico,” she recounts. “I never met Frida Kahlo because she was really sick. I went to her home, though — she had about 55 wild monkeys at her house in her private courtyard. They were very difficult to sketch as they were crawling all over me. I met Rivera while he was painting a mural. He came down off his scaffold and offered to teach me how to paint murals. I told him a lie — ‘I’m not interested in art’ — as he had a reputation with women, and I didn’t want to get involved. While there in Mexico, I had to sell my paintings to live off of, and it was illegal to do so.”

Kellner still loves to paint outdoors. “It’s a dream, to be able to share nature,” she says. “My daughters underpaint and plan it out, but I just go slop, slop, slop — I paint.”


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