On a typical day in the studio, artist Marilou Kundmueller is not alone. The floors, chairs and couches surrounding her painting space are littered with dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors. But Marilou doesn’t mind. She loves dogs, especially her own.
Only two dogs out of the herd belong to her: Poncho, the wise old Dalmatian-Border Collie, and Smudge, the fun-loving Border Collie mix that loves to run the hills surrounding her home in Helper. She describes them as having “good souls” and always being “full of love and enthusiasm.“ The other dogs usually belong to fellow artists or friends who have left town and need a sitter.
The dogs are just there for company, though, not as subject matter. Fabric is Marilou’s current fixation. Linens, tablecloths, napkins, handkerchiefs, flags, bandanas, and any other kind of cloth imaginable have found their way into her recent paintings. Whether she is portraying piles of laundry, stacks of vibrantly colored t-shirts, or vintage material with intricate patterns, her tight realism echoes her meticulous nature. Marilou says she paints cloth because she loves the complexity of its light logic and subtle changes in color. Representing the delicate texture and folds also appeals to her. “The fabric can be literal or a metaphor for almost anything.”
Marilou’s educational background gave her ample knowledge of the power of rendering the literal to explain the metaphorical. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in nursing and some fine art training from the University of Utah foundation program and other workshops, Marilou also completed a Master’s degree in Medical Illustration at Johns Hopkins University. While her primary artistic focus is painting, she occasionally does illustrations of children’s medical conditions The illustrations are used in educational material that help explain complicated medical issues to medical professionals and patient families.
Currently, Marilou is winding down from a two-person show at Park Gallery in Carmel, California, after several months of focused painting. Although many artists thrive on painting down to the wire and shipping the majority of their paintings wet, Marilou finds that she enjoys the process much more if she doesn’t leave the work until the last minute.
However, she doesn’t believe that painting is something an artist can truly plan for until they are right in front of their easel. “Painting is a really immediate experience. You’re being your own teacher the whole time and focusing on making the right decision at the right moment,” she points out.
Marilou’s favorite part of the artistic process is when she begins a painting because it is free, whereas the end of the painting process is usually a lot more finite. Her ultimate objective is to keep that feeling of restriction out of her process altogether. “My goal as an artist is to keep that looseness throughout so that the end is as free as the beginning.”
To achieve that freedom, Marilou has learned that she works best in a private environment. Dogs and laundry are usually the only audience she has in her studio. She believes that an artist should have the chance to make mistakes while they work and be able to correct them on their own. She says some of the best advice she ever received was from art instructor Paul Davis, who said, “You need your own space where you can shut the door and lock it.”
Marilou finds this autonomy to be important, especially because she lives with and around many full-time artists. Between the artist-filled neighborhood in Helper and her husband, artist David Dornan, art dialogue and critique is in no short supply. She and David have kept their individualism and sanity as artists by having their own studios and keeping their personal lives separate from their paintings lives.
“David will always be a teacher and it’s not that we don’t talk about it, but we still do our own thing.”
Because David has been painting much longer than Marilou, she says his support and knowledge is very significant as she continues to grow as an artist. Conversely, while Dornan has become a household name in the Utah art world, Marilous has proven the adage that behind every successful man stands a supportive woman. In Marilou’s case, the “standing” in support bit is only figurative. She doesn’t have much extra time in her day to stand around. When she isn’t prepping for a show or doing illustration, she is working in her very large garden, cooking gourmet meals that the local artists line up for, racing with David in his and hers stock cars, aiding a resident artist who is living and working out of their Main Street building, or coordinating and preparing for the summer season of Helper Workshops.
Marilou has been organizing these workshops in some form for the last 12 years. Each summer, she and David, along with Davis and other celebrated art instructors, invite students to their Helper location for an intense and rapid learning experience. The students live and work together, often for a week to 10 days, and are able to experience full-time art in a supportive artist community. According to Marilou, the goal of the workshops is to provide a serious learning environment to challenge the student and help them realize their potential.
Although there is a cost to participate in the workshops, the classes are not exactly a cash cow. Marilou, David and Paul Davis continue to offer the summer experience mostly as their way of giving back to the art community. Their generosity has rippled through the art community, giving many up-and-coming artists the support system necessary to survive the early discouragements of pursuing art. As an added bonus, many of the artists relocate permanently to Helper, continuing to grow the social and art environment.
For Marilou, who has lived in Utah for about half her life, Helper is home. The calm pace and lack of distractions keep her painting and still leave her time to walk her dogs, race her car, and enjoy her life. Plus, with the cost of living in the small town, she can always afford the square footage for another dog to bask in the sunlight while she works away at her art.
Melanie Steele, a 25-year-old with a bachelor’s in Print Journalism and Communications from Utah State University, is married to artist Ben Steele and lives in Helper, Utah. In addition to writing about the arts, she also organizes the Helper Art and Music Festival.