Bob Kleinschmidt, who taught printmaking at the University of Utah for 30 years, died peacefully Friday night, Aug. 2, at home surrounded by his family following an extended illness. His friend and colleague Joseph Marotta remembers him as the “Buddhist master of the Art and Art History Department … His outlook on life was contemplative, thoughtful, interconnective, and focused on the moment,” Marotta says. “He had a patience and calmness about him that he applied to his interactions with students, faculty, and friends.”
Kleinschmidt’s wife, however, is certain she was married to a staunch Methodist for 62 years. They met at an elementary school in Missouri where they were both teaching. Born in St. Louis, to Louis Walter Kleinschmidt and Tilla Marie Kettelkamp, Bob had graduated from a Methodist college and been at the school a couple of years when Mary Jo Crew arrived to be the new speech pathologist. Bob was dating her roommate, but after they broke up he took Mary Jo for a drive one October afternoon and they were married a year-and-a-half later. Bob went to the University of Chicago for a couple of years “and discovered that academic pre-Attic Greek art fragments was not his period of expertise,” Mary Jo Kleinschmidt recalls with a wry smile.
The Methodist minister at “couples club” there, however, was an art buff and since there was a great show on at the U of Chicago Museum, he told each couple in the group to take an imaginary $200 to spend on a painting in the show and go “buy” it, then come back and explain why they had made their selection. Bob and Mary Jo were so pleased with what they found that they went back and actually purchased the work and have it to this day: a print of a quote from Revelations by Sister Mary Corita Kent (1918-86), who worked in silkscreen, or serigraphy, helping to establish it as a fine art medium. Best known for the U.S. Postal Services special 1985 “LOVE” stamp, the soon-to-be-ex-Roman Catholic sister was mostly interested in achieving affordable art for the masses (no pun intended). This is where Bob’s interest in printmaking took form, says his wife.
Bob went to Madison, Wisconsin, for his MA over five or six summers (Mary Jo would visit on weekends) and then achieved his MFA while living full time in that city. He would later land his long-term job at the U with the help of art professor Ed Maryon, who saw one of Bob’s prints at an out-of-state show and urged that he be hired.
Art professor Sam Wilson and Bob Kleinschmidt became friends in the department and remained so for four decades. “Employed at the same place,” Wilson says, “we thought of art and teaching not as a career, but kind of … getting away with something (low paying but extremely rewarding). For most of us, fame is fiction,” Wilson maintains, adding that success for the likes of him and Bob “is defined as, ‘I’m still a practicing artist,’ still making a mark. It is that identity, maintained by curiosity and discipline that ensured Bob as a lifelong and long-lived artist.” Kleinschmidt, Wilson says, “calmly exhibited a rigorous intellectuality, yet a very personal vision. His work was complicated, technically difficult and quietly subversive. We are rewarded with a rich visual experience, both sophisticated and … likable.”
In a November 2013 review of a show featuring Kleinschmidt’s art at Salt Lake City’s Saltgrass Printmakers, Geoff Wichert takes similar joy in the artist’s work, saying “his self-portraits, or semi-fictionalized memoirs come across as charming as they are accessible and recall Rembrandt’s” in the way “they don’t just show us the look of the man, but each encapsulate the life-experience up to the moment of its making. Humble details — the hair on the back of his head, the ‘very old sweater’ he wears to pose, and personal idiosyncrasies like a ‘portable blessing’ — come along interspersed between large, revealing anecdotes … This is art that cannot ever be used up.” The review was a favorite of Bob’s, his wife tells us.
Susan Makov, a friend of the family and Bob’s counterpart at Weber State University — a professor of printmaking who recently retired — says she has been contemplating “how many artists, who have been vital members of this Salt Lake City and Utah community, when they get older, their work seems to be ignored. Those of us in printmaking know how many years of training and effort it takes to do woodcuts, lithographs, or etchings as Bob did. He was not a flashy or trendy artist, but pursued his art as a personal reflection of family history and life. At times using his gentle sense of humor, his craftsmanship and affection for what the various processes could do for the stories he had to tell, he ended up with a vast number of limited edition prints that will be available on an upcoming website. He liked dealing with family history. Things had a German title; his German family history, everything was connected to that.”
Paul Wunderlich, a German artist popular in the ‘60s was a favorite of Kleinschmidt’s. Mary Jo says Bob was assigned as an undergraduate to select an artist he admired to correspond with, and he chose Wunderlich, which necessitated finding a translator to write the letters, once resulting in an unintended insulting phrase to the famed German printmaker. They own a print by him.
Bill Lagattuta, who studied under Bob from 1973-75, before going on to the famed Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where, after graduating, he was the shop manager for 27 years, remembers Bob as a wonderful technician. “You have dry or wet materials,” says Lagattuta, “and Bob liked a wet material called tusche that would dry and make a [snakeskin] pattern and Bob loved working in it. It’s a very hard technique to master and Bob was really good at it. I learned that from him.”
Lagattuta’s favorite recollection is of printing one night at the U and “something’s not going right and Bob is upstairs printing and he has this little black-and-white TV on and I think, ‘He can print and watch TV at the same time,’ and I realize he must really know what he is doing if he can do that. So, when I first started working at Tamarind and it got slow during the summer I would set up a TV and watch Wimbledon and I realized I had gotten to the point where I could do that, too. And that the students probably thought the same thing about me that I thought about Bob. And I thought about how things go around and around,” he says with a short laugh.
Lagattuta even has Bob’s studio in his garage now. Mary Jo says he not only bought the press, “but he bought all of the shelves and the rollers and the ink. He sent me a picture of his garage and it looks just like Bob’s studio. It’s really nice for me to know that that’s there. And Saltgrass bought the big press. So we know they are being used.”
When macular degeneration set in, Kleinschmidt gave up on artistic pursuits. He watched a lot of TV — which he couldn’t see particularly well and so mostly watched sports. No one could get him to pick up a brush. He insisted that he was a printmaker; that was what he did. Period.
“But he loved all kinds of music,” says Mary Jo. “His mother taught music and he took piano lessons as a little kid and then voice when he was in college. He sang in the college choir and then we always sang in church choirs.” Marotta says, “Bob liked Bach: the ‘Goldberg Variations,’ the cello suites, choral music. But he also liked Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ Go figure. And he loved to travel, particularly to Italy.”
“It was Sam [Wilson] who finally intimidated us into going to Italy,” Mary Jo remembers, adding, with a smile, “I think we went five times.” She says that the 15th century and earlier is what her husband liked. “Then, we got hooked on Italian mysteries.” She read aloud to her husband in later years: Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri and other writers they discovered together.
“He loved a good conversation,” says Marotta. “He always tried to see the other person’s point of view if there was a differing opinion. In faculty meetings Bob was ‘the voice of reason.’ In critiques with students he was always encouraging: first, ‘let’s look at this right here, that’s intriguing,’ then offering constructive criticism: ‘you could try this … or leave it alone awhile, come back to it later.’ Patient. Methodical. Sometimes a bit long in his assessment (I’m looking at my watch now and smiling), but people listened. Ever present.
“Most artists are a real pain in the ass. Fits of emotion, depression, elation, anxiety, borderline-narcissistic. It’s a solitary practice that can lead to idiosyncratic behavior. Bob wasn’t like that. Or if he was he didn’t show it. He was cool, like a calm day at Walden Pond. You want a clear assessment of something, talk to Bob, give him a few good minutes, he’ll come up with all the possibilities. Don’t even think of looking at your cellphone.”
Artist, educator, and family friend Paul Heath concurs. “Bob was always present and in the moment as a teacher,” he says. “As [artist] Willamarie Huelskamp [has] mentioned, Bob always encouraged you to look and think deeper about your work. He also made great suggestions about the surface quality of a print … how to make a rich black within a lithograph or control the blushing quality of a wash on the limestone slab. Bob was both a strong and a gentle man. He loved the physicality of art and brought his background and sensitivity with language and literature into his work for all to enjoy.”
During the mid-1980s, Carolyn Coalson and Nel Ivancich (1941-2014) were undergraduate students and studio mates who listened with alacrity to Kleinschmidt’s lengthy critiques of their work. “We both agreed that Bob’s feedback was invaluable,” says Coalson. “When he critiqued work, one listened for the unvarnished truth,” she recalls of his honesty. “I was not a good printmaker but fell in love with the process because of Bob’s tremendous excitement for it, his accessibility, his enthusiasm …” Classes had assigned duties that included preparing acid baths and stoking up the stoves and editing and inking plates, so that his contagious enthusiasm stood the two women in good stead. Coalson says Bob was always right in there with them working alongside.
Paul Vincent Bernard, sharing a photo of himself, Veera Kasicharernvat and Bob at Paul’s Guthrie studio in 2003, remarked that before Bob would make his first move, or allow his students theirs, he would pose the question “What lies do you have for us today?” “More than anything Bob may have said,” Bernard continues, “I was taken by his approach to making art, which in turn influences everything I do as an artist … Like Michelangelo, look for the image that the plate, the stone, or the woodblock can reveal.”
Kasicharernvat hails from Thailand and says he always felt welcome around Kleinschmidt. “I became Bob’s student in early 1980 and focused in printmaking at the U. He taught me to balance repetition/variation and edit between intellect and intuition in art-process that I could also apply in daily life-process. Another lesson from him without saying a word to me was to keep working …”
Summing up what many have felt about the artist and his work, Makov says, “Appreciation for [Bob’s] talent means that we have slowed our lives down long enough to get into the mind of a creative being whose big wish was to share his life and talent with others. It is a gesture that often gets ignored. Those of us who knew Bob are lucky enough to maintain the memories and stories about him. But those who did not know him personally can also appreciate the work he has left behind. Lucky for all of us that he left so much.”
Robert Kleinschmidt is survived by his wife; one son, Tom (Sheila), West Wendover, Nevada; and two grandchildren, Karina and Cody. A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date to be announced.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.