A Conversation with Ted Kerzie

Ted Kerzie in studio, Bakersfield, CA (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University  School of Arts and Humanities Oral History  Artist Series.

Ted Kerzie in studio near Bakersfield, CA (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted in the artist’s home studio at Hidden Lake near Bakersfield, California, July 14, 17, 22, 23, and August 3, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.


Ted Kerzie grew up in Tacoma, Washington, the eldest of two boys. His father was a C.P.A. and his mother was also an accountant who kept their business running long after her husband’s death. Ted’s father wanted him to try a military career so he graduated Washington State University with a degree in Fine Arts and a commission in the United States Air Force. Ted was sent to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era as a photographer and later, as a motion picture officer. He left the Air Force in 1970 and entered Claremont Graduate University pursuing an MFA in painting, and graduating in 1972. Ted was so impressed by his professors that he decided on a career in teaching at the university level along with a professional art career, and in the past 50 years, he has accomplished both. Ted taught drawing at Scripps and Claremont Graduate University before taking a job at California State University, Bakersfield as an art professor. 

After 40 years, now retired from teaching, he is a full-time artist. Ted’s big break came with a one-person show at Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles in 1981, which led to other opportunities and over 250 group and one-person shows throughout the United States and internationally. In 2001, he was commissioned by local art patron Millie Ablin to produce his first sculpture entitled “Eclipse.” The massive steel structure was installed at CSUB School of Business and Public Administration courtyard and developed from his paintings, which created new methodologies in his work. Millie, and her husband, Dr. George Ablin, owned one of the only Frank Lloyd homes in the area, which was built in 1953. Millie was a major contributor to the Arts and her commission of Ted’s work was significant for the area, the University, and for the artist. Ted also has a love of flying and has logged over 2,500 hours as a pilot, and has flown with James Turrell. Ted lives and works in a studio in Bakersfield, California at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range on a small lake about 1-1/2 hours North of Los Angeles. He has three grown children, two of whom live in Los Angeles and the other lives in Tacoma, Washington. Ted Kerzie is considered to be one of the pioneers of Process Art in Southern California.

JILL THAYER: What childhood factors contributed to you becoming an artist. Do you recall?

TED KERZIE: Yes. I can tell you the most important thing I used to do was copy the cartoons from the Sunday paper. I became pretty good at it and I got to a point where I didn’t have to copy as much. I didn’t have any idea what I really wanted to do until I went into police work at first. I decided that wasn’t for me because basically, I had too much of a baby face, I guess [laughs]. I don’t think I would have been a good detective. But, I went to Washington State University and took an Art 101 class. I saw a picture of Richard Diebenkorn and said, “That’s it! I want to know how to do that. I want to be an artist.”

JT: Was anyone in your family an artist?

TK: No, but my family as a line of pilots. My dad was a pilot. My cousin was a pilot who flew the U2 for 18 years and also flew the U2 in Vietnam. I’m a pilot. My cousin who is much older now, all of his kids are either pilots or involved in the art field as designers or design engineers and one is a teacher. I am asked, ‘Well, how could you have been in the military and do art?” I guess it’s genetics, somehow.

JT: I understand your father wanted you to have a military career. You graduated from Washington University with a Fine Arts degree then you received your commission in the United States Air Force?

TK: Right.

JT: And, you were sent to Southeast Asia in the Vietnam era?

TK: Right, my “M.O.,” they called it, or my job description was photographic intelligence. We photographed from our F4s. I didn’t fly at the time, but I ran the lab of all the film for the movements over the Ho Chi Minh trail and South Vietnam. We spent a lot of time trying to find the Hanoi Hilton because the North Vietnamese moved it continually and it was very hard to find. Years later, I was having dinner with Admiral James Stockdale––he was the longest POW and also ran for Vice President. I said, trying to make conversation, “I have something to tell you. I spent two years of my life looking for you,” and his comment back to me was, “Well, you didn’t do a very good job!” [Laughs] Back from overseas, I had another wonderful experience. I worked on the Apollo landing. We ran a photographic lab as my field was photographic engineering. We built a lab and made huge T-10 plates of the surface of the moon. They were put in Link trainers to assist the astronauts in the terrain of how to land on the moon prior to their space travel. But we missed the rock they almost hit! [Laughs] It was pretty hard to find one big rock on the moon in those days. Today we could do it very easily.

JT: You left the Air Force in 1970. How did you discover Claremont Graduate University?

TK: When I was in the service, I painted all the time. I had a little studio in the Philippines and used to make billboards out of wood in the Base hobby shop. I came back and would do paintings of things going on. They were like Pop Art billboards. Actually, they were pretty good, but at that time I don’t think I realized that I was just experimenting. We used to get weather balloons and I would take them out to volcanoes––one, of which has erupted in the Philippines. I’d fly these weather balloons by a volcano and photograph the juxtaposition with the landscape. It was crazy stuff.

Ted consulted Mowry Baden who critiqued him on the conceptual aspect of the work referencing Earth art, which was a prevalent genre at the time.

When I was at March Air Force base in Riverside, I asked where there was a graduate school nearby that had art and they said, “UC Riverside.” So, I drove up to UC Riverside, which did not have a graduate program at that time. The person told me––he became a friend later, Conner Everts––he said, “Go down the road, there’s a school called Claremont Graduate School. Go talk to them.” So I talked to a lady named, Jean Ames. By the way, I was in my uniform as a Captain. It was during a very tumultuous time at the school with the protest against the war, but I told her I wanted to get instruction to build a portfolio. She said, “Well, if you’re dressed like that and come on to this campus, you must be pretty serious!” So, she let me take a course, “Art since 1945” as a special student. From there, I applied and was accepted full time. I don’t know if they still have that program.

JT: Did they allow you to take studio courses? How did that transition into your MFA work?

TK: I was still in the military. There was a huge studio on the top of Bridges auditorium and Doug McClelland, who was the interim graduate chairman said, “You can go up there and paint. We’ll give you the space.” So I went up and did these huge paintings similar to Diebenkorn’s––they had no figures in them. They were like his “Ocean Park Series,” and they were stain paintings. I didn’t use a brush as much as I used the stained method. I think stain painting was big at that time.

JT: When you were a graduate student, what was the Art program like at CGU? The environment, the people, the classes . . . what was going on at that time?

TK: As a student, it was two years before I got out of the service so I slowly made connections. When I was accepted full time, I still had that studio space at Bridges. Other students started moving up there and I started connecting. I thought it was the greatest time.

JT: What year was this?

TK: 1968 is when I started there. I was accepted full time in 1969 – 1970. I left the Air Force and had three months then went straight to graduate school.

JT: I see.

TK: So, I was very, very lucky.

JT: Tell me about the structure of the Art school.

Ted notes that this was prior to Roland Reiss joining the faculty.

TK: The structure was run mostly out of Scripps College. What they did at the time was attract the faculty out of Pomona, Pitzer . . . not Harvey Mudd because that was the engineering school . . . and Scripps.

JT: Right.

TK: Scripps had a huge ceramics department, which was run by Paul Soldner. We used to call them “the mud people.” They were always down there working, and I loved that every ceramist seemed to have a dog. I remember so well! You would take a class at Scripps . . . my history class was at Pomona . . . my writing class . . . I can’t remember what school that was at . . . my drawing class was at Scripps . . . my painting classes were at Scripps. But usually, I didn’t go the school. My teachers came up to my studio at Bridges Auditorium. We had student reviews and they were really difficult because you had to stand in front of three or four artists, everyone with a different opinion. They would look at your work and you would walk out of there thinking, “What am I doing? Who am I? Where am I at?”

JT: A notable difference of Claremont Graduate University is how it engages the student in the ongoing operations and activities of the Art program. They have a voice of who is accepted into the program, faculty review, policies of the department, etc.

TK: We had none of that until Roland came.

JT: What happened when Roland came to campus and how did the program evolve?

TK: Well, when Roland came to campus––and let me say something about Roland. Roland is such a role model, as a teacher, as a friend, as everything. One of the things about Roland is that when he walks into a room, you know that he knows what he is doing. Most teachers come in and they say, “Here, let’s do this, let’s do that . . .” Roland would come in and know exactly what you should do and we found that just incredible, and he started changing things. After I left, new things started happening and students had a vote. When Roland came in, the first thing he did was centralize the program. He had a small office, it was in the bottom of some building, I can’t remember where it was, but his office wasn’t in Scripps. Scripps was a painting school and he wanted to do other things. The first thing he did was start a visiting artist program during the summer. That was really important. He called it a Master’s program.

JT: Do you remember some of the artists that he brought in?

TK: He brought in all contemporary artists Michael Speaker, DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Connie Zehr . . . you name them. They were working in LA and he brought them out. That started changing everybody as the dialogue expanded to what was going on in the art world. I don’t think it was a shoot off exactly of CalArts. Cal Arts was starting to gain a reputation. You could go from this class to that class without signing up. We didn’t quite do that at the time, but I think eventually, it became one of the best programs. Claremont is still powerful today . . . its connections . . . it’s networking. I know CalArts is still great, and UCLA. Much of the program’s success at Claremont was due to Roland. It kept snowballing for years.

JT: Critical theory and practice is an integral part of the program.

TK: When I was there, it was pretty much a one to one. I chose Guy Williams to be my instructor in painting, and if Guy walked by and said, “I would like to work with you,” that was incredible. Mowry Baden was in sculpture at Pomona. Pomona was kind of the power. Scripps was more or less . . . even though I was teaching painting. Ceramics was really big. But Pomona had the intellect, let’s say. What Roland did was start taking from those strengths and building his graduate school. He still worked with the faculty.

JT: Who were some of the faculty members?

TK: Carl Hertel. He was a brilliant man, just fantastic . . . Guy Williams . . . and one of the persons I really got a lot from was Paul Soldner. He had a real presence about him. He was a ceramist and was just a wonderful man.[1]

JT: Was Michael Brewster there?

TK: Yes, Michael Brewster, actually, was in my first class when I was still in the service. He was the one that I became really good friends with. He’s a very bright man and I really like being around him. We had these wonderful conversations and used to go up to a place called Griswald’s. I don’t think it’s there anymore. We would have a few drinks and discuss sculpture and painting, and the art world. Michael was great and is great.

JT: Do you recall the discussion groups that Roland had with the students? I understand they were important in developing an understanding of the discourse.

TK: You know, I saw more of the discussion group after I left. When I graduated in 1972, I was very fortunate to get a job at Scripps. It was a part-time job and they wanted a drawing instructor. I just worked my tail off to build a drawing program so that I could make kind of a name for myself, which I did. I built it into a full-time position.

JT: What year was this?

TK: 1973-74

JT: So you just came out of school.

TK: Yes. Also, at that time we had a joint appointment between Scripps and the Claremont Graduate School now, the Graduate University. Students could work with me from the graduate school, even though I was working full time at Scripps. I had students like Lisa Adams . . . I remember, Peter Shelton was in my drawing class, a tremendous artist who has done really well and a whole group of different people, and then, of course, the students at Scripps.

JT: How did that evolve, from being a student to being asked to teach? It’s pretty remarkable.

TK: I learned so much from Michael Brewster. Jim Turrell was there. He wasn’t teaching but he was around and I got to know him in Venice. I got to know Roland when he came in. I was hired at Scripps so I became part of Roland’s program development and I watched him build this program and start changing it. Of course, there were problems with some of the faculty in the transition because for years they had been a part of the graduate school, and now they were not that much a part. Roland was really careful about that, but he was on his way to building his own graduate school, which was very important. Now, I don’t know if they still draw from the faculty like they did before. I don’t think they do. I think they have their own faculty. I don’t know if you can work with so and so at Pomona like you could before. You would have to tell me.

JT: The MFA program is structured in CGU Art. My program was unique. I was pursuing a doctorate in Cultural Studies with emphasis in Museum Studies out of the School of Arts and Humanities. Since there were no faculty members in my concentration directly in that department, I was able to take courses from outside programs and was concurrently accepted into the Art program, which allowed me to combine studio work with theory and practice. We were able to pull in our committees from different schools. In my first committee, I had Francis Pohl from Scripps, and Kathleen Howe from Pomona College. It was wonderful to bring in that transdisciplinary scholarship. Then, my curricula segued into a more defined direction and I was able to realign my committee. David Pagel and David Amico from CGU Art became part of my doctoral committee.

TK: So you guys still can interdisciplinary all over the schools?

JT: Right. Haven Lin-Kirk, who was an MFA from CGU and now a design professor at USC was also on my committee. Dr. Eve Oishi from Cultural Studies was my advisor. There is still that opportunity to engage with different programs.

TK: I do remember now that there was a building, an old house that was on campus that became the Art department. There was an office and a secretary.

JT: The cottage? Roland was describing it. [They installed the drywall and painted it themselves.]

TK: Yes, and some of the students worked in there and that may have been the beginning of centralizing the graduate program.

JT: Roland is in our oral history project, as is Connie Zehr and John Frame. John graduated in 1980 and he was describing the studios in the Harvey Mudd building, in the basement with fluorescent lights. He graduated the same year that Greg Colson did from Claremont. I’ll be speaking to Michael Brewster next week so it will be interesting to hear all of this. Roland was describing the transition.

TK: Yes, it’s so interesting. Scripps was really good to me. I just hit it off with those guys and I knew I could not stay there because they told me in the beginning that the Women’s Movement, which was really starting to take hold, was going to happen at Scripps. It was an all male faculty and I understood with its all-female students to have more women faculty. Except for a lady named Neda Al-Hilali who taught Fiber, everybody else was male and so it was obvious. They used to say that I had, “Polish Tenure,” since I am part Polish. Aldo Casanova taught sculpture to graduate students and became a good friend. I used to go to his home for dinner. There was a man, a Classics professor, I’m sorry I can’t remember his name, who was a WWII veteran, and he used to have poker games on Friday nights which I was invited to. These were very brilliant men. They still called me the professor with Polish Tenure and they all had tenure. [Laughs] It was a fun place. One day was in the Scripps Art Department and this lady walked in. She had a tremendously beautiful face but it was very wrinkled and I know I knew her, but I didn’t know who she was. And I’m sitting there in a chair and the secretary said to her, “May I help you?” She said, “Yes, is Paul Soldner here?” And the secretary said, “Yes he is. May I ask who is inquiring?” “Would you tell him George O’Keeffe is here.”

JT: Unbelievable.

TK: And, I tell you, every cup of coffee dropped in that Art department as she stood there. So they went down to the mud room and got Paul Soldner, and he came up and said, “Oh, Georgia, what can I do for you?” “Well, you know,” she said, “I am in my nineties now and am going blind,”––or maybe it was eighties, and she said, “but Paul, I still want to feel art. Can you teach me to throw ceramics?” He sent one of his students who was working on a degree to work with her. And that’s the man she ended up marrying who ended up taking care of all of her estate. She was so worried that when she passed away that all of the museums would just go nuts, and she needed somebody to help her out.

JT: That’s incredible. So he went from Claremont to Taos.

TK: Right. He was the one that Paul sent down to help her do ceramics. Scripps gave me a show of my paintings and I showed with the Scripps collection, which is called the Lang Art. I think it’s still the same collection. The faculty said to O’Keeffe, “We would like you to come in and see Ted’s show.” That’s how they treated me. It was just wonderful, there was no jealously, I loved these guys. And, she looked around and said, “Oh yes, pattern.” [Laughs]

JT:  That’s great!

TK: Georgia O’Keeffe . . .

JT: Do you remember the approximate year that was?

TK: Probably 1974. That was an amazing story. When she walked in that office, you know, she was dressed in black and, of course, when I went outside, there was a limousine.

JT: Unbelievable. Tell me your recollections of Karl Benjamin.

TK: Karl is such an interesting man because he’s just an icon around Claremont and, as we all know, he’s one of the leading painters of abstract hard-edge painting.[2]

JT: He is included in our oral history series.

TK: There were four of them and they all were incredible [referring the four Abstract Classicists: Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin] I got to know him when I was in graduate school and more later when I was painting. We talked a lot about painting. We had a good friend together named Dennis Farber and we all shared ideas.

JT: Was Karl teaching when you were at Claremont?

TK: No, Karl was teaching in grade school. He came later. In fact Roland hired him, maybe in the ‘80s. When I was in in undergraduate school I always admired my teachers. They seemed so cool andI knew I wanted to be a professor more than I wanted to be a famous artist. I like giving, I’m just that kind of person. So, when I was at Scripps, that teaching experience was so good. One of the students named George Ketterl came down from the university in Bakersfield, which was built in a field of sheep . . .

JT: Cal State Bakersfield.

TK: Cal State Bakersfield . . . and he came down and talked to me. Today there are no jobs. That day there were no jobs. Out of my graduating class, there were only 13 people, if I remember. We were a very small class and nobody got a job. Michael Brewster got a job at the graduate school, but he was a year ahead of me. Essentially, nobody got a job. So, when I did get the job in Bakersfield I said, “What am I doing in Bakersfield?” But you know, every place needs a system of education and Bakersfield certainly has been a good place for so many people.

JT: I graduated Cal State Bakersfield in 1978 with my undergrad and again in 2004 with a Masters. But it was my education there that led me to Claremont because you came from Claremont, George Ketterl also graduated from Claremont . . .

TK: Right.

JT: . . . and a number of my colleagues, Greg and Jeff Colson were also at Claremont so it seemed like the natural step.

TK: Watching Roland, I learned a lot about teaching. One of the things that happens in graduate school is that you don’t learn how to teach, it’s basically, how to be a professional artist. You can get a job with an MFA, it’s equal to a doctorate [as a terminal degree], but with no teaching courses you can get yourself in big trouble. But watching Roland teach was so impressive to me. I would watch this man look at his student’s work, turn the painting upside down, talk about why this painting worked upside down and two months later, you would see the students work––they were not making upside down paintings, they learned to think out of the box and he was on to something. You know, we all thought when we’re first doing art that it all comes from the inside . . . the heart and sentimentality. Roland looked at that object and said, “Here’s where you could go with this. This is what you could do. Think about this. What are you doing with that scale? What are you doing with this? Have you thought about this?” And I think that’s really helped me in my teaching.

JT: At Claremont, they chose the top artists in their field and brought them out to the school either as a visiting artist or as part of the program. That really is a shift from those who would apply for teaching positions, but were not professional artists with a successful career. It was more an academic career track. So tell me about that. That was a pretty big leap back then, to focus on artists who were professionals and bring them into the program.

TK: Yes. We were taught about the Contemporary Art world. But, I was so fortunate. Those in my class or group were already good artists. Michael Brewster, James Turrell, who they say is one of the world’s leading artists . . . there were so many people there who were already intellectually superb and working in the art world. Oh, Lewis Baltz, he’s a well-known American photographer who had his MFA show at the Pasadena Art Museum.

JT: You know, there are interesting stories about some of the antics of the artists. Karl Benjamin, John Frame, and Roland Reiss were each telling me their version of Jim Turrell’s piece, “Burning Bridges[3] from 1971, the one at Bridges Auditorium when the Fire Department came out. [We saw the re-enactment in 2011 at Pomona College during “It Happened at Pomona.”

TK: Well, I had the Fire Department come out when I did a piece with Turrell because he was doing flares.

JT: That’s what he did around the auditorium. The Fire Department came out and everyone parted like the red sea as Roland came walking down to explain that it was an art piece.

TK: He told you that story?

JT: Yes, I heard three different versions! [Laughs]

TK: That is so funny because when I taught at San Luis Obispo, I had Turrell as a visiting artist. Now, I didn’t know about that story, but we found a tunnel near the agriculture school. It’s big enough for a person to walk through. It had some water in it and Jim loaded these boxes of sand with flares and ignited them inside. It was beautiful . . . it just created this incredible light and you just couldn’t believe it. It was at 12 o’clock at night so the campus police they showed up and I had to explain to them that it was an art piece! [Laughs] And, I also had to explain to the President of the University the next day that that was an art piece. We were okay, but the problem was we had to cut a wire that ran a main light on the street, which was going to interfere with the process of this “delicate art piece” so we cut it. I thought I was going to get in trouble for that, but nobody ever knew it was cut. They just thought a bulb went out.

JT: I would love to ask Jim about these projects, as I am hearing these great recollections from everyone else. It would just be interesting to hear his take on it all! I understand you fly with him?

TK: Yes.

JT: And you also had a show with him at Cal State Bakersfield. Tell me about that.

TK: Jim and I go way back, in fact, when he was in graduate school, I had just come back from the military. I had flown off and on, but I hadn’t flown in the military and I wanted to start flying again. I heard Jim was flying out at Van Nuys Airport so, I went out and he took me up to see an airshow in the San Joaquin Valley at Porterville Airport, and we became friends after that. I started flying again out of Cable Airport [in Upland]. So, we always have connected with flying. He helped me buy my airplane. I decided I was going to get an airplane because I moved to Santa Monica and commuted back and forth to teach at Cal State Bakersfield. I wanted to be involved in the art world, but I didn’t want to drive all the time, so he told me what kind of airplane to buy to get through the mountains. He was very important.

JT: Was this your Cessna?

TK: Yes. I bought a 182 with a lot of power to handle the different currents over the Gorman Pass. In fact, the Cessna really turned out to be great because I took a critic––a good friend of Roland’s, to fly and take photographs over The Umbrellas.[4]

JT: Christo’s Umbrellas.

TK: Yes.

JT: Karl also shared a wonderful story about Clement Greenberg and how he came out to Claremont. Greenberg’s driver took him over to Karl’s and they had a visit. John Frame also rode around with him!

TK: Well, Clement Greenberg’s girlfriend . . . I had a show somewhere and she came up to me and said, “I want to talk to you. I wanted to know what kind of a mind makes these paintings.” And I said, “Well, I don’t understand the question.” She said, “What’s your thought process? These things are so interesting. Where do you get your ideas?” I said, “Part of it is my graduate school experience.” Then she said, “I used to be Clement Greenberg’s girlfriend but now I’m Hasselhoff’s girlfriend.” The guy who did “Baywatch.” And he was doing “Knight Rider.”

JT: David Hasselhoff?

TK: Yes, David Hasselhoff.

JT: That’s a switch . . . Greenberg to Hasselhoff.

TK: Now, you know, I’m telling you this stuff, I may be wrong because sometimes people don’t tell you the whole thing . . .

JT: Share a little bit about your exhibition with James Turrell.

TK: At Cal State Bakersfield?

JT: Yes.

TK: Well, I was retiring, it was my 30th year and there was an interesting curator. Do you remember his name? Mike . . . in fact, I think you wanted his job.

JT: Go on [laughs]. I ended up pursuing a doctorate at Claremont, but continue.

TK: Yes, you went on to Claremont. I really liked him, but I guess they let him go after I left. It was called “Light Pilots.”[5]

JT: That’s right.

TK: This curator always thought my work was about light too. I guess any painting, in a sense, is about light. He also wanted me to do a show with John Miller, but that never came to fruition. Jim is not much into teaching, although he has taught. One day he came by my place in Santa Monica. It was 6 o’clock in the morning and he had a sailplane he was towing, and said, “What are you doing today?” I said, “I have to fly to Bakersfield and teach.” “Teach! You have an airplane. Let’s go to Catalina!” I had a personal day coming so we went to Catalina.

TK: I think I was the first artist except for Larry Albright[6] at the Santa Monica Airport. I had a big studio at the Barker Hangar. Now that was an incredible experience.

JT: What year was this?

TK: I had the studio almost eight years. From 1988 to almost ’94.

JT: We talked about the artist program at Claremont, how visiting artists came in which transitioned to what you were doing at Cal State Bakersfield. Tell me about the Idyllwild Summer Arts Program.

TK: Oh, we have to back up a little bit. Idyllwild came from what I did . . . I started a program in the Cal State System. They received money from a lottery to start an art program in the summer. It was called “Cal State University, Summer Arts.”

Ted Kerzie, “Spheres: Monte Alban” 1991. Acrylic on canvas unstretched,

109 x 255 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. Reproduced by permission.

The first class in the summer was at San Luis Obispo. I did a course called “Urban Landscape.” The School of Architecture there is well known, as is their art department. I’m not sure they wanted this program to come in so there was a little apprehension. That always happens. That was an interesting program. But, I started that and they said you could invite artists and pay them. Well, I almost totally lost it because I invited so many artists that I had an artist almost every day for about two weeks and I just overloaded the students. To tell you the truth, I almost had a riot on my hands! They were so upset. The Dean at Cal State Fullerton came over and talked to me, and he said, “I think your problem was that you just selected so many artists. You had great artists and a great program, but the students were overwhelmed. Why don’t you limit it to one, two, or three?” After that, I selected one top artist like Judy Pfaff, James Turrell, or Michael Brewster, and it took off. It became so successful that I could just call an artist and they would come. This was at Humboldt. The program was to rotate through all the Universities in the Cal State system.

JT: I see.

TK: Universities could bid for it because it was run on the lottery. San Luis Obispo said, “We want it so we’ll give you this, this, and this . . .”

JT: So, you would travel depending on who got the bid?

Recognized as the largest and most dynamic interdisciplinary arts program in the western United States, CSU Summer Arts students are visual and performing artists who teamed with extraordinary CSU faculty and internationally acclaimed guest artists to create, challenge, and collaborate. Ted was the first faculty selected from the California State University system to be a guest professor in the international exchange program in Florence, Italy. 

TK: Right. Then after two years at San Luis Obispo, it moved to Humboldt. But, the President at San Luis Obispo wanted it back so badly because it was starting to go.

Then it went to Humboldt and everybody was really scared because it’s so far away from everything. We had students who drove there and would show up late, and we would say, “What happened?” They said, “I hit a deer on the way up!” It was a 300-mile trip from San Francisco. I took my plane up there, which turned out to be an incredible experience because I would take the students flying. I would take them up and down the coast and over to see the crosscutting of the trees.

JT: Was this the prototype for what happened later?

TK: This was the prototype and here’s the key . . . my main artist, whom I always invited was, guess who?

JT: Roland?

TK: Yes, Roland Reiss, because this man can teach. He would have these wonderful “color” talks and say, “Be here at 4 o’clock and bring your popcorn, bring your blanket, whatever. We’re going to talk all night about color.” Well, think about talking about color until two in the morning, but everybody stayed there, and stayed there, and stayed there . . . and I learned more about color. He analyzed how we look at it . . . where it comes from . . . what we see . . . how we can mix it . . . what are the emotions in it. And he would go on, and on, and on. I had every artist come in and review student slides. They would give talks. Peter Frank was a critic and I brought a critic in every year. At the end of the program, the critic would go by and look at everybody’s work. We had a show in the gallery and it became such a successful program. Roland was doing sculptures and after about four years of doing this he said to me, “You better watch out because I’m going back to painting. I’ve been talking about it at your program for so many years, I’ve decided I want to do it again and I’m not going to do sculpture anymore.” That could not have been a better honor in the world because that program was important. And he did, he started painting again and he’s done very well at it. So, the program, as with everything has its life, you know. The program just kind of . . . I had too much power in it. The way you were selected in funding was you made a proposal every two years for the program. Well, my proposal, because of the artists and the classes, were always filled. I kept getting so-called “re-hired” for these summers. Finally, they had to make a limit and every three years they had to switch. But Roland called me––and I taught there nine years, and he said, “Look, I really want to do this program because your program was so successful. I cannot believe they would stop that program! Why would they stop something so successful?” Roland said––and this is why this man is so good––“I have a chance to start this program at Idyllwild, do you mind if I do it? You’ll be one of my visiting artists.” I thought, well that’s really great because I haven’t been a visiting artist very much though I had been here and there a little bit. So, I said “Sure.” The difference between Roland and I was that he was more selective. He had students apply and selected the students he wanted. We talked about this one day last year and he said, “You know, the one thing about your program that always interested me was that it was like a free-for-all, but you always had good artists and you had a lot of artists. Some shouldn’t have been there, but, it was amazing, the amount of students who were there.” At Humboldt, we had a great big barn, an old cow palace-type thing with dirt floors and we painted in there. You would see students painting there until 2 o’clock in the morning. I had this big switch for these lights––it looked like Young Frankenstein! [Ted makes a sound like electric currents charging]. These big gaslights would go on and the students would paint. It was the Track and Field building. I think, that they built it way back in the 1930s. 

JT: It’s wonderful how something so successful was able to continue on in another manifestation.

TK: I like a lot of chaos and Roland is much more . . . “regimented” is not the word I’m looking for because he allows a lot of freedom, but in some ways, my program drove them nuts because they weren’t sure what was going to happen the next moment. Whereas with Roland, you knew what was going to happen.

JT: You’ve exhibited internationally and are included in many pubic and private collections. How did you get your first exhibition or commission, was it through Cirrus?

TK: Yes. Cirrus sold my first painting to the Power Museum in Sidney Australia, one of the paintings that I had to make in record time. A 6 x 12 foot painting of the little 1/8inch dots. It was white on white on white, and it was a beautiful painting, just gorgeous.

JT: You were part of a show at Museum of Contemporary Art, at MOCA through Cirrus, “Los Angeles Artists: 1960-1986.”

TK: I don’t recall that . . . No way!

JT: Yes, I did my research.

TK: Are you kidding me? I did not know that!

JT: This was in 1986 through Cirrus Gallery with ten gallery artists.

[1] Paul Soldner (1921 – 2011) taught at Scripps and the Claremont Graduate School for thirty-seven years.  Soldner remained an extremely active artist during his teaching years (to date he has had 178 solo exhibitions, 400 invitational exhibitions, and given over 400 lectures, seminars, demonstrations, and workshops), as well as creating and curating the annual Scripps Ceramics Invitational exhibition. Paul Soldner has made numerous invaluable contributions to the field of ceramics, including developing what has been come to be known as, “American Raku”, and a technique known as “low-temperature salt firing.” Soldner is the author of numerous articles and a book “Kilns and Their Construction”, and the founder of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado. The center was founded in 1968 and Soldner served as the director in the early 1970s. It is now well known for its excellent summer program, drawing people from all over the world to study with well-known teachers. For more information see: <www.paulsoldner.com>.

[2] Excerpt from “Karl Benjamin: biography,” 24 July 2012 <http://karlbenjamin.com/pages/biography.html&gt;. “Benjamin began his career as a teacher with no intention of becoming an artist. However, his relocation to Claremont California in 1952, shortly after he had begun ‘playing’ with paint in 1951, galvanized his sense of his career path. Though he continued to teach in public schools and, later to great acclaim, for Pomona College, the artist’s work blossomed amid the extraordinarily lively art, design and architecture scene in Los Angeles in the mid twentieth Century. Numerous gallery showings of his work during the 50″s culminated in 1959 with his inclusion in Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ground-breaking exhibition Four Abstract Classicists: Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin.”

[3] James Turrell’s “Burning Bridges” installation setting the auditorium aglow in the 1970s was recreated for Pacific Standard Time in “It Happened at Pomona.”  The artist recounts: “What happened is it was so effective that the fire department was called out,” he said, telling the story by phone Monday. “All of a sudden I heard the sirens approaching.” He said he left Roland Reiss, the new head of the program, holding the bag; he had to rush off to join his students at another performance. [Excerpt from: “James Turrell on “Burning Bridges,” part of January’s PST Festival,” LA Times Blog, Culture Monster, Jan. 18, 2012].

[4] Referencing Christo’s 1991 installation The Umbrellas: Project for Japan and USA, an environmental art installation over the Tejon Pass near Bakersfield, California that “blossomed” concurrently with his installation in Ibaraki, Japan.

[5] “The exhibition at California State University, Bakersfield Todd Madigan Gallery (April 5 through May 12, 2007) featured Kerzie’s paintings alongside Turrell’s First Light portfolio consisting of all 20 aquatints, a process which uses the application of acid to create forms that have a wash drawing effect. The prints reconstitute Turrell’s late 1960s prismatic light projections within the more traditional processes of etching. Turrell shapes light itself into transformative experience while Kerzie’s paintings are luminous, layered symphonies of color, that generate a nuanced field of light one can almost enter. The exhibition honors Kerzie and his long-time service as an artist and a teacher to CSUB and the Bakersfield community. Kerzie is a painter and has been a professor of art at CSUB for 30 years. He retired as Chair of the Art Department in 2006. Turrell’s light, aperture and sky space installations are in major museums and private collections across the globe. He aims to use light to reveal the nature of our seeing, and it is in our seeing that art happens. Kerzie’s paintings are being lent by the artist, and the James Turrell First Light prints are being lent by the Cousin’s Trust, a private collection.” [Excerpt from “Art Exhibit to open in Gallery,” California State University, Bakersfield Campus News,” March 29, 2007. 25 July 2012                 <http://www.csub.edu/csubnews/2007/spring/exhibit.shtml&gt;.

[6] Larry Albright, well known for his “Plasma” globes and crackle neon has worked as a sculptor in Venice, California since the late 60’s.


The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Ted Kerzie by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 14, July 17, July 22, July 23, and August 3, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Ted Kerzie are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview Ted Kerzie by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 14, July 17, July 22, July 23, and August 3, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. 

The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. For more on the work of Ted Kerzie, visit: http://www.tedkerziestudio.com; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: http://www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.

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