Technicolor dream of prolific painter graces Claremont

Ken Dale has always been impressed by the way creative endeavors can express big ideas, including the power of spirituality. It wasn’t until he retired to Pilgrim Place 17 years ago, however, after a 45-year career as a college and seminary professor in Japan, that he slowed down enough to focus on his own art-making potential.

Mr. Dale, 87, has played piano and pipe organ all his life, a pursuit that he often “put on the shelf” during his busy working years. Now he plays more, often taking time to compose “jazz hymns,” his own arrangements of spirituals and gospel songs. And, while he dabbled a few times in the visual arts, it wasn’t until recently that he really picked up a brush and began to paint.

Three years ago, a fellow Pilgrim, Eleanor Scott Meyers, took it upon herself to form a painting class at the local retirement community.

“I said, ‘why not give it a try?’ I wasn’t very good in class,” the self-effacing Mr. Dale said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He’s been pursuing his new avocation with such vigor that he’s amassed a considerable body of work. Thirty-eight of his paintings are included in his first solo exhibit, titled “Abstract Expressionism: Order and Chaos,” and on view throughout August in the Claremont Forum, home to the Prison Library Project bookstore in the Packing House. The show opens tonight, Friday, August 2, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Mr. Dale will be on hand to meet visitors and discuss his work.

His canvases are relatively small, 12” X 9” and smaller. But they pulse with bright colors and movement. He prefers to paint with acrylic and watercolors. In more tentative hands, the latter media can tend to be a bit wan. Not so with Mr. Dale, who is foremost a colorist, a propensity that can be seen in the flame-colored palette of “Energy Afloat” and the jewel tones of “Blue Universe.”

Even a more introspective piece like his “Dark Moment” shows the light of an inner, fomenting optimism, with traces of scarlet, blue and white dappling the darkness, turning the black to silver.

Mr. Dale may reach for abstraction, but there are recognizable elements in his canvases, including biblical motifs like crosses and doves, and even Japanese characters. Often, you have to look for the crosses, which Mr. Dale feels parallels the way you have to seek life’s spiritual core in a world that sometimes seems to careen rather than spin.

His reverence for God, the world of spirit and the chaos of creation are evident in the stain glass-hued sacred geometry of “Cruciform III” and in the dynamism with which he created his own mixed-media Big Bang in “Power Unleashed.”

Elizabeth Preston is a local artist and owner of Elizabeth’s Art Studio, where she teaches art and creative journaling. She has not taught Mr. Dale, but she was delighted to help him curate his first exhibition.

Finding canvases worthy of display was no problem. Convincing Mr. Dale—who says “I don’t feel comfortable with people calling me an artist”—to affix his name and a price tag to labels for his work was another matter. She insisted, however, that he take credit for his increasingly prolific output.

“I think his work’s magnificent,” she said. “This kind of beauty needs to be fostered in our society. People begin to forget what beauty is.”

The work of Mr. Dale, who teaches tai chi at Pilgrim Place, is not overtly Asian in theme. He believes, though, that his decades in Japan influenced him by enhancing his sensitivity to life’s lovelier moments.

“The Japanese tend to be very sensitive to beauty, especially the beauty of nature—cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji when snowcapped,” he said. “Some of that aesthetic appreciation rubbed off on me.”

Another salutary influence is the critiques of Mr. Dale’s wife, Eloise. She is a musician who gives organ concerts at the Claremont United Church of Christ each year and is also adept at Japanese floral arranging. Sometimes he’ll look at a painting and say, “I’m almost done.” Mrs. Dale may gently disagree, pointing to an area of the canvas that can be enhanced.

Mr. Dale also receives support from members of his men’s group, who meet twice a month to catch up with one another’s lives and discuss concerns. Four such friends were on hand at the Claremont Forum on Wednesday afternoon to help Mr. Dale hang his work. Bill Moreman, who’s known Mr. Dale since coming to Pilgrim Place 15 years ago, was happy to help his friend showcase his “interesting, unique, attractive style.”

Mr. Dale’s work may be unique, but his experience of continued development as he gets older is a shared one, Mr. Moreman said.

“That’s the wonderful thing about retirement,” he said. “You find creativity is an ongoing process.”

With Mr. Dale’s process on view, he is feeling some mixed emotions.

“It’s quite impossible to see my paintings in this public space and not be impressed,” he said. “At the same time, I wonder if anyone will care to look at these.”

Before the afternoon was over, a visitor to the Claremont Forum had already weighed in on Mr. Dale’s art.

“Your paintings look like essays in ecology,” said Douglas Wallace, a Pilgrim who volunteers for the Prison Library Project 5 days a week.

Mr. Dale’s not sure he agrees or even understands, but he welcomes such opinions. At his reception, if anyone asks him what a certain painting is supposed to be, he plans to redirect the question.

“I’ll ask them, ‘What do you think? What do you feel?’”

The Claremont Forum is located at 586 W. First St. in Claremont. For information, call 626-3066 or visit

—Sarah Torribio



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