Doug Kent, in his West Tisbury Gallery, with one of his Mind Series paintings. Photograph by Lynn Christoffers.
In physics: an abrupt transition of an electron, atom, or molecule from one quantum state to another, with the absorption or emission of a quantum.
In common usage: an abrupt change, a sudden increase, a dramatic advance.
Doug Kent is well known for his American primitive folk-art paintings. His subjects travel from a simpler past and arrive calmly in our turbulent present. They remain the picture of innocence, or do they? Yes, that’s a cat — or is it a cat? There’s something very appealing yet odd about the white-faced feline staring back at me. And there’s a cheetah, sitting lazily in a meadow. A dazzling white pond streams below, while tree branches and leaves flow up a hill above. The scenes are both real and improbable, the effect both soothing and ever so slightly unsettling. The combination has a hypnotic effect as the viewer tries to reconcile the pleasurable enigma of reality and fantasy that coexist within Mr. Kent’s paintings.
I thought I knew what to expect when I went an exhibit of Mr. Kent’s work earlier this spring. I wasn’t disappointed — his latest “primitives” were on view, but next to that work was something else altogether: large canvases of abstract objects in striking colors — brilliant reds, vivid greens on deep blacks, radiant yellows. Wide swaths of curved lines ended on the canvas, but some of the images kept traveling, promising to take the viewer well beyond the frame. And there next to one canvas, in the lower right, was a small title: “Mind Travel.”It’s not that unusual for an artist to make a 180-degree turn in his work, or take off in a very different direction, spurred on by a new inner muse: “Forget that other one; follow me!” In Doug Kent’s case, he has turned from a world of almost hallowed imagery of the American past, bypassed the here and now, and moved on to an undefined world that appears to exist outside of our realm entirely — maybe even outside the space-time continuum. But how did he get there?
One of the common hallmarks of “primitive” artists is that they are untrained, but that’s not true in Mr. Kent’s case. He’s been drawing since he was a child. Both his parents were artists (his mother a commercial artist, his father a painter) who guided and encouraged his choice of the visual arts as a career. By the time it came to college decisions, he’d been accepted by Pratt in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago, but decided to stay close to his family in Leicester. His father had died during his teen years, leaving his mother a single parent of five children. In the early 1960s, two of his brothers enlisted in the military and were sent to Vietnam. “My mother was beside herself,” Mr. Kent remembers. “Here you are watching the news, and they’re giving the body count every night. That’s why I stayed. I probably would have had a different life if I’d gone to New York.”
Enrolling in the nearby School of the Worcester Art Museum, which has an extensive American art collection, he found himself closer to what would become his eventual calling —
that of a formally trained artist working in the usually untaught genre of American primitive folk art. “It wasn’t deliberate,” he recalls. “I was drawn to it … I’ve always loved American primitive art. It’s so abstract when you look at it. It’s mind-boggling.That had a big influence on me. During that school period when I was wandering around the museum instead of being in school, I was looking at the primitive art.”
An evolution of its own
He was in his early 20s and it was the mid-sixties when he moved to the Vineyard, and began to work seriously on his own folk-art style. There was an added benefit: He found he could sell his work here. (“I used to get these boards off the beach and paint these fish on them and sell them …”) Since then, Mr. Kent has continued to explore animals, humans, and that pastoral scenery in his own distinctive mixed reality-fantasy style. For the past half-century, he has evolved within that, painting on different media — not just on canvas but on wooden bowls, oars, antique ironing boards, and found objects that often have a folk history of their own. “For me it’s one slow-moving train. It evolves on its own,” he maintains.
Until one day in the summer of 2012, when that slow-moving train changed to a space vehicle, and the deliberate evolution changed to a quantum leap.
Mr. Kent had gone to listen to a “teaching” at the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in West Tisbury. Afterward there was an exploration of ideas with the teacher (and Bodhi Path founder), Shamar Rinpoche. Mr. Kent recalls, “Rinpoche was talking, and the talk got to life after death. There was a complicated set of questions and answers. One question was, ‘Well, if I’m in an accident and I’m all torn up, how is my mind going to survive?’ And Shamar Rinpoche said, ‘The mind is not an organ; it’s not like your heart or your knee. It’s thought.’ And somebody asked, ‘What does it look like?’ And he responded, ‘Nobody knows.’ And that’s what piqued me right there. I immediately could see something going through space when he said that. Right away. That’s where the mind series came from.”Mr. Kent took the leap three years ago, leaving his past work rooted in known objects and places and instead trying to depict on canvas that most elusive of subjects, our minds. He started with more tentative images, almost without form — sprays of white light tinged with color. His work has evolved rapidly. The “mind” pieces have developed distinct forms, and now a powerful force of shape and color. They are commanding pieces, even more so when placed next to Mr. Kent’s folk art with all of its antique simplicity.
The entire series does give the impression of a vibrant and in some cases traveling mind. As I looked I wanted to ask, “Where are you going with this? Where are you taking us?” We can only hope for the answer on future canvases. In a preview of what might happen next, in a corner of his studio a stream of black horses painted in a primitive style gallop through a Mind Travel canvas. The combined theme is no longer a complete surprise. Perhaps the new task for Mr. Kent is to integrate his past with his future. Another journey. His evolution continues.
Niki Patton is a writer who has been active in the Island’s music, theater, video, and writing communities for two decades, both as a performer and a supporter. She lives in West Tisbury.