Since 1968, Nantucket Looms has been proud to represent our local craftspeople. We carry the works of over seventy different artisans, including painters, potters, basket weavers, jewelry makers and wood carvers. To honor those whose unique creations reflect the natural beauty and history of our beloved island, we will highlight an artist on our website every month. This month, meet painter Ken Layman.
"Painting is a mystery to me. Not only do I not understand it, I'm not convinced I am supposed to".
Ken Layman has had a very successful art career. Along with teaching at Georgia State University, Newcomb College, New Orleans and Wheelock College, Boston, Layman's works hang at the US Department of State as well as the American Embassy in Athens, Sao Paulo, Geneva and New York City. Despite his undeniable success, Layman is a quiet, unassuming man. Describing himself as 'insular', he says the island life made sense to him when he moved to Nantucket permanently thirty years ago. Although he speaks quietly, it is obvious being in his presence that his work is his passion. "Painting saves my life. It's my reason for being alive. I'm 77 and I still feel I'm just beginning to paint".
Looking around his studio on Cliff Road, there are paintings of many sizes and styles, from landscape to abstract, tiny to huge canvasses - all exceptional pieces in their own right. It is quite clear that this is the work of an extremely talented artist. But the most incredible thing about Ken Layman's work is the process by which he paints. Layman doesn't believe in painting from a photograph or still life, rather choosing to paint entirely from his own imagination. "All these paintings you see in here all come out of my mind. I don't go out and paint. Very often they become places I recognize but the process is all interior. It's like I'm going to the movies with my life. I paint them from the part of me that I don't understand - and when they're done, I look at them and say 'that's what I wanted, needed to paint'. I've learned to get out of the way and let the painting happen, not to use my intellect at all."
Peppered throughout his studio are paintings of familiar Nantucket landscapes, New York streets and abstract works. Amongst them, a series of small to large canvasses, all depicting a single lone house in a rural setting - "self portraits", he says. It seems that for Layman, painting offers a form of therapeutic reward. "Sometimes you have to keep doing them until you don't have to do them any more. I did four of these (referring to the small lone houses) and then a large one until it was out of my system". Learning about his unique method of approaching a painting is impressive to say the least but Layman acknowledges that he has been fortunate, too. "One of the big things that artists have to deal with is how to make a living... You have to get really free with paint - free of all the pressures, fears of rejection, fears of failure. Any motive you put on a painting is interfering. I've tried really really hard to not let the commercial aspect interfere with the work that I do and I've been very fortunate in a lot of ways".
Layman was a close friend of Andy Oates, Nantucket Looms co-founder and master weaver. He started showing his artwork at the Looms in 1971 and his work has been a staple in the shop ever since. Of the more than seventy artists represented at Nantucket Looms today, many have been students of Ken Layman. He teaches at the Nantucket Artist Association, passing along his in-depth knowledge and philosophy of painting. "There aren't many paintings on Nantucket but there are a lot of pictures", he says. "A picture can be beautiful and technically perfect, rewarding to the painter or the person looking at it. But a picture is all about the subject matter. A painting is all about the painter - the subject matter is almost irrelevant."
When asked how he spends his time when he is not painting, Ken Layman smiles. "Good question", he says "I'm always painting... Even if I don't have a brush in my hand, I'm always painting."