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Kirk captures new interpretations of old genre

Nudes and portraits are two of the most overdone genres — in the art world.

But James Kirk, a World War II veteran whose artistic — career spans half a century, shows there is still something new to be — done in those areas.

His exhibit of large-scale watercolor paintings of women's — faces and figures runs through the month at Hanson Howard Gallery, 82 — N. Main St., Ashland.

"The challenge is to come up with something contemporary," — Kirk said.

Unlike women subjects in many traditional paintings who — cast their eyes demurely to the side, Kirk's subjects stare boldly out — at the viewer, revealing strength and confidence.

Even a nude woman who is lying flat - in what normally — would come across as a passive pose - looks directly outward.

But in his modern portrayal of women, Kirk is keeping — alive an old tradition.

"When you see great portraiture throughout time, and it — was usually of kings and dukes, in all those paintings their eyes follow — you around the room," he said.

Many of his subjects are people with whom he works, while — others are virtual strangers.

"Three or four are of college profs I work with, along — with neighbors and friends and people I stop on the street and say, 'Will — you model for me?'" explained Kirk, who taught watercolor, life drawing, — photography, art history and art education for 25 years at Western Oregon — University in Monmouth.

Kirk said he is drawn toward painting women.

"I love women. I have all daughters, and most of my students — are women. Way back when I was going to art school, there were no women. — Then all of a sudden, women got into art," he recalled.

Kirk's wife and two of his three daughters are also teachers.

Although he is no longer teaching at the university, he — still provides individual instruction in his studio.

Much of his work is devoted to keeping traditions alive, — but with a contemporary spin.

He noted that many art schools, especially at prestigious — universities, are no longer teaching watercolor because of its low-brow — association as a medium for amateur painters.

"All the old dogs like me are leaving and the new professors — are not teaching it," he said.

To lend added weight to his work in an art world that — equates big with important, Kirk stretches giant sheets of paper across — wood frames to create "canvases" for his watercolors.

The effect is striking, as the figures become almost life-sized — and the portraits of faces become larger than life, with room to show — the dapples of light and shade on a pupil or highlights on individual — strands of hair.

The large scale also allows space for the masterly abstract — bleeding and pooling of the peach, rose, apricot, magenta and midnight — blue colors that suffuse the works.

The rich colors are offset with cream and white as Kirk — captures highlights from the natural light that plays across his subjects.

He frequently positions his models near windows, and like — Monet with his haystack series, makes studies of the different effects — of light through the day or from different exposures.

"A couple of the nudes I put right in front of a window — that goes all the way down to the floor. The northern light is soft, and — makes a nice blue light. Light is an extremely important focus for me," — he said.

While Kirk strives for a contemporary look while painting — in traditions that are hundreds of years old, he has resisted such advances — as e-mail and decries the use of artificial lighting, flash photography — - which frequently obliterates colors and flattens volumes - and digital — cameras.

"So many people have a computer and a digital camera and — they call themselves photographers. Everything is enhanced, but they know — nothing about design and color," he said.