Art and spirituality: Carolyn Kleefeld

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, 'Celestial Mountain,' mixed media on canvas, for 'Visions From Big Sur' retrospective. Photo courtesy of artist

The work of the artist, including a collection of landscapes, portraits, abstracts and copies of her many books of poetry and manuscripts, will be on display at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art beginning Saturday.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The retrospective of Carolyn Mary Kleefeld’s work opening at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine this week is a celebration of her prolific output and the singular symbiosis of art and spirituality inherent in her painting.

“I became interested in Carolyn as an artist representative of California’s movement toward spirituality in the ’70s,” Michael Zakian, exhibit curator and director of the Weisman Museum, said. “The women’s movement was happening and women were encouraged to find their own voices. While a lot of artists today seem calculating and their work focuses more on what their careers are all about, Carolyn is an innocent. She is a genuine, creative spirit and that’s what comes through in her work.”

Art, Kleefeld said, has been a part of her life since she was a child.

“I wrote and illustrated my first book at age nine,” Kleefeld said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “It was called ‘The Nanose.’ I was inspired by dust particles I saw falling through a beam of sunlight. I guess that was the beginning of my poet’s odyssey.”

That book will be on view at the exhibit, as well as a collection of landscapes, portraits, abstracts and copies of her many books of poetry and manuscripts, including “Climates of the Mind,” a text that is used today in psychology courses at California State University Long Beach.

“I studied art and psychology at Santa Monica Community College and UCLA,” Kleefeld said. “It made me look at things more dimensionally and allowed me to trust in that unconscious wilderness in the mind that can express itself. It’s only by diving deep into the unconscious that you bring up treasures.”

Kleefeld talks a great deal about “the unconscious” and its source for inspiration, and said she usually approaches a canvas with “no idea of what will come out.” Consequently, her portraits will focus on facets that will startle her models.

“My models feel that I really capture their essence,” Kleefeld said. “It’s not about the size of their nose or how their eye sits next to their ear.”

Kleefeld moved to Malibu in the early ’70s, at the same time a local community of counter-culture scientists was developing new theories on the nature of existence and the relationship of science to consciousness.

“She was very influenced by people like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg,” Zakian said. “John Lilly, the guy who developed the sensory deprivation tank and worked to communicate with dolphins, was here. So was Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, who developed scream therapy.”

Such existential exploration played entirely into Kleefeld’s methods.

“My art comes out of that suspended balance of expectation and reality,” Kleefeld said. “I strive to be in that moment of timelessness and write in a free associative way. There is great freedom in philosophical poetry. It opens your mind.”

Kleefeld was one of three children born to the business pioneer and cultural philanthropist Mark Taper and his wife Amelia. She grew up in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, but never felt comfortable with the materially guided society she was born into.

“I was always happier out in nature,” Kleefeld said. “I rode a lot. Sometimes, I would ride up to the tops of the polo fields, get off and let my horse run back home free. This exhibit has a lot to do with freedom and living in the moment.”

A desire to return to nature led her to Big Sur and a run of explosive landscape paintings inspired by the elemental wilderness there.

“It’s right outside my back door,” Kleefeld said. “The wind, the lightening, the sea. It’s all so symbolic and symbolism has many tongues.”

Kleefeld said the recent fires in Big Sur were a “transformative experience” for her.

“We were evacuated and had to move 150 paintings to safety in three days,” she said. “But this kind of grist in life can ignite some real creativity. Bad things can bring out some good.”

Kleefeld’s two grownup daughters are following their own careers. “One is an artist in Taos and the other is a psychologist,” she said. “The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.”

Lately, she found herself reading about Marc Chagall, the French/Russian painter who pioneered emerging art trends in the 20th century, including cubism and fauvism.

“Chagall put me back in touch with wonder and innocence, and romance,” Kleefeld said. “I needed to feel that again.”

“Carolyn started making serious art in 1983,” Zakian said. “After 25 years, her message of living a natural life is timely. She is interested in expanding people’s consciousness not with drugs but through spirituality. It was high time for a retrospective.”

“Carolyn Mary Kleefeld: Visions from Big Sur” opens Sept. 13 at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University with an artist’s reception at 6 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 14. Museum entrance is free. More information on Kleefeld’s work may be obtained at her Web site: