Not more than an hour after Kelli j DePue-Wemple’s artwork had been hung at Miss Zula’s in downtown Missoula last Sunday, a sales associate greeted a curious visitor: “They look good on the walls, don’t they,” she said, nodding toward Wemple’s vibrant large-scale work. “I don’t know what it is, maybe the colors, but they stand out… they just look like they belong.”
It’s hard indeed to pinpoint exactly what it is that’s so appealing about Wemple’s abstract paintings, but their seamless mix of metallic ink and charcoal have an unmistakably warm, organic aesthetic. Depending on how a viewer approaches the work—which ranges in size from a towering 56-by-45 inches to a more delicate 15-by-15—it can look like an earthy, topographical study or a weirdly nostalgic science-fiction dreamscape. And that’s just trying to take in each work as a whole; up close, the details of the painting are open to their own exact interpretations.
“It’s just what happens,” says Wemple, explaining how she experiments and manipulates her combination of ink, water and charcoal on each piece of paper. “The edges and outlines are so organic looking, and that’s just how it naturally comes out. I’ll find myself looking at the page and thinking, ‘What is this?’ And it’s just a response [to] or result of the media.”
Wemple has several different processes that she employs to create the finished effect on paper. She’ll spray water on the page and then sprinkle ink on it and wait to see how the color spreads, or reverse the process by putting ink down first and spraying water over the top. In another variation she’ll use a brush and wipe water across the page, creating lines for the ink to follow once it’s added. She repeats one or all of these methods until the page is layered in different colors or variations of the same color, and then manipulates the image with a putty knife, pushing away or pooling ink in certain sections. She then adds charcoal highlights as a finishing touch.
“I can have some control of the image, but mostly I’ll bring out objects based on what’s on the page as I pour in the layers,” she says. “It’s extremely meditative, just watching the ink move across really slowly and seeing how it reacts with the water.”
It took time for Wemple to develop and feel comfortable with her current abstract style. A working mother of two teenagers and self-taught artist, Wemple was dissatisfied with “all the rigmarole” of her daily routine and bouncing from job to job without a college degree. With the support of her husband and family, the Alberton resident enrolled in the University of Montana’s BFA program at the age of 34 to pursue a career in art.
“I’m sure they must’ve been thinking, ‘Get out of here, you old bag,’” says the energetic and youthful-looking Wemple, admitting she was paranoid at first as a nontraditional undergrad. “It was probably just me, I know that, but I had some weird vibes.”
Wemple entered classes as a realist—“I was doing, what else, landscapes, just like everyone else,” she says—but slowly embraced more abstract styles as she continued toward her degree. Spurred by positive feedback from professor David James, who specializes in teaching abstract processes, Wemple remembers when she finally transitioned from tip-toeing along the edges of contemporary abstraction.
“I was doing these great big paintings and really struggling with them,” she remembers. “[James] wasn’t giving me the feedback I wanted and, you know, I knew they were shit. So, one day, I just defaced them and decided to start over. That’s when I started to get it.”
After five years at UM, Wemple graduated in May of 2005 and then faced another hurdle: furthering her artistic career while still raising her family and holding down a full-time job. Beyond campus exhibits, she’s only been shown in the community twice: a small reception at the Alberton Antique Depot while she was still in school and an October exhibit at the Gold Dust Gallery. Her April showing at Miss Zula’s—which includes eight large-scale pieces and four smaller works—will be her longest and most prominent display to date.
“I knew this was going to be tough,” she says. “It is for every artist, especially when you’re starting later than others. It wasn’t like I could say ‘Goodbye, family’ and just move to New York. I knew it was going to be a slow crawl to get shows, and then bigger shows. But I have a plan and I’ll keep working on it.”
It’s been less than a year since she graduated, and considering the lack of space in Missoula’s galleries for contemporary work—compared to, say, landscapes and traditional Western art—Wemple’s progress is admirable. In fact, her career may make the same natural evolution as her artwork: getting her work in the public eye, just like spilling layers of ink across the page, and letting the reaction determine her next steps.
“I never know how the paintings are going to turn out,” she says, “but I do know when they’re done or almost done. I’ve learned to trust in the process.”
Kelli j DePue-Wemple’s work will be on display at Miss Zula’s, 111 N. Higgins Ave., through Saturday, April 29. A First Friday reception with the artist will be held Friday, April 7, from 5 to 8 PM.