Way past where the pavement ends, across the Thornton River and down a twisted gravel lane, lays a hidden mountain retreat. Just about seven acres of hilly woodland, a few vegetable gardens, and one glorious loft-style log cabin. It’s a place where Jupiter shines a little brighter and the trees flower in that secret shade of purple. Stepping in from the wrap-around porch, the flowing wood interior gently guides you towards the great room and its rustic two-story stone fireplace. There’s an energy permeating this house and that’s just how Frederick Kahler likes it. In fact, he designed it to be that way, his own fortress of solitude in Rappahannock County. It’s where he lives and where he draws his fantastically detailed, almost mystical images. “People would give their left arm for what I have here,” he says with just a little bit of pride.
The products of his effort adorn every wall: frame after frame of relentless line art, overwhelming in its complexity yet strangely calming when viewed from a distance. Some have obvious macro forms recalling shakra patterns or crop circles, others slosh around like magma overtaking an ancient temple. It’s not always clear where to start reading each piece, akin to searching for patterns in late night static, but upon closer inspection, unexpected worlds inevitably appear. Hieroglyphics, sandy beaches, demon dances, or just abstract color assemblages. For all their intricacy, the pieces aren’t very large. Some can even be held comfortably in your hands, a further testament to the scale of the minutia that each embodies. No two are alike in dimension or composition, but all share that same obsessive rhythm.
Born in D.C. in 1942, Kahler has lived in Virginia for most of his life. Though primarily self-taught, he’s anything but an amateur. Back in the sixties when he was a military chaplain, he would paint murals in the churches at Fort Benning. During those days, he dabbled in a variety of mediums just to try them out. The turning point came from a chance encounter with a psychic who prophesied that in exactly six years time, he would begin creating his masterworks. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Kahler recalls. But sure enough, in 1976, six years to the day later, he awoke with an insatiable desire to draw. Grabbing some scraps, he began scribbling out the dense forms that have since become his signature aesthetic.
Through the decades, his compulsion to draw has not abated (though these days he’s more interested in studying numerology than Christianity). He will work for hours at a time, day after day, taking months (and sometimes years) to complete a single piece. His late wife had steady employment as a secretary and was able to provide for the two of them, thereby allowing Kahler to devote as much time as possible to his muse. “No man can draw like I do after coming home from an eight-hour work day,” he says by way of honoring the enduring support she offered through his almost 40-year career.
Kahler has a particular way of working, too. There are several strategically-placed drafting tables throughout the house, all angled up at about 45 degrees. He abhors artificial light for artistic purposes, so he only works during the day (but never in direct sun). The images grow organically from the stream-of-consciousness visions he receives during each session. “It’s a very zen state I am in while drawing,” he explains. Though traditionally he has drawn on paper or etching plates, he is currently experimenting with clayboard for its ability to hold fine detail. When I ask to see an example of this new approach, the request is quickly shot down. “No one can see a piece before it’s finished.”
Fortunately for us, many pieces are finished and available to view, including acquisitions from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. In 2016, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be opening a new Self Taught and Folk Artist wing that will include two of Kahler’s drawings in its permanent collection. Though to be perfectly honest, he doesn’t get too worked up about being celebrated by these institutions. “I’m happy they’re in there,” he admits, “but I don’t do what I do for recognition.” Crowds are definitely not his thing, so it’s uncommon to find him even at his own exhibition openings. Kahler is friendly, talkative, and full of insight, but being around too many people saps his creative energies. He’s really most comfortable with one-on-one interactions and that personality trait is reflected in his art: it’s something that is best experienced individually, slowly and absent of all distraction, so that waves of understanding are free to wash over you like a long conversation with an old friend.
On Saturday, May 2, River District Arts will host an opening reception for The Art Speaks: The Drawings of Frederick Kahler, a rare solo collection of Kahler’s work. Reception from 5-7 p.m., show runs through June 28. Learn more at riverdistrictarts.org.