ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 21 Tud Kempf
There are six brothers Kempf. Three of them are professional artists and the other three are professional doctors. The three doctors are artists of semiprofessional attainment. The father of the Kempf’s was a doctor, as was his father before him, and so were his two brothers.
One of those brothers, Matt, didn’t practice after getting his diploma, but made his living as artist, chiefly cartoonist. He was of the staff of the old Masses and of various New York daily papers, including the Herald and an associate of Max Eastman and Floyd Dell. Another brother practiced medicine, but lived his inner lie as painter and poet.
The father of the six present Kempf’s — Dr. E.J. Kempf, Jasper, Dubois County, Indiana — found time amid his activities as a country physician to contribute cartoons to the weekly newspapers of Southern Indiana.
When Tud Kempf, one of the younger of the six present brothers (there are two sisters, too, who are neither artists nor doctors), arrived on the scene at Jasper, he was christened Francis. But by the time he was cutting teeth, all his relatives noticed he didn’t look like the Kempf’s — he resembled more his mother, who had been Caroline Tschudie of a family of royal Swiss guards. So his father called him “little Tschudie,” which Francis, in his baby prattle, twisted into “Tud” — and Tud Kempf he has been ever since.
Tud, like all the Kempf’s (originally Bavarian) was destined for a medical career. His grandfather was a professor in the Kentucky School of Medicine, Louisville.
But Tud, who had begun to draw at about the time he renamed himself, wanted to be an artist. So with medical schools already being full of Kempf’s of the new generation, his father, after Tud had finished high school training at Jasper academy, decided to let him go to Michigan State College to study mechanical engineering. He could use his drawing talents there, but also he could learn a profession less haphazard than that of “professional artist.” Dr. Kempf knew from his own experience with chalk plates and from “Uncle Matt’s” cartooning how hazardous “art” could be.
Tud stayed a year at Michigan State. He didn’t like mechanical engineering, so he took it upon himself to join the navy and see the world.
The next five years, he cruised in many seas, principally aboard the dreadnaught Delaware. His chief adventure, as history records it, was his participation in the skirmish in 1913 in Vera Cruz, which had potential possibilities of bringing on the world war before its time.
More personally, the cruise did much to shape the career Kempf was to pursue professionally — the career of wood sculptor.
He is one of the first of “moderns” to have been intrigued by the “primitive.” For 18 months along Mexican and Central American shores, he observed the art of the Indians. He saw more of it in Brazil, Chile, and the extreme southern points of the Americas — those were days before the Panama Canal, and the dreadnaught Delaware cruised through the straits. He saw the carvings of the natives of Cuba, Haiti, and Santo Domingo.
Tud didn’t know he was “studying” — he was enjoying what he encountered as a boy just out of his teens. He was consciously interested more in the baseball team of the Delaware, reckoned one of the best in the navy, with himself as third baseman. A great number of his trips ashore were as a ball player.
But in idle hours out at sea, Kempf carved quaint figures out of pieces of wood he had picked up, as well as shark bones. These he gave away to his companions and friends. He has left scarcely a souvenir of his voyages — either his own handiwork or fantastic carvings he bought along the shores of the two Americas and Europe.
After five years, he secured his discharge from the navy and was landed at Norfolk, Va. Almost immediately he got a job as third baseman with the Portsmouth team in the Virginia League, where he played a year. Then he returned to Jasper, Ind., where for a while longer he continued his career as a baseball player on professional and semi-pro teams, including a rather famous team that represented West Baden.
Art still, however, beckoned him. So he came to Chicago and entered the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where, for a year, he was a faithful attendant at life classes and classes in design.
Here, and partly at variance with his formal studies, carving in wood became an obsession. He started working with extraordinary industry, devoting often as many as 15 or 16 hours a day to his beloved wood.
For wood was becoming to him something almost throbbing — he was beginning to feel for wood what other sculptors have felt for marble.
From that period to this, he has worked with more than 50 different kinds of wood in thousands of shapes. The appearance of a limb, a knot, a root generally suggests to Kempf the figure that ultimately emerges — like the “angel in the marble” in the classic story of the old sculptor (told of different sculptors). Sometimes it’s an animal, a flower, a fish, a lovely female nude.
Kempf does many canes — not from any particular urge other than that a “walking stick” suggests itself to him, as to most of us, when he sees a graceful, slim, straight reed.
Apple wood has been a favorite with him for the last few years — partly by accident. Not far from Chicago, he once stumbled into a ravine where ten years before a farmer had cast the trimmings of his apple orchard. To Kempf, here was a veritable “mine” of material — knots, roots, branches. He has visited the ravine many times since.
Also, people who know him send him choice bits of wood from all over the country. One of his late successes is a nude torso carved from California cypress. A layer of this wood is red, another layer white. It grows that way. His carving is a handsome white torso against a red background.
While a student at the Chicago Academy, some of his carvings were shown at the Art Institute. However, living was precarious so Tud decided to become a professional lithographer to ensure bread and butter. He went to Cincinnati for a year to study and work. The Cincinnati Museum showed some of his carvings, and he sold enough to induce him to chuck lithography as, years before, he had mechanical engineering.
Back he came to Chicago, and he has been here ever since, living from his carvings. There have been lean days, but also days of comparative prosperity.
One summer, he became a professional “showman.” An English owner and promoter of “sideshows,” Kueston, built for Kempf a hut with canvas sides in Riverview Park. The hut was hung with Kempf’s carvings. He himself was set on a platform, with his tools and a supply of wood. For ten hours a day, he carved and explained to visitors. An admission fee was charged. The hut usually was thronged — the climax was a day when 10,000 people crowded in to see and listen to the wonder man. Kueston, whose operations were international, proposed to move the “Kempf show” to Havana fro the winter, but he up and died.
A similar exploit, not quite so spectacular, was Kempf’s presence in the General Exhibits Building at A Century of Progress, auspices one of the national magazines. Kempf contributes, incidentally, an occasional article to popular science monthlies.
One of the rather novel features of his showmanship is the partiality of Chicago banks for Kempf’s carvings as window displays. At one time, there were ten banks on his lists for a few weeks each year, including some of the Loop’s big institutions. However, as the depression spread and the banks became poor, he has lost most of these “clients.”
Restaurants, too, have been his patrons, and tailors and dentists have been proud to barter their wares. At one of the art fairs, dentists were so insistent that Tud’s resulting mouth of gold became famous in the “colonies.”
Tud Kempf is perhaps the happiest, in one respect, of Chicago’s artists. For the last 18 years, he has gone his own way, carving exactly as he pleases, being forced to heed no one’s orders, not even anyone’s suggestion. His art, as it stands today, is absolutely his own — independent, unique — and he has managed to get along.
During his art life in Chicago, Kempf has been identified naturally with the “radicals.” He assumed definite leadership when, in the summer of 1934, he revived No-Jury, which had lain dormant for two or three years, acting as president.
His brother Tom, a painter of extremely radical tendencies, has been associated with him in joint shows. His other artist brother, Roman, has been designer for 12 years with the David Zork Company.
One of his doctor brothers, E.J. Kempf, is an internationally known psychiatrist, practicing in New York. He had charge for three years of the Stanley McCormick case. His penchant for art is reflected in his writings, which have been quoted by none less than Freud. Dr. Kempf traced the sex strain through the mythologies and through sculpture from the Greek representations of gods and goddesses down to Rodin.
Pathological elements that might be inferred from so close an association with a host of doctors is not prevalent in Tud Kempf’s sculpture, in spite of many of his wild, strange carved fantasies. Sometimes you sense the morbid in Tom Kempf’s paintings, but seldom or never in Tud’s wooden images.