Words by Collin Cunningham | Photos by Andrea Noall
When artist Frederick John Kluth arrived in Kent in 1977, he thought he would find more success.
Kluth is the owner of the FJKluth Art Gallery, located at 300 N. Water St. in Kent. The gallery is old and crowded with paintings, sculptures and knickknacks he has either made or purchased over the years.
Depictions of Greek tragedy, Kluth’s favorite subject, adorn the entirety of one of the old gallery’s white brick walls, stylistically juxtaposed against a variety of traditional eastern paintings, rural landscape scenes and impressionist swatches of color. Some of the paintings are large canvas deals with ornate wooden frames and price tags ranging into $1,200, while others are lying in stacks on the floor or Kluth’s desk.
The building that houses the gallery is dusty and old, playing host to another art gallery and a gym. The floors are wooden and the ceilings are high. Some corners of the store are difficult to access due to the sheer amount of items that crowd the room across from the collection of paintings. Brightly painted wooden statues are the gallery owner’s latest project, and they cover a table erratically placed in the middle of the shop.
Kluth’s originals are crowded in stacks on the floor or proudly occupying large easels. A piece commissioned for an event commemorating the May 4 shooting contains a small flagbearer, a reference to Joan of Arc. Other Kluth originals depict a large Minotaur and fields of sunflowers, all of them colorful and containing a deeper historical meaning.
The gallery has charm, the way only an old, crammed exhibition space can, and Jeff Ingram, executive director of Standing Rock Cultural Arts next door to Kluth agrees, while also highlighting some of the distracting factors in FJKluth.
“Because he dabbles in antiques, his space is really a multipurpose space instead of just focusing on artwork,” Ingram says. “It’s hard to focus on the art when there’s so many other cool things going on in his space. I really like his space but, in terms of displaying art, I think it’s a really busy space and doesn’t give enough focus just to the art.”
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Kluth expresses concern over the gallery’s financial longevity.
Customers will occasionally flit into Kluth’s store, taking cursory glances at the art and walking the length of the antique shelves, but between the high price tags on many of the pieces and the lack of foot traffic, it’s rare someone buys something. But beneath Kluth’s worries lies an air of passionate optimism and consistent drive to succeed.
“They need me here,” Kluth says. “They actually need me here. We need to overcome this problem.”
The problem he is referring to, in his own words, is a “lack of integration between the university and the community of the town.”
Kluth is 83, and his great knowledge of art and experience in the community means he has no shortage of stories to tell. Discussions with Kluth yield everything from anecdotes about the origins of the words “hillbilly” and “redneck,” to a lesson about what constitutes an antique in China. Kluth’s personal story is also worth a listen.
Kluth’s art career began in St. Louis, where he made woodcuts and wooden jewelry based on the demands of local residents.
“I had people asking for my autograph, and they thought I was gonna be famous,” he says.
However, Kluth feels he lost some of his fame when he migrated away from the city, where he found people were more interested in antiques, which he bought and sold out of a shop in Columbia, Missouri.
Kluth left the art world for a time, studying education before receiving a teaching job at NASA in Cleveland, instructing other employees on new forms of technology. Kluth’s job at NASA can come as a surprise given the whimsical setup of his gallery and his history in a creative medium, but it also means he has knowledge about a wide variety of subjects.
A job in computer education is what brought him to Northeast Ohio in the first place in 1977. This is where Kluth began to develop his financial woes. Kluth taught at Theodore Roosevelt High School for six months before deciding he wanted to pursue art fully. His wife’s job at the University of Akron’s library became the couple’s primary source of income while Kluth considered what to do next.
“When I came to Kent,” Kluth says, “I found that people weren’t interested in antiques, or at least weren’t interested in the same kind of antiques as they were in Missouri.”
This is something Kluth initially attributed to a higher density of artists in Kent, and Ingram agrees.
Ingram, who has directed Standing Rock since it opened in the same building as Kluth’s gallery in 1992, considers Kluth’s emphasis on antiques to be a factor.
“Antiques have gone the way a lot of businesses are: online,” Ingram says. “It’s a struggle for someone that wants to have a storefront.”
Kluth took over management of a public performance gallery in Kent called Open Space in 1999, where he started to integrate his art with music. Open Space remained in operation for six months before funding ran out and the site was replaced by the Sheetz on the corner of Fairchild Avenue and state Route 43.
Kluth had to move and he decided to stay in the art business, but it proved less than kind to him in subsequent years. He took over his current gallery in August 2001.
“It’s a very odd experience to actually find a landlord that wants someone like me,” Kluth says.
His landlord at the time was looking for someone to occupy a large, open commercial space.
In the years since he’s arrived at Kent, Kluth has identified two major factors that contribute to the challenge of art culture in Kent. The first is the May 4 shooting, which he says “was more important to the Vietnam War than the Battle of Gettysburg was to the Civil War.” The shooting, Kluth believes, caused the residents of Kent to lose confidence in the university to support their art.
In the wake of tragedy, a rift was created between the community of Kent and the university. Kent State’s art department is, according to Kluth, “very serious about training artists,” but on May 4, and for a while after, there were bigger issues to deal with.
With that connection between the university and the town severed, Kent’s citizens had nothing to base their tastes in art on, since that was a role the university’s art department used to fill. At the same time, Kent State’s art department lost confidence in the people of Kent to support its art while the college was occupied with controlling conditions on campus.
With fewer new artists and ideas entering into the area, Kent’s citizens didn’t know where to turn for their tastes in art. When people lack direction, Kluth says, they look to what’s around them, and what surrounded Kent at the time was an air of doubt and a lack of emphasis on community. People in Kent began seeking art on a more national scale, and local artisans now suffer.
The second factor Kluth thinks affects the art community in Kent is the compartmentalization of the university’s various programs—specifically art and history. Kent State keeps its departments finely separated in order to better focus on each, but Kluth believes more could be accomplished if they collaborated to generate more interest in Kent’s art scene.
Art, Kluth says, is more effective when there is context connected to it, but it’s difficult to determine the stories that a lot of locally produced art pieces tell since they haven’t been examined by a large group of people. Kluth believes that, with the history department’s resources, he could identify the origin and meaning of the pieces in his collection, so they would be more interesting and sell more often.
Ingram, on the other hand, thinks Kent is a great place to cultivate art.
“It’s a great place for emerging artists because you get to see so many different styles of art and develop your own kind of art,” Ingram says. “So, if you look at success in terms of a creative place to grow, Kent’s a great place and there’s a lot of people that appreciate art. They just can’t afford art.”
But a constant source of art sales and income is what Kluth needs now, not a place to grow. He’ll occasionally do custom framing for customers, but those jobs aren’t coming in fast enough. While Kluth can keep his gallery open for the foreseeable future, he feels he could be receiving far more recognition for his work. With that recognition, profit would come, allowing Kluth to better advertise the gallery and lead to financial security.
“People come in,” Kluth says, “they’ll look at the situation and say, ‘Why haven’t you done better?’ They say, ‘Oh, you gotta get a grant from Ohio. Oh, you gotta show your stuff in more national shows.’ Every
one of those activities takes me away from the art, and I don’t want to do that. I want to focus on the art, and if the art is good enough to go to New York, well, somebody will say, ‘Let’s do it.’ If it’s not good enough, to heck with it. So what you do is you keep trying.”