K-State professor emerita has devoted a lifetime to the arts
By Danya Morris
"My first grade teacher told my mother, 'You better do something with her. She's going to be an artist,'" said Margo Kren, professor emerita of art at Kansas State University.
Kren's mother nurtured her abilities by introducing her to the artists living in the family's hometown of McAllen, Texas. This exposure to the artistic world and the care of her mother has led Kren to become an internationally recognized artist who has devoted a lifetime to the arts.
She studied painting at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she received her bachelor's degree in 1965, and later a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1979. She refers to her artistic beginning as a "checkerboard background," having stints in advertising at Montgomery Ward in Chicago, reproducing antiques, and as an interior designer at Frautschi's Furniture in Madison, Wis. One thing just sort of led to another, she said.
Her commitment to the fine arts came about the time she met her future husband.
"I was at a party with academic types in Manhattan. I don't know there I was at this party and he walks in and right away I knew I could live with this man the rest of my life," Kren said.
George Kren was a professor in the department of history at K-State. He was primarily a scholar of European intellectual thought -- more specifically a Holocaust historian. He was a strong supporter of his wife's artwork and encouraged her.
"Many times he would say, 'Go paint! Get groceries later.' He could be a bit of a nag," Kren said.
Kren continued teaching at K-State for the duration of her career until she retired in 2003. The university acknowledged her in 1989 when she was given the "Distinguished Graduate Faculty Member Award." Kren was promoted to full professor in 1995, something no other woman had yet accomplished in the department of art at K-State.
While it was difficult for her to balance her time between being an artist, teacher and spouse, Kren said it added dimension to her as a teacher.
"Until (students) saw my work they didn't see me as an artist," she said. "Then they began asking me more questions."
Kren said her best studio time took place at Christmas and the summer months when she could work uninterrupted. Kren said she spent 90 percent of her time during these periods trying to get a series or body of work completed. It takes several years to finish some of her pieces, but perfection takes time.
"If something is too easy I know I need to move on," she said.
Kren draws heavily from experiences in her own life and uses them as inspirations for her work. So the interwoven parts of her life come together in her paintings, drawings and prints. She likes opposites, such as innocence and brutality, and abstract and realism.
"I wanted to paint something besides watercolors with windmills things that may not be of interest to everyone," she said.
At shows at colleges and universities she prefers to represent a variety of mediums to show what one artist can do. Kren especially enjoys the question and answer period at these venues because students often pose questions she hasn't thought of.
"If a person is overtrained in one area, the flexibility to see something new takes a great deal of effort," she said.
The preparation put into producing a show can be taxing due to the amount of detail involved. Once a medium is selected, she begins choosing past and current work to display. Kren takes into account the area she will be presenting in and decides what is important to the region.
Beyond this point, she considers the measurements of the walls so there aren't too many or too few pieces, and makes sure the selected work looks good together.
"The brain gets very tight," Kren said of the amount of thought required.
Show cards are sent out announcing the display and supply an image of the artwork. Her attendance at the show is beneficial as well. Those in attendance feel closer to the work when they hear the artist discuss the pieces on display, she said.
Kren has had numerous exhibits in galleries, most notably New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art in Indiana; the Downey Museum in Los Angeles; the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.; the University of Durban in Westville, South Africa; the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institute in Regensburg, Germany; and Yunnan Art Institute, Kunming in Yunnan, P.R. China.
Kren received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1982 and attended Yaddo, an artists' community, in 1989. She was awarded the Governor's Art Award of Kansas in 1989 and the Kansas State Arts Commission artist fellowship award in 2000. Her work is in various public and private collections and she is represented by the Morgan Gallery, Kansas City, Mo.
Since her retirement from K-State, Kren has traveled widely. She said a recent trip to Togo and Mali was transforming for her.
"America seems foreign. Africa is so different. I feel I do not fit back into the world as I once did and I think this will remain with me forever," she said.
Kren shows no sign of slowing down in retirement. Her energy remains and she continues her devotion to her artistic passion.
Images: (Top Right) "Backyard Scene."
(Bottom Left) "Chapel Box Kalamata."
Images courtesy Margo Kren.