Kelly Fearing, a maverick of Texas modernist art who taught generations of artists during his four decades at the University of Texas, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at his home in West Lake Hills.
"On the strength of his art alone, Kelly Fearing was a national treasure," said Mark L. Smith, co-director of Austin's Flatbed Press and the curator of a major retrospective on Fearing's work that showed in 2002. "There are hundreds of art teachers in this country who were inspired by Kelly's lifelong devotion to visual art."
William Kelly Fearing was born Oct. 18, 1918, in Fordyce, Ark., to George David Fearing and Frankie Kelly Fearing. Though his initial major was accounting, Fearing first studied art at Louisiana Tech University, then later at Columbia University, from which he received his master's degree.
Moving to Fort Worth in 1943, Fearing joined a group of artists known as the Fort Worth Circle who rejected the social realism and traditionalism that dominated Texas art at the time. Instead, the group found inspiration in European artists such as Picasso and Miró who embraced abstraction and placed an emphasis on the individual artist's metaphysical interpretation of the world.
Fearing's work from his Fort Worth years is abstract, surrealistic and filled with allegory — all characteristics that would remain in his work over the decades.
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"We were considered way out at the time," Fearing said in a 2002 interview with the American-Statesman. "But we were just doing what we liked."
After two years of teaching art at Texas Wesleyan University, Fearing arrived at UT in 1947 when the then-nascent art department was housed in on-campus barracks left over from World War II. Without a university museum or any galleries in town from which he could teach his students about art, Fearing turned to printed reproductions and slides, sometimes combining his slide shows with music.
Mostly, though, Fearing inspired generations of young artists to think and create independently, to imagine worlds far beyond Texas, as he did.
Fascinated with the natural world, Fearing returned to it again and again as his subject matter, blending realistically rendered trees, rocks and animals with idealized figures of poets and saints to create his magical scenes. Exploring spirituality remained at the fore of Fearing's paintings and life. He traveled to India to study with the mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh . And the Christian mystic St. Francis of Assisi appears as a frequent character in Fearing's paintings.
For all of his free-spirited philosophy, Fearing found a practical way to extend the reach of UT's art education by creating the Saturday Art Project in the 1950s, a program that gave studio art instruction to junior high and high school students — a radical notion at the time. Fearing also co-
authored several important art textbooks.
"Fearing was the quintessential Renaissance man," said Ken Hale, artist and associate dean of UT's College of Fine Arts. "He was an artist, an author and an educator. His talent was extraordinary."
The Blanton Museum of Art has more than 80 of Fearing's prints and drawings in its permanent collection, and his work is actively collected by those with particular interests in Texas modernism.
Fearing retired from UT in 1987 as a professor emeritus.
In the past decade, he enjoyed rediscovery by a younger generation. In 2002, UT and Flatbed Press co-organized a major retrospective exhibit, "The Mystical World of Kelly Fearing," and his work was included in several important shows on Texas modernism. In 2009, the artist-run Texas Biennial paid tribute to Fearing with a solo exhibit, the only nonagenarian among the biennial's bevy of young artists.
He is survived by his nephew, Charles Smith of Dallas, Smith's wife, Gaylon, and their three children.
A memorial service is being planned.