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From the Vault: Ted Kuykendall

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Submitted Photo “Untitled” by Ted Kuykendall, 1986, photograph, mixed media. Gift of the artist.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Ted Kuykendall was a local boy. Born in 1953 to Radonna Kuykendall and David Kuykendall of Dexter, Ted Kuykendall’s mother was soon out of his life for reasons I have been unable to discover. His father then married a school teacher, Jane Knowles, in 1957 and she helped raise young Ted Kuykendall with his six step-siblings.

Kuykendall went to the New Mexico Military Institute for high school and junior college. Expecting a future of manual labor, Kuykendall’s life was changed in 1973, when he started working for sculptor Luis Jiménez. Fine art had not really figured in his life prior to that moment, but as he began to meet other artists, his interest in the subject grew. In 1975 — while still working for Jiménez — Kuykendall bought his first camera to document a planned trip to Venezuela. The trip didn’t pan out, but the photography did. He started taking photos all over Roswell of rooftops and boarded-up buildings.

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One day, a friend from a local camera store offered to teach Kuykendall how to develop his own film. They apparently printed about 60 small black-and-white images one night, but they didn’t have enough fixing agent and the photos began to turn brown and fade right away, making them look old. This was a critical development for Kuykendall’s aesthetic vision.

In 1976, artist Rebecca Davis journaled about a trip with Kuykendall, describing the young man with a poetic sensibility. “Ted, with his gentle eyes, open face, Sears and Roebuck work pants, worn out tennis shoes, hair that never quite lies down or quite stands up, had invited us to visit his family’s ranch. We loaded our sleeping bags in the back of his red Datsun car, and he mentioned that he had vacuumed out the car till the vacuum broke. I got in the back, Roger Asay in front. The dust was thick over everything; the car was red like the earth all around us. The salts in the soil were eroding the rubber and paint. The speedometer didn’t work and was covered by a photograph of a farm. Several knobs were dangling free from the dash, along with one Chinese coin on a leather thong. There were several photos on the dashboard and pictures drawn in the dirt by Richard Shaffer from an earlier drive. …

“We entered the ranch and Ted described some of what is involved in their farming and ranching. The house where we stayed was strikingly empty, stark white, no curtains, dusty. For dinner we ate beans, Velveeta cheese and white bread.

“This morning Ted brought us to his horses and a magnificent ride through open land. The land here feels so full of surprises, wisdom and stories. With reluctance but with fresh inspiration, we began our journey back home.”

Kuykendall eventually went to the University of New Mexico, getting his bachelor of arts in photography in 1981, before he returned to Roswell to farm, ranch and do carpentry and construction. Eventually, he was granted an artist-in-residence fellowship for 18 months from 1985-1987. This period was probably his most fruitful in terms of artistic production and developing his signature style. Although he was a photographer, Kuykendall didn’t just take snapshots of the world around him. Instead, he carefully composed dreamlike pictures by photographing found objects, superimposing images on top of other images, and painting over the whole with chemicals that smeared and darkened the print. He emphasized the work’s weight by printing his photos on a large scale: generally between 3 and 4 feet per side.

In describing Kuykendall’s work at the time, Wesley Rusnell, Roswell Museum and Art Center’s curator at the time wrote, “In Kuykendall’s theater of signs, no ultimate single interpretation of meaning is intended or possible. Meaning is an open question awaiting the viewer for completion. It is assumed that the viewer will not be passive and expect a spoon-fed, pre-digested answer. Though Kuykendall uses real objects to generate his images, along with the chemistry of photography; realism does not concern him. The psychological context objects can evoke is where his concerns focus. So his photographs are like explorations into the labyrinth of potential meaning, and the theater of the unconscious.”

Sadly, Ted Kuykendall passed away in 2009 at the age of 56. His friends remembered him as tough-as-nails, but as kind and generous as they come, and Stephen Fleming called him “intense and raw, with a cowboy accent and a keen radar for any kind of pretension.” His work has been collected by many institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His piece, “Untitled,” will be on view at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in RMAC’s upcoming Dreams and Nightmares exhibition running from May 15 until Aug. 27.

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