A Legacy Of Creativity, Conceptual Art, And Leadership | Charleen Verena Kavleski 

One of the longest standing connections that humanity has always shared is art, which is why it’s so important that we continue to emphasize its importance, and encourage future generations to always express their creativity. Charleen Kavleski is a conceptual artist and art educator who has decades of experience with both creating, and inspiring. As a successful creative force, Charleen has dedicated her life to harmonizing systematic, random, and palpable conceptual art utilizing her family history and upbringing of mason work and quilt making, all while teaching children how to get in touch with their creativity.

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Charleen Kavleski Conceptual Artist

“Crosscurrents II” – wall installation of acrylic, shaped canvas constructions. Size variable – 14’x18’ with untitled roll steel sculpture – each of four joined 12” congruent isosceles right triangles. 

Art is a universal language that brings humanity together. Conceptual art, specifically, is defined by the idea, or concept, of the art itself being more important than creating something to fit into more traditional art aesthetics. Conceptual art gives the artist the freedom to send a specific message in a way that makes the viewer think and analyze the process of its actual creation. 

Charleen Verena Kavleski is an artist who is constantly inspiring others while remaining inspired herself. As someone who grew up in a family of creators and hard workers, she’s always understood the importance of having someone there to encourage you to pursue your creative passions.

This is one of the many reasons why she’s such a revered and beloved art educator. While she works hard to encourage her students to maintain their artistic spark, she’s also constantly renewed by the younger generations’ ingenuity and passion. 

Her experience as a conceptual artist is also one of the reasons why she’s such an inspiration to her students. Her understanding of an original concept and vision within her own art makes her one of the most qualified people to teach young kids to believe in their imagination, conceptualize their art, and execute it. 

So how did her journey into the world of art begin, and what was the initial spark that gave her the foundation to create her intricate conceptual artworks?

“Growing up, our forms of entertainment were reading, creating things, or seeing what our family members were creating, and that was very critical for me. I come from a family of quilt makers and masonry workers, and what I didn’t realize growing up was that it was setting the foundation for my connection and experience making Conceptual art.”

Charleen spoke about how she missed a lot of school when she was younger, describing herself as “home-bound.” Back when she was a child, her options for entertaining herself were limited, but that didn’t stop her. In fact, it gave her more time to create. 

“My mom was one of 12 siblings, so when my grandfather passed away my grandmother would move from child to child, especially her daughters, to live with and she eventually moved in with us. My grandmothers on both sides were quilt makers. So when my mother’s mom came to live with us, I got to experience that process firsthand. 

On the other end, my father started an apprenticeship doing masonry work and eventually would start working at building a children’s clothing store at the end of our street. He would bring home scrap fabric and other remnants for my grandmother to make quilts from, and I would also get to play with whatever he brought home.

“In hindsight that was a really special experience. I had free time with my family, materials that were unique, and could watch genuine creativity in action from both sides of my family. That’s where my relationship with creativity truly began,” Charleen explained 

Charleen grew up in a small town in Ulster County during the 1950s. At the time, there were no museums near her house, so her relationship with art was more surface level. She would go to the library to learn about famous artists and their work, and when she got to high school she would take standard art classes. 

Also in high school Charleen discussed the process of taking aptitude tests to see what career path would align best with her skills to help guide her when she would potentially go to college. The guidance counselor could not tell her what to do with what tested as her greatest gift, in mechanical aptitude. 

“Since it was the 50s, however, there weren’t a lot of girls that were expected to go to college. My mother was the only one of her 12 siblings who graduated high school, and my Appalachian-born father got a high school equivalency diploma, so for me, college seemed a little out of the picture. 

I didn’t have anyone there to really pave the way for me in terms of pursuing further education. Like with anything in life though, you just keep going sometimes, even if you do it with apprehension. My mom ended up getting some advice from an insurance broker who told her about the possibilities of community college, so that’s what I did. This was truly the start of everything, including my discovery that I had some gifts.”

Charleen earned an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Applied Science from Orange County Community College in the mid-1960s. She then went on to complete coursework at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, and earned a Bachelor of Science from SUNY New Paltz, where she would go on to complete her graduate coursework in fine arts. 

Initially, Charleen was going to major in English, however, her art professors all noticed an immediate need for her artistic vision in the world. One of those professors was Leonard Wallace, who told Charleen about the art and design school at Indiana University and how she could potentially get a scholarship to attend. 

Around this time Charleen had also met a man, Michael, who would become her husband in an art and design class. “I loved his artwork, and he loved mine. Throughout our whole marriage, almost 47 years, we worked together on our artistic passions.”

Charleen and her husband shared an antique and art business where they both assisted each other. Charleen would help him set up displays and with the store in general, and her husband offered her his genuine constructive critiques of her art. Charleen eventually came back to New York after her time in Indiana so her husband could resume his scholarship, and she would go on to continue her studies before getting a job as an art educator. 

Charleen and her husband spent their marriage working, teaching, creating, and eventually, traveling into the city for its multitude of museums. Her husband unfortunately passed away in 2009, but their decades of marriage were filled with collaboration, creativity, and most importantly, support and love. 

The Journey To The New York City Art Scene: 

“When I started entering shows, I met a gentleman named Daniel Smythe at a couple of artist gatherings. He suggested that I should try being in some juried shows, which are gallery shows that display artworks selected through a competitive process by art jurors. He made this suggestion because the specific shows countrywide, including in museums,  were outside of the ‘business’ of art.

The ‘business’ of art refers to getting into specific galleries based on your credentials, connections, and affiliations. There weren’t many artists that came from community and state colleges that would make it successfully, so juried shows provided an opportunity to be seen and celebrated. 

Museum workers and curators, however, worked as jurors at a lot of these shows, which is another way to have your pieces evaluated from the outside world and what they think your work is worth.”

When Charleen began submitting her works to hopefully be selected, she was amazed at the support she received. As time went on, she began thinking about the possibility of having a show in New York City.

“In the early 80’s, I would go into the city and walk into as many galleries as I could with slides of my work to submit. I ended up meeting a gentleman who told me about artist-run galleries, and gave me a recommendation for the Amos Eno Gallery, which would give me a ‘clean and well-lighted space.’ After submitting some of my work I ended up getting accepted and became an official member of a NYC gallery.”

“Daedalus,” – Acrylic shaped canvas constructions. Installation is about 14’x27’ All painted images are derived from multiple views of a single piece of modular sculpture built from 4 congruent isosceles right triangles (called half squares in quilt making)

“Around the same time, in 1982, the West Broadway Gallery inquired about giving me a show as well. West Broadway wasn’t a well-known commercial gallery at the time, it was kind of an ‘in between gallery’ in terms of what they displayed.”

Charleen’s art for the West Broadway Gallery were paintings derived from different views of a single modular sculpture. “It was a stationary work, but from different viewing points, if you looked in succession, the images would look as if they were moving.” She made around 16 pieces for this particular show which took up four walls in the gallery. “They looked like they were dancing on the walls.”

Charleen recalled a group of engineering students coming in for the show and witnessing how amazed they were by the works. This was her first professional endeavor embracing Conceptual art. 

Before she could enter into the “business of art,” however, Charleen was building her artistic foundation with her own specific style based on her upbringing and growth in the arts. 

“Along with my families creative endeavors, my initial exposure to Conceptual art specifically came from art magazines and books along with bimonthly city visits to galleries and museums which began at the end of the ’60’s, especially the systemic palpable work of Sol LeWitt, seemed related to work I was discovering independently. 

Fast forward to graduate school at SUNY New Paltz, I presented an instructor with a systemic grid layout of sculpture configurations which I had devised using my grandmother’s module (a half-square or an isosceles right triangle). I demonstrated construction that created almost endless pieces of sculpture. He was surprised and pleased and encouraged me to continue with this pursuit. 

The module changed a bit over time for practicality, and became a focus for other systems: with the arrangement of four congruent isosceles triangles in prescribed flat formation, followed by bending and folding those four joined units into sculpture, followed by looking at a single piece of sculpture from an angle of vision grid that I devised in order to gain source material for the shaped canvas constructions which comprise my largest body of work. 

“I really enjoyed being surprised at some of the sculpted pieces, and was spurred on by the results I got. It was exciting for me to discover how different views of a single piece of a stationary modular sculpture could yield selected views that suggested movement, or even dance, with foreshortening, overlapping, and enhancing the changing qualities.

These views from a single piece of sculpture were chosen for a consequent triptych, or suite in the form of shaped canvas constructions. To derive so much from such simple-seeming beginnings is always special,” Charleen continued. 

“The ways in which grids were employed in construction was a major part of my childhood being in a family of module workers; my grandmother with quilts and my father with masonry. I learned about the grids and how they could be instrumental in planning systems. 

In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I found affinity with the grids of Sol LeWitt. However, I ultimately used systemic discoveries as source material for expressive results in the shaped canvas constructions in installation sequences, suggestive of movement and sometimes dance.” 

Charleen’s pieces are dynamic, and when you observe her work, they truly seem to be dancing on the walls. Her website shows a multitude of her past projects and does a successful job at showing this motion, however, the best way to view her work, like any piece of art, is to experience it in person. 

As someone who’s been in the art world for nearly her entire life, it was integral to hear Charleen’s thoughts about the way the art movement has evolved, specifically with the development of modern technology. With so many new tools, resources, and access to art in the digital realm, the industry has grown vastly, which begs the ultimate question:

Is art relevant now in the digital age? 

“It’s a loaded question honestly. Right now I use an old school program on a computer that doesn’t require the internet. While this specific computer function is important to me and my work, I also keep in touch with things that I don’t necessarily want to travel all the way to the city for. Facebook and other social media platforms provide streams that allow me to even see a variety of quilts.”

This was a key point in Charleen’s explanation of the digital age’s impact on art. The internet makes art so much more accessible to people all over the world. The amount of information available online allows creatives everywhere to connect with one another, learn about various mediums, and even participate in virtual tours of famous museums. 

The digital age has also created a space for more mediums and outlets for creativity. Multimedia artforms and digital art has been on the rise, with artists utilizing our constantly updating technology to create collections. It also gives artists who don’t necessarily agree with the integration of modern technology and art, to commentate on that through their own work. 

“So when we ask ‘is art relevant today in the digital age?’ We need to think about the artists that are making it relevant. 

On the other hand, computers and the technology we have available to us now can make the process of creating art more robotic. The transportive quality that you get when you’re doing a work of art is indescribable. When I think about my students and watching them create, it was magic, absolute magic watching them become so involved and seeing their thinking as they work.

Besides her expertise in the world of art and her work as an artist herself, one of Charleen’s greatest joys and passions is her career as an art educator. Once she received tenure, she found it easier to travel to the city to keep herself artistically engaged on a personal level while still teaching her children every week. “The kids would always restore me with their activities and insights which were very pure, nothing canned, very real.”

“I’ve learned so much from teaching children and seeing a young child’s innate gifts. The middle school art classes were enhanced by exposure to all kinds of inclusive and current media and by the use of a classroom textbook History Of Art For Young People by H.W. Janson with images dating from the Old Stone Age through most of the 20th century. Witnessing the utilization of the grammar of art, which young children can learn, constantly renews me and my relationship with art.” 

“Sometimes the kids would be the only people I had to talk about art with, and it was such a wonderful thing. Watching a child enjoy learning and then applying that knowledge to create something completely new and independent to their own artistic voice is indescribable. 

One of the things I used to do as a teacher was stand on my desk in the front of the class so I could get a better view of every student as they would work on their art. In the back of my classroom I had about 20 posters of artworks, some famous and some lesser known, so when I would stand on my desk if I saw a student struggling on something with their art I would tell them to look at a given poster. I’d compare my students’ work to a specific painting and emphasize similarities to the two pieces and we’d talk about how we thought the artist worked through their issue when it came up. That would be the lightbulb moment, it was an irreplaceable sensation to witness. 

Watching and teaching young kids to grow artistically, you grow at the same time. The young mind offers so much imagination, and to give that imagination an outlet to be created in the real world shows kids that art can be an amazing resource for them and their experiences.”

The Conceptual Art Connection Conclusion:

Charleen’s connection to creativity was sparked as she grew up surrounded by versions of Conceptual art without even realizing it. Her relative’s work in quilt making and masonry gave her a daily dose of creation and inspiration. She watched her loved ones work with their hands to turn pieces of scrap material into something beautiful. As she grew up and obtained more knowledge on art in general, she finally found a way to define her relationship with creativity and creation. 

“Learning about Conceptual art specifically, I was elated. The intricacies of Conceptual art gave me an explanation as to how I’ve always thought and seen growing up with my family. It was an amazing experience to be able to gain a real understanding of something that was, and continued to be, such a major part of my life,” she explained. 

Charleen then discussed how as she developed artistically, she would find pieces of her upbringing throughout professional art galleries and meeting other artists. Her journey was not linear, but full circle in terms of how she first experienced the art of creating, and her growth as a conceptual artist.

“I recall it was around 1995 when I went to the Ace Gallery in the city with my husband. There was an exhibit that was cement blocks just stacked on top of each other, which made me immediately think of my dad. As a masonry worker, he would work with concrete blocks and lay them out the same as they were in the gallery. Seeing that and making that connection is the definition of a work of art. 

My dad’s career was always something I admired and thought was so inspiring and creative, even though to him, for the most part, it was just his job. So to see this art in a NYC gallery after growing up watching my dad do it for work, was incredible. A full circle moment with my introduction to creating Conceptual art and seeing it come to fruition.”

When it comes to the future, Charleen has no plans of stopping embracing the creative spark she’s held since she was a little girl. “I am currently working on my quilt top studies. They are freer art works done in tribute to the family of artisan/artists who are significant to me and my visual history.” After winning 2 awards for paintings from the National Association of Women Artists, Charleen was extremely surprised to later win two awards for digital inkjet prints.

Inkjet Prints: 11″ x 14″

Charleen Kavleski
Charleen Kavleski
Charleen Kavleski

To learn more about Charleen Kavleski, her story, and her amazing conceptual art designs, check out her website by clicking here!