The work of iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is on display this summer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They’re part of an exhibit called Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico.
Kahlo and Rivera are known not only for their paintings, but for their tempestuous marriage, which sometimes influenced their art.
Inspired by Kahlo and Rivera, we are profiling some of Kansas City’s creative couples on air and online. From ballerinas to sculptors to musicians, we want to find out how two artists make a life together, and how their relationship influences their work.
Ayla Rexroth and Clayton Skidmore
Eight minutes into a conversation with artists Ayla Rexroth and Clayton Skidmore, the lights go out.
It's a blown fuse — a quick fix, but also indicative of the amount of work that went into restoring the once raw, unfinished basement of this century-old building on Warwick Ave. in Midtown. Three years’ worth, in fact.
The couple has dubbed the space the Subterranean Gallery. It's a small, pristinely white basement room that's just out front of the apartment they share. Clayton’s art was on the walls, still hanging from a studio visit he had with a local curator two days earlier. He primarily works on collages — some are smaller, foot-by-foot squares, and others are large enough to take up the width of an entire wall.
Like Clayton, Ayla studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. But her work now is more about the art of curation, much of which has taken place at the Subterranean Gallery.
It’s here that Ayla and Clayton have showcased the work of other local artists and hosted events and exhibitions. With every event in the gallery, Ayla pocketed enough money to put up one drywall at a time. She and Clayton painted the original rock wall white and borrowed a vacuum cleaner to soak up what Clayton called a “little lake” in the gallery space.
On renovating the basement that would become Subterranean Gallery
Ayla: This place was really terrible when I moved in. It was an awful place to be, and I knew I was taking on something that was much bigger than who I was at the time. We’d pull down pieces of the ceiling, and we thought we were pulling down a little chunk, and then the whole thing would just slam onto the floor, and we’d have mushroom clouds of black dirt. There’s at least an inch and a half of dirt across the entire ceiling. Living in the belly of the building, you kind of end up managing everybody else’s heat and air conditioning and taking all of their gas meter guy appointments and helping them get it turned on and off in the spring. It’s just much more public than we thought it would be. There’s just constantly people in and out of here.
Clayton: The first time when Ayla had brought it up about doing it, I looked at her, and I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ But Ayla has such an amazing will, so she actually impressed everybody around us. Everyone was so surprised the first time they saw the clean walls in the basement. Those early years working on the gallery were really just very exciting in a lot of ways because you were seeing the immediate transformation of this really dirty, dingy place into something that was a little more.
The building itself has played a big role in their relationship — they met in the apartment next door to the gallery space. And they say they’ve always known that art would be a part of their lives.
On their conversations about art
Ayla: Some people have religion; we have art. For most artists, it’s really difficult to separate your personal life or just who you are from your work because it absolutely comes from who you are and what you care about and what concerns you. I feel like we get up in the morning and start thinking about art, and we don’t stop thinking about art and working toward our goals until we go to bed. It’s just constant.
Clayton: We never stop talking about art. It can be in a bar, over some fries and a couple drinks. It could be laying on a couch on a lazy afternoon — we’re both drained of all energy — and we’re talking about what’s in front of us and analyzing it. Because as an artist our life is so cluttered and ever-changing, we have to keep good communication. It’s not like we have a set deadline. We have to set our deadlines. People come up with opportunities for us, and we have to change our whole schedule to fit it. Performance is one of the biggest things as an artist of any kind, and learning how to jump up on your feet and hit the ground running.
On getting feedback from each other about their work
Ayla: When I first met Clayton, everything he did I thought was the coolest thing ever. And now I’m much more critical. Up to a point in the process of resolving an artwork, I’m usually pretty lost in terms of what he wants from it because the vision’s in his head and not out there yet. So he has to get at least two-thirds of the way through before I feel like I can really say anything. But we’ve been through that round so many times now that we’re getting better and better at it. Clayton tells me the truth.
Clayton: Sometimes I think we both will ask each other’s opinion to death, and we know what the answer is, or we know what to expect, but it always still seems quite valuable, and we’re always trying to check each other. One of those things about being a visual artist is that oftentimes they have a really hard time expressing those things. Clarity in your work and clarity in describing your work in writing is such a valuable thing. And Ayla always reminds me of that because I have a tendency to just get caught up in my own little narrative of my work, and she’s been someone I can constantly throw out ideas to and get her opinion.
A perfect example of their collaboration was an event called the Hot Tub Dialogues. Ayla and Clayton say it was the biggest collaboration of their time living and working together at the Subterranean Gallery.
It was a lecture series — with a hot tub, a bar and a band squeezed into the small space for one night. Ayla and Clayton launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, and they raised $2,700 to make their project a reality. They invited speakers they looked up to, handed everyone some drinks (and some bathrobes), put the speakers in the filled tub and talked art.
It started out as a joke, Clayton said, but when a friend offered up his parents’ old hot tub, and when it later ended up taking over a lot of space in the gallery, Ayla and Clayton were committed. But it wasn’t an easy task.
On the Hot Tub Dialogues
Clayton: It was one of the first times we had to coordinate a timed schedule. In gallery shows, you open a door at 7 p.m. and then end at 10. But we had to open the doors at 7 p.m. and stay the entire event until 11 p.m. It was like a stage production.
Ayla: We ended up finding out that we had to really separate out what tasks went to what person, which is totally common sense for any business, but because we’re a couple, we automatically thought, ‘Oh, we’ll do it together.’ It just absolutely did not work. We sold out of tickets in four days. It told us that our value in the community was something that we hadn’t anticipated at all.
It’s going to be hard for Kansas City’s art community to say goodbye to Ayla and Clayton. They’re moving to New York City this month so Ayla can pursue her MFA at Hunter College.
On moving on
Ayla: I’m excited to be back in a studio environment partially because I just feel like I really want something new to react to, and I feel like my work is so heavily reliant on what’s directly around me. I’m excited to go to New York and just have so much more to take in.
Clayton: I think we’re both trying to go there to get some formal training. I’m still contemplating going to grad school, but I find that that might be really hard on us financially, both being in college and in one of the most expensive cities in America. I know what I want to be, and I know I want to be an artist. And I want to figure out ways of doing that. This year, I’ve been getting more and more practice doing that. I’ve had some major successes with my own art practice. And I want to see how I can apply what I’ve learned to New York City.
Now, Subterranean Gallery will be in the hands of Melaney Mitchell, another graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute. She interned with the gallery while she was in school. And, like her predecessors, she inherited the apartment, too. She moved in Aug. 1.
The Kansas City Creative Couples Series will air every week on KC Currents through August 18.