KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Walking between rows of paintings and sketches sprawled out through multiple galleries in Western Michigan University’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts, John Kollig sees his life on paper. A visual depiction of his development as an artist, some of the work dates back to the 1970s.
“I haven’t seen any of this in years!” says Kollig, a Western alumnus and former instructor and advisor in the University’s Frostic School of Art. “I’m just so surprised to see some of it. It brings back memories; it’s really amazing.”
Kollig gave the collection—essentially his life’s work—to former student Christopher Darling four years ago when he moved out of his house and never expected to see it again. However, after Darling died unexpectedly, he needed to find a new home for the more than 200 paintings and drawings.
In a moment of serendipity, Kollig connected with Dr. Indra Lācis, director of exhibitions at the Richmond Center. She’d been working remotely from Cleveland and just happened to be staying blocks from the home where the collection was located.
“The work is incredible,” says Lācis, who excitedly set the ball in motion with Dan Guyette, dean of the College of Fine Arts, and the University Art Collection Committee to accept the considerable gift. “It’s a very generous donation.”
Kollig’s body of work is diverse, ranging from portraits and landscapes inspired by his travels to abstract art. Through it all, you can see an object tying much of his work together: the sphere.
“It’s (unconsciously) threaded through my work over the years, and it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that it finally really awakened,” says Kollig, who earned a Master of Fine Arts from Western in 1996. The sphere is featured prominently in “The Journey Begins,” the first painting in a series he made for his portfolio.
Art was a second career for Kollig, who spent decades in the corporate world as a visual merchandiser for stores like Hudson’s and Jacobson’s.
“I’m basically a late bloomer. I was 47 years old when I decided to get my MFA degree,” he says. “And from that platform, I’ve been painting almost every day ever since.”
Kollig worked part-time as an advisor in the Frostic School of Art for more than 11 years, also teaching a number of drawing and painting classes as an adjunct instructor.
“I really love the students,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed heading a classroom. It’s really true, you learn from the students quite a lot.”
Now, with the donation of his works to the University art collection, he’ll once again have an opportunity to impact aspiring artists at Western.
“Not only is it exciting because we’re going to be able to place a series of these works throughout campus for the community to enjoy, but it’s a living collection,” Lācis says. “Academically, it’s also fascinating for our painting students to see the development of an entire career (that continues now) and create opportunities for John to be able to come in and talk about the work. We definitely want to plan a full-scale future exhibition showing as much of the collection as we are able to present in our space.”
Kollig has been working alongside recent Western painting alumna Rozlin Opolka, who is leading the effort to inventory his collection. She estimates the project will take hundreds of hours to complete.
“Most of these pieces are in great shape, but there are some that are older. And with age comes wear and tear that we really need to document,” says Opolka. She gained valuable gallery experience as a student in early 2020, cataloging a collection of dozens of paintings by former WMU professor Dwayne Lowder, whose work was discovered hidden away in his attic after his death.
“I’m very excited (to work on the Kollig collection) because I’ve learned different styles of cataloging,” Opolka says. “This is also a great learning collection because it’s not often we have access like this for students to see how all of the art developed over time.”
“I’m really delighted that (the paintings) have a home and students can experience and learn from them,” adds Kollig. “I really think artists learn you only have custody (of your work); I never really owned it anyway. There’s this sense of giving … whether you’re a musician or dancer, whatever creative endeavor.”
Kollig’s work will be featured alongside works by the art school’s namesake, celebrated printmaker and trailblazing entrepreneur Gwen Frostic, and Colorado-based artist Mel Strawn, chair of Western’s art department from 1985-88, in the upcoming exhibition “Recent Gifts: Selections from the University Art Collection.” The show runs from Monday, March 1, to Sunday, May 2, in the Richmond Center’s Rose Netzorg and James Wilfrid Kerr Gallery.
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