Life through a lens

Dennis Kiel’s Old Town Beaumont home is lined with photographs he has collected — all immaculately hung, of course. The photograph in the near photo is by Keith Carter and is titled “Studio.”

Dennis Kiel’s Old Town Beaumont home is lined with photographs he has collected — all immaculately hung, of course. The photograph in the near photo is by Keith Carter and is titled “Studio.” Photo by Andy Coughlan

Dishman director Kiel’s love of photography leads to gallery career

“When I was really small the ice cream truck used to come by,” Dennis Kiel said. “I had this ice cream, and when I unwrapped it, it had this contest. There was a picture of Donald Duck, and he was being chased by a space shuttle. The contest was to come up with an appropriate saying. The first prize was a pony, so of course I entered. I must have been around seven or eight years old. I remember a letter came, and my mother panicked, she thought ‘Oh God, he won a pony.’ But, I didn’t win a pony — I won a camera. It was my first camera.”

Little did Kiel know an ice cream would lead to a career in the arts — and a love affair with photography that never died.

Kiel is director of the Dishman Art Museum at Lamar University, moving here in January 2015 after spending time at the Cincinnati Museum of Art as curator of photography, prints and drawings.

Growing up, Kiel remembers spending time looking at slides that his father had taken with a German camera bought while traveling during his time in the Air Force. It was also his father who bought Kiel his first real camera.

“My father hated smoking,” Kiel said. “So he made a deal with my brother and I not to smoke until we were 21. I had no interest in smoking, so it was really easy for me. So when I turned 21, my father bought me a Honeywell Pentax 35mm camera. That was the first real, pretty camera I had.”

Despite his early connection with photography, Kiel, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, studied graphic design in college and spent some time working at a printing company when he ran out of money while working on his thesis in graduate school.

“It was a pretty horrible printing company in Cincinnati,” he said. “But, for some reason — it was really kind of a strange situation — they had a division where they did backstage passes for a lot of rock bands and music groups.”

One of his projects included designing the backstage passes for Bruce Springsteen’s 1981 River Tour.

“We had to design three (passes) a day,” he said. “Copyright? Forget it. There was no one who even cared about it, and we stole ideas everywhere. ‘Hey, let’s steal this picture out of this book.’ Nobody cared.”

Kiel also worked on the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You tour’s tickets.

“You could buy a generic ticket,” he said. “But you could also buy a really fancy ticket. There were three different tickets. What was amazing was how easily people could forge them. We were amazed. How did they even know what they looked like? We had a representative, and he brought back forged tickets — and when we looked at them, they were perfect.

“So, I got to design the fourth version in the series, and I believe it was the best. We used this old, outdated foil that they printed on either sides. You couldn’t get this foil anywhere, so supposedly that’s what stopped it.”

Although he took a ticket straight off the press for his files, Kiel really wanted a ticket with the full details printed on it.

“In my version, it had a high-contrast picture of each of the Rolling Stones,” he said. “I took one when it came off the press, but it had no seat number or anything. I wanted one that had an actual seat number, so I remember years ago I went to eBay and there it was. They sold it for next to nothing, so I bought it.”

By coincidence, Kiel found out that his backstage pass work is featured in the book “The Art of Rock — Presley to Punk”

“When I was working at the Cincinnati Art Museum they had a copy of that book,” he said. “I would stop in and go through it, not paying much attention, and then I noticed they had a section on backstage passes. They interviewed the guy who was in charge of our department. He was talking about the Springsteen tour, and he brings up this funny situation. It was the Bella Donna tour with Stevie Nicks. She was finishing up with three concerts in San Francisco and she needed backstage passes in 72 hours.”

Kiel said it all sounded pretty familiar.

“Then at once, I see my name,” he said. “He says that he gave me the project, and then called his wife who had the Bella Donna album, and we made a copy of the cover, which I reduced down and then I put the type on it. We basically did the same thing with three different colors, and he was so excited because we got it done and we got it to them in 48 hours. And then he ends up saying, to this day, of all the backstage passes that he did, this series was still his favorite. And I don’t even think they’re that good.”

Despite having worked on big projects such as the backstage passes, Kiel never thought he was a good graphic designer.

“It’s in my nature,” he said. “I start a project, and I think I’m going to fail — there is no way it’s going to work. It’s like taking a test. When you walk out and you think you’ve failed, you won’t be disappointed. And if you do well, it’s even sweeter.”

After his stint in graphic design, Kiel finished his master’s degree in art history at the University of Cincinnati and got a job as a curatorial assistant at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“Curatorial assistant is different than assistant curator,” he said. “It’s really hands on. I cut the mats and things like that. But I didn’t care, I got my foot in the door, and by then I had my master’s so all I had to do was prove I was worthy. I ended up being there a long time.”

It was here that Kiel really built on his love of photography.

“When I started working as a curator, we were generalists,” he said. “So, sometimes we’d do a print show, a drawing show, a photography show, and then the director decided we should divide into departments so that we could focus on one area. I ended up getting photography. We had 5,000 photographs in our collection — so it was a pretty large collection. I used to joke that photography was the only true art medium.”

Even though he spent 24 years at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Kiel said that leaving might have been the best thing ever.

“It became almost like working for Proctor and Gamble,” he said. “When I started out, I knew everyone, you could stick your hand in everything. It was much smaller, and it grew and grew — it became more of a business. At one point, we had nine curators. Our print collection — there were two of us — was 30,000 prints. And it wasn’t even considered a big museum.”

Dennis Kiel at home with his collection of photographs,

Dennis Kiel at home with his collection of photographs.

After leaving Cincinnati, Kiel spent time working at a small gallery specializing in film and photography in North Carolina before taking the position at Lamar.

“We have a built-in audience at the Dishman,” he said. “Even though it’s hard to get the art students to come — you have to drag them by the arm — it’s a place for them to be inspired, to learn, and it’s a place for them to hang their own work during the senior thesis show and stuff like that.”

Kiel said that aside from the art students, he would also like to get the rest of the university involved. He is working on bringing different departments together to grow awareness.

“The next show I’m doing, I’m working with the LU office of sustainability and the Green Squad,” he said. “I’m working with this photographer who has this great project called ‘The evolution of Ivanpah Solar,’ which is a three unit solar plant in the Mojave Desert, which is where all the solar panels are. He’s photographing this from the air, so some of the images look really abstract — some are these incredible landscape shots.”

The photographs, by Jamey Stillings, show the evolution of the solar plant being built, Kiel said.

Kiel said that he hopes to bring a new audience to the museum with this art installation.

“There are probably people from all around campus, I can guarantee you, that have never been to the Dishman,” he said. “The idea is to have programming that is related to the exhibition, so that we can get people to the Dishman. We also want to get the community outside of the university, that’s the immediate goal.”

Kiel said he wants the Dishman to be a place where everyone can feel at home — he will even stay past hours. Regardless of your thoughts on what the “true medium of art” is, take the time to stop by the Dishman, and don’t leave without meeting the museum’s director.

The Dishman Art Museum is located on the corner of MLK Parkway and East Lavaca on the Lamar University campus.

Story by Lauren Van Gerven

Photos by Andy Coughlan