Carel Brest Van Kempen paints graceful, realistic scenes of wildlife interacting with nature. In his detailed acrylic painting, Green Iguana with Leaf-Cutter Ants (2011), the viewer can make out each individual scale, and almost feel the texture of its skin. Accompanying each painting is a careful description of the animal and its habitat, a giveaway that the painting is more than an artistic exercise. He has a deep affection for wildlife.
His love for nature emerged from a childhood exploring the wilds of Emigration Canyon in the 1970s. "I grew up in a situation where I could as a little kid walk out my door... and go as far as I wanted and not run into anything except wilderness." He adds, "You never get tired of it and you never stop learning because the biology up there is constantly changing."
His experiences spurred him to major in biology in college, in hopes of one day becoming a zoologist, but he ended up dropping out. "The biology program wasn't quite what I had in mind, and I don't think I was quite what the biology department had in mind," he says.
After college he decided to pursue his second love, art, but that wasn't any easier. In the 1980s the Utah Arts Council sponsored Flights of Fancy, a juried art show for Utah artists that seemed a natural fit for his wildlife paintings. "I submitted my six best paintings and they were all rejected...and I wasn't treated unfairly," he recalls.
It wasn't until he was 29 years old that he hit his stride as an artist. His skills matured and the quality of his work improved considerably. "At that point I was getting pretty old...I was drawing caricatures for a living and really floundering, so it was really nice to see some light there," he says. "I spent my 30s working harder than I've ever worked in my life. That's all I did. I was completely focused on becoming a painter." It worked. Brest van Kempen is now one of fourteen Master Artists with the Society of Animal Artists, tours around the world, and has published a book of his work. His paintings sell for thousands of dollars.
Brest van Kempen tries to take a trip somewhere in the world once a year and draws inspiration from what he reads, sees, and from his imagination. An avid reader of ecology and zoology research, he relays that he recently read a paper about a symbiotic relationship between sunfish and albatrosses. The sunfish will seek out the birds so they will pick parasites off of them. "That might one day become a painting," he speculates. Much of his work tells little stories like this that he has invented, but are based on science. "Most of my painting are situations that I would like to see, but that I would never be able to see without creating it," he says.
Brest van Kempen paints animals that catch his fancy, whether they are endangered or not. While a conservationist, he says he doesn't kid himself that his painting will change anyone's mind, but rather he paints as a way to lose himself in the natural world that he so loves.
Carel Brest van Kempen's work is part of the permanent collection at the Springville Art Museum in Springville, UT and the Salt Lake County Art Collection in Salt Lake City.
Julie Kiefer contributed to this story.