Meet the Artist: Neil Kalmanson

Could Swainsboro be the boomerang capital of the South? If you walk into Neil Kalmanson’s studio in Swainsboro, you might be inclined to think so. There are hundreds of them, everywhere, all made and painted by him. No two are alike.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Kalmanson moved to Swainsboro with his wife, Mary, in 1973 to teach art at the new Emanuel County Junior College (now East Georgia State College). He taught at the college until his retirement in 2003. (However, he did continue to teach part-time until 2005.)

Although he considers himself mostly a painter and sculptor, Kalmanson has branched out to other forms of art as well. “I’ve been creating artsy boomerangs since 1984,” he said. “I’ve also spent periods of time creating sculptural styluses (Palm Pilot days) and painted fountain pens.” His boomerangs have become sort of his signature pieces, finding themselves not only on walls of his friends and colleagues, but in the collections of boomerang aficionados all over the world. Each “boom” is handprinted in Kalmanson’s unique abstract style. He also belongs to a few boomerang clubs online and on Facebook.

He became interested in making boomerangs in one of his art classes. “In the early 1980s, in my 3 Dimensional Design class at the college, one of the projects assigned was to create a functional aesthetic object,” he explained. “It could be a chair, a musical instrument, etc. One of the students wanted to make a boomerang. He did the research, and proceeded to make one.” At the same time, Kalmanson said his daughter, Leah, also gave him a Nerf boomerang for his birthday. “That peaked my interest, and I made my first boomerang in August 1984,” he said. And the rest is boomerang history.

Kalmanson has also started using metal foil (gold leaf) in his artwork. “I’ve been fascinated with working with it using the technique simultaneously on paintings, boomerangs, and sculpture,” he said. “I first used the technique on a series of fountain pens, and just continued using it,” The foil is extremely delicate, floating into the air like ash. Although he acknowledges that gold leaf is “extremely difficult” to work with, the results from this gossamer-like substance on his artwork appear effortless.

Kalmanson has drawn inspiration from many of his favorite artists. “I admire different artists for different reasons, “ he said. “I’m a product of the ‘60s, so I’m attracted to the abstract expressionist, such as Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline. I love structure, so Paul Cezanne and Alberto Giacometti come to mind.” As an abstract artist himself, Kalmanson admires the work of Wassily Kandinsky; and in terms of “penetrating the human soul, and just pure genius” he admires Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh.

Asked if he has an art form out there that he would like to try, Kalmanson said, “There haven’t been many art forms that I haven’t engaged in through my art training.” He concluded that finding “unconventional projects” has led to interesting avenues for his creative energies. He said he is hoping to have an art show featuring his paintings and metal foil technique “once this virus is controlled.”

You can find Kalmanson’s artwork on Instagram and Facebook.

Full Circle

By Desmal Purcell, Associate Professor of Art at East Georgia State College

Every good structure starts with a solid foundation. Neil Kalmanson has provided that foundation for the arts here in Emanuel County. His narrative in this area dates back to the early 1970’s, nearly 50 years ago, and his role is just as vital today as it was then.

Neil is the founding faculty member for the arts program at East Georgia State College. The local gallery of Emanuel Arts Council also bears his name. It is nearly impossible to talk about the arts here in Emanuel County without bringing the name Neil Kalmanson into the conversation. It was in one of Neil’s painting classes at Emanuel County Junior College where my grandfather, Harry Purcell of Stillmore, pursued the art of painting. And as the story has been told, the two of them debated the merits of abstraction and realism on a regular basis.

Not long after that, my father, Vernon Purcell, would study art under Kalmanson. I remember touring the campus at age five with Neil and my parents. Sitting in on those classes was a fascinating experience at that age. In later years, showing up for boomerang events at the campus and having Neil out to the family farm to throw seems almost mythical looking back. I can still hear the shouts of “heads up” as errant boomerangs veered off course and headed towards those of us looking on. Seeing all of those wooden shapes thrown out towards the horizon, each making a slow arc and then returning over freshly plowed fields towards its owner is something you just have to witness to appreciate.

Years passed by as I pursued a career in the visual arts. Looking back, I remember fondly the opening receptions at the Kalmanson Gallery where my father’s work would be on display—running up and down the ramp in the foyer, struggling to remain quiet as Neil and my father introduced the work on display. And then, 20 years later, looking out and seeing Neil at openings of my own. I remember taking road trips with Neil and the gang to art openings in Atlanta, Savannah, and Augusta. It’s a unique story rooted here in Emanuel County that spans generations and pulls from a narrative rooted here in our community.

Now, as I enter into conversations in the community and introduce myself at the art professor at the college people often let me know that in their day they studied art under Professor Kalmanson. That comment is usually followed by something along the lines of “that class was harder than algebra,” and that was often followed by “Do you all still make boomerangs out there?” Neil brought his experience in the arts (from as far south as Mexico to as far north as New York) to our community here in Emanuel County. His classes were enlightening, his outreach made a lasting impact on the community, and his philosophical outlook on life always left you with something to chew on.

Neil takes art seriously in the classroom and in his studio (where you can still find Neil working on any given day of the week.) Writing this reminds me of the distance the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on. Studio visits with Neil pre-pandemic were a treat. Stopping by to see his latest sculpture, view a painting he may be working on or throw some newly designed boomerangs was always a highlight of the week.

And now, this narrative has come full circle. I have had the opportunity to have Neil in the classroom as a student. I think I may have learned as much from Neil (and my students in the course that semester) as they learned from me. Now I have the opportunity to honor Neil in exhibitions at the college and here in the community. Neil has been an exhibiting artist here at the LongShot Gallery in Stillmore, the East Georgia State College Gallery, and the Kalmanson Gallery of Emanuel Arts Council. His work is proudly displayed in my home, my office and my studio. Of course, along side the work of his former students… Harry and Vernon Purcell.

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