The Barroom School Self-taught artist John Kefover

a Fells Point legend, paints everyday objects and speaks simple truths. Pull up a stool

November 28, 1998|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

Perched on a bar stool at the Whistling Oyster under a battered fedora of indeterminate age, John Kefover looks like a worn and weathered Walt Whitman pondering the silence.

An ancient and almost legendary painter of the Baltimore Barroom School, Kefover has come out of his West Virginia hideaway bearing art for his annual Fells Point show here. In his vintage herringbone jacket, plaid flannel shirt, brown sweater, corduroys and boots he could have been at the Lapin Agile waiting for Picasso.

He surveys the Whistling Oyster with clear, searching, hazel-colored, painterly eyes. Calm and comfortable this cool fall afternoon, the long, narrow Oyster has remained relatively unchanged for two decades, like Kefover a survivor from an earlier, earthier Fells Point. His paintings glow with color against the bar's old brick, intense, poetic, spiritual. Kefover was visionary long before that label was hung on unconventional artists.

"I write with my eyes," he says. "Painting is, actually, a visual poem."

He rises a little creakily from his stool. He's 60 now. He guides a bar-mate through the show like a docent disbarred from the Walters Gallery.

"This, sir, is of great importance to me," he says, sounding a bit like W.C. Fields playing the bank dick. "This, sir, is a painted pun, the study of a plum, a plumb bob."

He's painted his plumb bob hanging over a purple plum, with a hammer, a level and a square brushed in beyond a screen of centering lines.

"That painting I could take anywhere in the world because it speaks a universal language of the simple truths of square and plumb and level. It's a common language among men."

He next pauses before a portrait of a young blond woman with almond-shaped blue eyes. Kefover's women have a kind of frontal Modigliani simplicity.

"This is a wild child who came up to my house on a motorcycle. Given to indulgences, though. She was a swimmer," he says, somewhat mysteriously. Kefover sometimes speaks in Delphic non sequiturs. He's got a mellow Burgess Meredith voice that sometimes takes on the burr of a brogue.

"Let it be known," he proclaims, "that I'm a principal of the Baltimore Barroom School of Art, like the Ashcan School, or the Hudson River School, or the Barbizon School, or all the different schools. There are about 10 principals, like Charlie Newton, Jim Joyner, Glenn Walker and the others."

He kindly identifies the characteristics of this school.

"We've all been running the bars for the past 30 years," he says, "doing art and selling our art out of the barroom scene. Let's establish that school so we can all get rich and famous before we die.

"It'll be good for the collectors," he says, not without irony.

He comes by a certain fondness for the odd brew or a dram of the spirits honestly enough. He's the scion of a Uniontown, Pa., family that owned a brewery closed down during Prohibition.

" 'Labor Beer,' " he recalls. "The last act of my grandfather was to get up to vote for repeal of Prohibition, then he went home, laid down and died."

But at the Oyster Kefover actually sips coffee. These days he drinks alcohol mainly for its salutary medicinal effects, perhaps a glass or two of wine or a beer a day.

Kefover grew up in Reisterstown and he likes to call himself "a Hopkins man.

"Just one year," he qualifies, "but I can relate to being a Hopkins man."

For another year or so, he studied architecture at the University of Arizona. Then off and on he drove cabs in Los Angeles and dealt blackjack in Las Vegas. He's basically a self-taught painter.

In his work "Intuitive Sun," he captures a sunset behind dark trees in brilliant reds and yellows and oranges laid on thick and rich with a palette knife and saturated brushes.

"It's a study of the intuitive nature of the sun, done from my house. The sunset is a particularly dramatic time."

The rural life

He owns 24 1/2 acres near Elkins, W.Va., inherited from his mother when she died in 1969.

"Just the forest, the wilderness," he says. "So I went out and carved out the log house up there [from trees on the place]. Two stories, 70 feet, a playhouse, I built."

But he didn't put in a telephone or electricity or running water.

"I run to get it," he says. "I draw water. I have two springs on the place. The water's sweet and good. It's still pure water up there."

He lives up there with his wife, Joan Toy Brown Kefover.

"We've been together 30 years," he says. "We've been married three weeks. My neighbor's a preacher and he has a hill overlooking the valley and we got married there."

Kefover gets around out in West Virginia in his "Black Widow," a 1977 Chevy truck with a new motor and four-wheel drive. He cuts firewood and sells it, and he picks coal.

"I break it out of the seam with a pick and throw it on the truck and go sell it," he says. "That's how I've made my nickel-dime money, my survival money, for years."

He returns to Baltimore mostly when he's got paintings to hang somewhere. He finds Fells Point "ever constant, ever changing. I see it as basic Baltimore."

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