One of my favorite places in Colorado Springs may disappear in the coming months. For decades, I and thousands of others have flocked to Starr Kempf's house on the edge of Cheyenne Canyon to be wooed by the mystical kinetic sculptures that dominate his yard. While the sculptures are well beloved, they've been the subject of an on-going legal battle. According to grandson, Joshua Kempf, the sculptures will soon be removed and the house will be sold.
Starr Kempf was born in 1917 to a family of backsmiths and carpenters near a Menonite community in Ohio. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, served in the Air Force during WWII, then settled in Colorado Springs with his German-born wife Hedwig. He built a home and foundry on a small plot of land near the historic Broadmoor Hotel, nestled beneath Cheyenne Mountain. Building a career on small bronzes and paintings, Starr eventually graduated to large wind-powered sculptures called Monumentals. He committed suicide in 1995 at age 78.
The thing that I've always loved about Starr Kempf's house is that, wrapped in mystery and echoing silence, it somehow illustrates the darkness, the talent, the private life of this nationally-renown artist. It is the kind of place that commands quiet respect and whispered awe. I've been to the house several dozen times and until yesterday, never seen anyone there.
When a friend visited from San Francisco this weekend, I took her (as I take all my special dates, adventurous friends and out-of-town guests) to see Starr Kemp's house. I was immediately horrified to witness two of the Monumentals lying on the ground. We saw a truck and heard noise from the garage and decided to boldly inquire. We met Joshua Kempf, Starr's grandson, who appeared to be cleaning out the studio garage and were immediately won over by his warm smile, lilting British accent, and openness to our query. While he was rather secretive about the plans for the property and the art work, he confirmed that the sculptures are indeed being dismantled and moved; the house is for sale.
Admirers of Starr Kempf -- those that know the story and love the art -- have waited with baited breath for over 10 years to see what will become of his contested legacy. Soon after his suicide, Starr's daughter made steps towards turning his home into a museum. Disagreements with the neighbors turned into multi-million dollar lawsuits and infighting between the family. The daughter has now sued both of her siblings and her nephew several times over and has reportedly connived Hedwig (who suffered from dimentia) into signing over the rights to his giant sculptures. Evolutions of the scandalous tale is often reported in the local news; its regionally known, and yet the City of Colorado Springs has been surprisingly passive in helping settle the dispute. The family made the City a deal some years back, hoping to find a more neutral venue for the sculptures, but it was turned down; in fact, the City has never adequately celebrated the career and artistic brilliance of Starr Kampf and owns only one of his sculptures (which was incidentally a gift.)
Some years ago, when I lived in Albuquerque and made frequent trips to Santa Fe by way of Interstate-25, I noticed a few Starr Kempf sculptures on the edge of a deserted parking lot. Near Algodones (the middle of nowhere), at the largely defunct and sprawling Traditions: A Festival Market (a failed factory outlet turned tourist "Indian" market) there they stood! The whimsical sculptures of my childhood were exiled to a culturally bankrupt strip mall! On my last trip past Traditions, I noticed that the Kempfs had been removed. Now as grandson Joshua packs up and shuts down the Cheyenne Canyon estate, the legacy of Starr Kempf seems particularly volatile.
In this town of military bases and mega-churches, Starr Kempf's house has been a respite of artistic inspiration and hometown pride. I don't understand how a family drama could lead to potentially devastating cultural loss. Why has the City been so passive? Why have no local patrons or foundations come to the rescue? What will happen now? Will Starr Kempf become part of the legion of forgotten artists? Hearing more about the legal battles from Joshua yesterday, I was reminded how little the law supports art, that zoning and liens and permits are not contrived to make things happen. It's sad.
When I asked Joshua what he'd like to see happen with the Monumentals, his response actually gave me hope. "I'd like to see them as the basis for a large sculpture park," he said with a flash in his eyes, "I can't tell you what we're up to, but come October or November you'll know!" I guess we'll just have to wait and hope and see and enjoy Starr Kempf's house before it completely dissolves.
Learn more about Starr Kempf and the ensuing battle about his legacy here.