Arthur M. Kraft | Artist (1922-1977)
Arthur Kraft cared about one thing—creating art.
“I just want to be left alone to create,” he once said, ignoring day-to-day matters in favor of using strong forms and colors to convey his views of the world.
Kraft was born in Kansas City and began painting when he borrowed a friend’s watercolor set at the age of five —without asking. When he was 13 he sold about 200 decorated matchboxes and several oil portraits at the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City. The portraits showed such maturity that officials questioned whether the boy had done them.
His first formal training in art came in Saturday morning classes at the Nelson Gallery of Art. He graduated from Southwest High School and attended the Kansas City Art Institute for a semester, then entered the School of Fine Arts at Yale University, where he became art editor of the Yale Record. He joined the Army in 1943 and returned to Yale in 1946 to finish his degree.
In 1946 after winning the Audubon Artist Society national painting award for a painting, “New York as Seen by a Casual Observer Through My Great Aunt Jennifer’s Ouija Board,” Kraft was propelled onto the national scene. His first one man show, “Arthur M. Kraft, American Artist,” was launched in Paris by Jean Cocteau’s “Le Gallerie Palais Royale.” After that, Kraft had exhibits in many of the major art centers, including the Jacques Seligmann Gallery in New York.
Kraft was also director of the National Mural Society and was associated with the American Watercolor Society. He was chosen as a Fellow in the International Institute of Arts and Letters, and also claimed a membership in the American Academy in Rome. In 1954, he was honored by the National Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) in the United States.
Thomas Hart Benton is reported to have said of Kraft’s early work: “He has better technique than I do if he’d only work harder at it.”
He was best known in Kansas City for such works as the mosaic at the entrance to the Children’s Library at the former Kansas City Public Library location. The mural features a bold lion, polar bear, giraffe, and several penguins and demonstrates his superb use of color.
In 1960, Skylines Magazine awarded Arthur Kraft with the “Craftsmanship Award” for his work on the library mural. Kraft had this to say about the conception of his mosaic design.
“My chief approach was to create a colorful lure that would attract the light hearts of children. After due consideration it became apparent that I had to deal with all the elements in the animal world that children know. I very carefully selected the most obvious animals which would be easily recognizable in an abstract form. This gave me the freedom of mobility to design the shapes that would indicate movement from left to right, which is as you know, a habit developed in children when they learn to read English. It was also necessary to create a rythmatic pattern of verticality to echo the vertical lines in the building itself as well as the Court House building in the background, hence the use of the red and white stripe running throughout the entire mosaic. This circus tent background is relieved with three scallops to add to the movement and put the central figure of the harlequin on the horse in dead center of the design.“
“The two apertures in the tent are an invitation to the child to enter into the fanciful land of an enchanted forest where all things are possible, as they are in the imagination of all children.”
In 1960 Arthur Kraft was commissioned by the Commerce Trust Company to create a sculpture for their new fountain that was to be installed at the Commerce Bank of Kansas City at 922 Walnut, Kansas City, Missouri. He created the bronze sculpture entitled “Family”. The piece was cast by James Wenkie at the University of Kansas City foundry and the sculpture was dedicated on October 22, 1961. It remained part of the fountain at this location until 1973, when it was dismantled because of water leakage on the property.
Another one of Arthur Kraft’s best known works in the Kansas City area is the “Court of the Penguins” Fountain at 525 Nichols Road on the Country Club Plaza. The bronze penguin sculptures were cast posthumously in 1979 and dedicated on October 10, 1979. But he also left his mark through such creations as a 10-ton laughing elephant at a Detroit shopping center, penguins at a center in Indianapolis and a trio of walruses for a Cleveland center.
Although he was not a joiner his interest in helping others surfaced in volunteer work for the Kansas City Philharmonic and the United Cerebral Palsy campaign and he donated paintings to the annual auction of KCPT, Public Television 19.
Kraft struggled in his final years with health problems that were triggered by injuries suffered in an assault in 1959. Still friends described him as an overly generous man, one who loved to play practical jokes on people and to help others, a man who kept his sense of humor even through a long hospital treatment for cancer. Kraft had continued working despite his illness, completing a mural for the waiting room at the Veteran’s Hospital in Topeka, Kansas where he died on September 29, 1977 at the age of 55.
Since his death Kraft’s legacy has continued to play a large role in the life of artists, especially those in the Kansas City area. In 2007 Betty Brand established the “Arthur Kraft Memorial Scholarship for the Visual Arts” with the Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.
Today Arthur Kraft’s sculptures, murals and mosaics grace buildings and galleries in Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Manila, Japan-the world over and stand as monuments to his genius.