Donald Kilpatrick: The Hive 

Local illustrator finds the joy in the mysterious.

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There may be talk about selling off some of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, but in the meantime, at least, Midtown has a new art gallery. Recently transplanted from Ferndale, the Butcher’s Daughter Gallery is one of a few tenants to move into the new Auburn Building on Cass and Canfield. After delays caused by a car crashing into the building, the gallery will soon host its second show at the new location, this time featuring the work of artist Donald Kilpatrick (full disclosure, a former professor of mine).

Splitting his time between Department Chair of Illustration at the College for Creative Studies and working as a freelance illustrator himself, Kilpatrick works in an array of mediums — from digital to letterpress. 

In the world of illustration, artists tend to be valued for sticking rigidly to a specific style, but Kilpatrick nonchalantly switches from one medium to the next. Kilpatrick’s show features a variety of painting, from oil to watercolors. “I find it interesting to explore an idea in a variety of different media,” he says by phone. “I think some media lend themselves better for me to communicate my ideas.” 

The exhibition is titled The Hive and the concept comes from a quote Kilpatrick pulled from poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

“The whole idea of The Hive is based off of the past 12 years of my life,” Kilpatrick says, going back to a time when Kilpatrick’s illustration career was just taking off in Salt Lake City. “I illustrated the cover for this [Rilke] book,” he says. “Not having known anything about Rilke, I felt an immediate connection. That quote, to me, not only applies to art, but it applies to life. We’re all collecting all these little bits and we’re all storing all of these things in the ‘golden hive.’”

For Kilpatrick, the “golden hive” manifests itself in his sketchbooks, which have followed him from Salt Lake City to the Bay Area, then Syracuse, N.Y., and finally Detroit. These sketches chronicle everything from rejected illustrations for clients to his personal work, all of which served as the basis for the paintings in the show.

“When I work as an illustrator, the stuff I do is either recycled or thrown away; it’s in a magazine,” he says. “The one thing you do have, that you can hold onto, is a sketchbook.”

But the “golden hive” is also something intangible and mysterious, the sum of our life experiences that can never really be fully understood by anyone else. Part of the appeal of the hive for Kilpatrick is that inherent inaccessibility, and his imagery is intentionally mysterious. “I wanted to really emphasize that for the show,” he says. “In the process of creating all this work, there’s a lot of vulnerability in that, and I kind of like having that barrier.” 

But it’s not about alienating an audience; Kilpatrick hopes viewers will find their own meaning in his work. “That’s the beauty of art. That’s what I strive for. Is this gonna have a life beyond its initial intention? Does what you’re creating reach out to someone?” 

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