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Issue Date: March 2008 Issue

Pieces of Americana

From small towns to Key West, Anthony Kleem breaks into the art puzzle market with his folk creations.

Kristen Hampshire
Anthony Kleem’s apple-pie portraits of countryscapes and small towns USA hint at traditional themes — family, faith, community — with symbols that leave no mistake what the artist is communicating. “There is always the flag, usually a church, children,” says Kleem, naming key elements of Americana art.

“I like the colors and the pattern schemes, and you don’t have to try to figure out what it is,” he adds.

The genre suits Kleem, who teaches ninth-grade Western civilization and world geography at North Royalton High School by day and paints at home in a busy kitchen corner amid the chaos of cooking, homework (he has five children) and conversation.

“My wife is singing, and the kids are playing, and there I sit,” Kleem relates, describing a scene that could appear on one of his inch-thick, cabinet-grade plywood canvases. He prefers this foundation, primed with gesso, for its grainy texture that produces an “old look.”

Kleem likens his style to Charles Wysocki, a renowned folk artist who painted with narrative impulse and filled the canvas with activity: boats sailing, children playing, people working. “Since his passing, there has been a void for his type of work, and I think I’m filling that void,” Kleem says.

Though he never had any formal training, Kleem had his first art opening in 2002 at a local Berea gallery. The prior year, he had decided to take his painting more seriously, creating a collection of small originals to display and sell for $50 to $100. Today, his Americana treasures go for thousands and have a permanent home at Frank Miele Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City. Brown Trout publishing will produce a 2009 calendar of Kleem’s work.

This month, Kleem will fill a gap in the Americana art puzzle market. MEGA Brands Inc. will release his first puzzle at Target, Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us stores. “I wanted to go to the next level and push [my art] outside of Berea to see if there was a market for it,” Kleem says. He partnered with White Creek Publishing, which produces Kleem’s prints and posters. MEGA Brands Inc. contacted Kleem about creating a Key West puzzle in mid-2006, and that December, Kleem finished sketching.

Since Kleem had never visited Key West, he researched the city so he could re-create the vibrantly colored, Victorian architecture and nostalgic landmarks. Points of interest include the southernmost house, a lighthouse, Hemingway’s home, an orange grove, a clipper, horses and buggies.

Kleem had plenty of room to invent. Puzzles must be 18 by 26 inches in size, compared to Kleem’s usual 12-by-16, compact originals. And the busier the composition, the better. “I have to include more details — more zones of activity going on to basically confuse the person putting together the puzzle,” he explains.

All this took Kleem about six weeks of labor. Usually, he counts on 20 hours of sketching by ink to shake the ideas from his head to paper; then an additional 100 hours to paint a scene. As for his ideas? “They are already done in my head, I just have to get them down,” he says of the hundreds of concepts stored “upstairs.”

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