Fanning the flames

Kyle Boone's self-portrait with tornado.

Kyle Boone isn’t painting roses on a fence

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Imagine this. You’re at a crowded exhibition of colorful art, most of it depicting familiar scenes, lots of pleasant landscapes, seascapes, a few animals, a portrait or two, some easy-on-the-eye abstracts, but suddenly you’re drawn down a corridor at the end of which is a tiny room, and on the wall there are three or four images of tornados. On another wall, tucked into a corner, is a painting of a house on fire at night. On the easel is a picture of a telephone pole engulfed in flame. The artist is not present, but you have to wonder, Who’s the person who painted these?

And so I found out. She’s Kyle Boone, a practicing neuropsychologist, and a storm chaser.

A month goes by, loaded with holidays, and then one morning I ring a doorbell in the South Shores area of San Pedro.

Tornado portrait by Kyle Boone

A whirlwind adventure

“I’ve always been interested in rendered paintings of unusual content,” Boone says as we sit in her living room. “So that, when someone’s walking by or when I’m walking by, it captures your eye and then you do a double take. That’s what I want, something that’s exquisitely beautiful, but you’re taken back by the content. It’s like, whoa, that shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t be in that scene.”

Boone’s husband, Rodney, who is also a psychologist as well as a photographer, and a key member of PADA (Photographers and Digital Artists), encountered someone at a meeting of his group who photographed tornados.

“So Rod signed us up to go storm chasing.” It was actually a birthday present for his wife. The Boones went off, in June of 2018, with a tour leader named Roger Hill, his wife Karen, and six clients in a van. “They were going to take the photographers all around the country. In six days we hit nine states, 2,300 miles. In South Dakota we saw eight tornadoes in one day. It was beyond belief.”

On her cell phone Boone displays a selfie she took with an ominous spiral behind her. “They were just exquisite,” she says. “Magical. They’re sculptural.

“Before I went,” she continues, “I thought, ‘Who’re these foolish people who’d go out and chase tornadoes?’ But they’re not chasing tornadoes. They have radar and they’re coming up alongside, perpendicular, and then they stop and watch the tornado go by. They can be unpredictable, but they’re tracking it so they see how the tornadoes are moving, and then they bring you around to watch it go by. So it’s not quite as dangerous as it might seem.”

Rodney, who has been sitting in on the conversation, mentions the tornado vortex that his wife painted on the ceiling of the master bedroom. So we troop downstairs to see  it. On the wall are a few of Rodney’s tornado photographs which his wife has used as source material. “I want to spend more time doing tornadoes,” she says, and then adds, “There’re not too many artists that do tornadoes.”

Kyle Boone at home. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

From there to here

Kyle Boone’s life has turned out to be interesting and rewarding on many levels, although a betting person may not have placed odds on that if we go back to her earliest years. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Boone’s family moved to the Tustin-North Irvine area of Orange county when she was three. It was still quasi-rural back then, and they lived in a housing development. “But it was also the day and age where,” she says, “in the summertime I would get on my bike and just take off and my mother would have no idea where I was. That was just the way kids were. You were gone for the day.”

Today, of course, there’d be a missing persons report and a manhunt underway by five p.m.

Also, she notes, “I grew up in a Christian household. It was very religious; pretty conservative. So I don’t know where I got this taste for unusual things.”

Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, Boone attended Adventist schools until she went to college, which was Loma University in Riverside. And it was then that she began to see certain things in a new light.

“I think when you are raised in a particular worldview, and the only people you know or interact with are part of that world view, then when you get pulled out to go to graduate school in psychology, that was a shocker.” She pauses. “When I was growing up I was told that the people who were not in my church were actually pretty miserable, that they were kind of bumping into the walls, couldn’t find meaning in their life…

“Then I go to graduate school. I’m looking around at my fellow classmates and I’m thinking, They don’t seem miserable to me.”

All of that was in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. Boone points out that she’d always been interested in art, but that back then parents tended to point out to their kids, artistically inclined or otherwise, that while making art was nice, it didn’t necessarily put lamb chops on the table. In other words, as Boone says, “the message I got was, art’s fine — but you have to be able to make a living.”

As it turned out, fortunately, Boone discovered that she truly enjoyed graduate school.

While hers was not to be a life painting murals for civic centers or making portraits of the royal family, Boone notes that “you can usually find a way in your worklife to be creative. I think if I didn’t get to be creative as a neuropsychologist that would have been very unfulfilling.”

A neuropsychologist, she explains, does objective testing, which includes memory and IQ, language skills, and visual processing. When Boone was training 30 years ago there were some loopholes that the test subject could wiggle through. For example, “We had no idea if they were doing their best. Sometimes people are motivated and incentivized not to do their best.

“So,” Boone continues, “I’ve been able to build and validate tests to objectively document whether or not people are doing their best on the testing. And that has felt very creative and fun in a way, like, okay, Which tests can we develop now that’s going to give us that information?”

But, she adds, “it’s not really legacy work per se, in that I can do research and maybe develop a test, and a paper might be relevant for 10 or 15 years, but then it becomes obsolete. At the end of the day there’s nothing really left tangible. But if you can do a piece of art, written art, visual art, it’s where you can leave a legacy.”

“She’s being a bit self-deprecating,” Rodney says, stepping in. “She’s written seven books. She’s written over 100 articles. She’s very, very well thought of (in her profession). She’s made an impact on the field of neuropsychology.” Addressing his wife he continues, “You’re kind of diminishing what you have achieved. You’ve been very creative in the work, and I think things are kind of beginning to shift to more visual art.”

Untitled: telephone pole in flames, by Kyle Boone

Lessons from the past

“People have different skills, and you can pick one skill to go through life with,” Boone says, in response to her husband’s words. “I think that most of us could have done a lot of different things in our life, but we choose one thing and it kind of shuts the door on something else. Then it’s a poignant time in your life as you get older, like, can I come back to that?

“I really enjoy what I do,” she continues, “but now I’m trying to spend more time doing art.” However, a person may lead themselves into thinking, “Oh, I can just pick it up at any time in the future, not realizing it’s a craft you have to learn.”

It’s clear from Boone’s interest in tornadoes and storms that she’s been attracted to the natural elements when those natural elements have something to say, and they say it in a way that’s loud and clear. She’s also been an ardent admirer of paintings by Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), who painted lava flows in Hawaii, and William Bradford (1823-1892), who accompanied seafaring expeditions to the Arctic in order to visually document the harsh terrain and the icebergs. In those days there was plenty of polar ice but no Polaroids, so how else could accurate impressions of these new and perhaps uncharted lands be conveyed to the public keeping warm back home?

“The artists would return from seeing the icebergs but they wouldn’t have sketched it quite correctly,” Boone says. “So it’s a very funny-looking iceberg that they tried to represent from memory.”

Sort of like the earliest depictions, five centuries ago, when European artists attempted to convey images of hippos, rhinos, and elephants before the creatures themselves had even set foot on the new continent. The intent for accuracy may have been there, but the accuracy itself often left much to be desired.

As often as not, too, painters weren’t opposed to artfully enhancing what they saw, creating a kind of hyperrealism, which we see in the works of other artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.

“I’ve always been pulled to those types of paintings,” Boone says, “and sometimes I feel like I’m in the wrong century.”

At the same time, she adds, “There are things I like about more modern art; the ‘40s, the Surrealists, I like that. I like some of the work in the ‘50s like Rauschenberg and his constructions and compositions.” Furthermore, Boone mentions that she’s been drawn to Mexican folk art, and that she, and Rodney, having recently returned from South Africa, “loved the art that we saw, the African art. So I’ve liked more unusual content, more primitive things, colorful things.”

Untitled: cloud formations by Kyle Boone

Feeling the heat

And I’m thinking, What could be more primitive and colorful than fire? That, too, is one of her preferred subjects, especially fire in an urban setting, and not just in a fireplace. Because, as Boone explains in an email she sent me, “I like the juxtaposition of a beautiful landscape with something very odd and unexpected in the tableau.”

Besides, what’s more arresting to the eye than paintings of blazing fires paired with swirling tornadoes?

“I still want to do more fire paintings,” Boone says. “I think the colors are just magnificent.”

She’s made one of a telephone pole fully ablaze, and another of a house at night, engulfed by flames. “To have the skeleton of the building kind of black, and then the flames coming out of it, is really striking. I like the smoke that billows out. So, fire in combination with death.”

The frame of the latter work, acquired from Ron Sesco at Distinctive Edge, resembles charred and blackened wood. It’s perfect.

The intense fire and the billowing smoke gives these works an active sense of movement with their unrestrained, abstract patterns, a backdrop of sorts to the recognizable but perishing shapes in the fore- or middleground.

Boone concurs, and says, “I’ve learned that the composition has to be good. You can’t have something that’s exquisitely interesting to look at if it’s not the right composition.”

The master of cataclysmic events and apocalyptic fires may have been the English painter John Martin (1789-1854), and perhaps we can see echoes of his work in the terrible and senseless destruction of both private and public buildings in Ukraine. “There were some pretty striking photographs at the beginning of the Ukrainian war,” Boone says, “buildings burning at night, the billowing smoke; I might do that. I know, it’s pretty upsetting, especially the bombing, but when you objectively look at it, it’s just striking.

“I realize that these are traumatic things,” she continues, “and I would imagine if my house burned down I wouldn’t be drawn to them. But actually some of the fire photos that are put on the internet are just amazing and beautiful.”

Are there other subjects apart from tornadoes and fires that appeal to her?

Boone doesn’t hesitate: “Spaceships.” And so, yes, there are images of these as well in her repertoire; saucer-shaped craft shooting through the cloudy, gaseous heavens. “I don’t want to do a painting with roses on a fence.”

Hers are not everyday images, nor will they be to everyone’s taste. But they do stand out, a double-take in waiting for those who take notice.

“I’m always struck by how individual art is,” Boone says. “There’s something so individual about how you respond to art, and what it means, and you have no control over it. Something grabs you. It’s just whether or not you respond to it.” PEN


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