Kenneth Kilstrom, Artist

Dedicated to the life and work of Illinois and New York artist Kenneth Kilstrom 1922-1995

Copyright 2012-2020

    Kenneth Kilstrom was a native of Illinois who moved to Manhattan at the beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He knew, and was known, by many artists who are famous today. Circumstances beyond his control removed him from that association during a critical period when these artists were gaining well deserved recognition for their contributions to this new style. It may be that had this not happened, his name would be mentioned in common with those other great artists. This web site is a small attempt to rectify this circumstance.

Kilstrom still

unnamed, Kenneth Kilstrom, 12" x 16", oil on board

Early Family Life

    Harold Kenneth Russel Kilstrom was born on 25 December 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, only child of Harold Robert and Hulda Elfreda Elizabeth Nelson Kilstrom, both children of Swedish immigrants. Kilstrom's birth date is incorrectly reported as 29 December 1922 in the Social Security Death Index. Harold Robert Kilstrom was employed as an optician in Chicago in the 1910-1940 censuses. Harold Kenneth Russel Kilstrom was listed in the 1930 census as Harold, but later used his middle name, Kenneth.
    Since Kilstrom used various versions of his name over the span of his life, resulting in some confusion, extra care has been taken to verify his identity. Kenneth Kilstrom's full name, birth date, and the names of his parents, are proved by the 1930 Federal census of Chicago, IL, the Cook County, Illinois Birth Certificate Index, 1871-1922 (FHL Film #1379146), the Cook County, Illinois Birth Index 1916-1935 (File #6055470) and by the 1940 Federal Census of Berwyn, Illinois. When contacted for information about Kenneth Kilstrom's attendance there, the registrar of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) replied:

"Kenneth Harold Kilstrom attended SAIC from 1943 to 1944 but did not graduate."

    The Registrar also noted that he was the only person with this surname to have attended the SAIC. Kenneth Harold Kilstrom gave his address as 6957 Riverside Drive, Berwyn, Illinois in his SAIC registration forms. This is the same address that Harold Robert Kilstrom, Kenneth's father, reported on his WWII Draft Registration Card and the same address where the Kilstrom family was residing during the 1940 Federal Census of Berwyn, Illinois.
    Kenneth Kilstrom married Joy Soeda, a Japanese American
born in 1915 in Kauai County, Hawaii, of Japanese immigrant parents. Little is known about Joy and some incorrect information has been published about her. A more detailed examination of her life is presented at the end of this biography.

Possible Kilstrom high school photo    Kenneth Kilstrom
            ca 1960s

Kenneth Kilstrom, 1940 and ca 1960s

    The photo on the left above is of a Kenneth Kilstrom who was a senior in the 1940 class at Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, IL. It is not proved that this is the same man, but the timing is right, the name is uncommon, and there is a strong resemblance to a later photo of Kenneth Kilstrom. This Kenneth Kilstrom was a member of the National Honor Society, according to the 1940 yearbook. The second photo was obtained from Sally Midgette Anderson, of the Roswell Art Museum, who knew the Kilstroms.


    Kenneth Kilstrom reportedly attended the University of Illinois (1942-1943) and the Schools of the Art Institute of Chicago (1943-1944). That Kilstrom attended the University of Illinois has not been proved, though if he did, it was likely the University of Illinois Chicago. The Registrar of that school would not confirm his attendance due to privacy concerns. This Registrar manages records for all of the University of Illinois campuses. His attendance at the SAIC has been confirmed. 

    Much of what follows in this paragraph is unconfirmed and comes from a source that has not been able to provide any documentation, but has published this information on the Internet where it has been widely cited from for several years. Kilstrom attended the Canterbury School of Drama in Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Goodman school of Drama in Chicago. Kilstrom was awarded a scholarship for art to Cooper Union in New York City and moved there in 1945. He attended the school briefly and was offered a job as an apprentice with sculptor, Isamu Noguchi from 1945-1947. During the time Kilstrom worked with Noguchi he did set design for Martha Graham. He also studied musical composition with renowned composer Meyer Kupferman and percussion with the Francesca Boaz dance group.
    It seems unlikely that Kilstrom could have attended the Canterbury School of Drama and Goodman School of Drama in the time between his attendance at the SAIC in 1944 and his reported move to New York City in 1945.
No records for a Canterbury School of Drama in Fort Wayne have been found, but there is mention of such a school in Chicago. There is a Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, but is was not created until 1977 and serves grades K-12. The Goodman School is now known as the Theater School at DePaul University. It seems most likely that Kilstrom attendance at these schools may have been in the nature of individual classes, not enrollment in any specific degree program, and perhaps between the time he graduated from high school in 1940 until he moved to New York in 1945.
   When contacted, the Archivist at the Noguchi Museum reported that there is no mention of Kilstrom in their Archives. This does not mean that Kilstrom did not work with Noguchi, but that records do not exist that can confirm this connection. If Kilstrom did work with Noguchi during this period, he would likely have worked on Graham's production of either "Cave of Heart" or "Errand into the Maze". Images of Kilstrom have been sent to the archivist at the Noguchi Museum in the hopes that he may appear in photographs from this period. A friend of Kilstrom, artist John Grillo, mentions Kilstrom's affiliation with Noguchi in an interview in the 16 July 2011 edition of the Provincetown Magazine. Mr. Grillo was a friend of Kilstrom and collector of his work. He has been contacted for more information about Kilstrom, including Kilstrom's affiliation with Noguchi.
    The archivist at the Meyer Kupferman web site could find no references to Kilstrom in their records but was able to supply contact information for Kupferman's widow and an attempt to contact her for more information is in process.
    No records of a Francesca Boaz Dance Group have been found. Only two mentions of Francesca, or Francisca, Boaz were found using a Google and search. First, in the Rome News Tribune on 20 January 1958 it is reported that Francesca Boaz was the director for the dance segment of a children's play. Second, a single mention of "Francisca Boaz's Dance Studio in Manhattan" is made in A Fire in the Mind: the life of Joseph Campbell by Larsen (1991). Various sources show that the Kilstrom's were living in Manhattan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The dates and proximity of the Boaz Dance Studio to the Kilstroms' apartments during this period may support this claim.
    An attempt to confirm Kilstrom's scholarship to the Cooper Union is under way.
    All of this being said, there may be some grain of truth in these claims but they may have been inflated, perhaps by a gallery for the purpose of enhancing Kilstrom's credentials at some point. This is only speculation, though.

1950s - Work as an artist and Incarceration

   In the early 1950's, Kilstrom was committed to a psychiatric hospital where he was confined for around a decade. Kilstrom is mentioned in American water colors, drawings, and prints, 1952: a national competitive exhibition, December 5, 1952-January 25, 1953 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which may indicate that he was committed after this date. The reason for his commitment has not been preserved. According to a memoir by a friend of the Kilstroms, Pat Passlof, Kenneth's wife, Joy, brought him home cooked meals and painting materials on the weekends and he would pass the day of her visit in painting and picnicking, weather permitting. Pat Passlof was the spouse of noted artist, Milton Resnick. Kilstrom could not keep painting materials at the hospital as the other patients would take them. It wasn't until around 1960 that prominent people from the art world, including Robert Motherwell, Richard Bellamy and others, attempted unsuccessfully to get Kilstrom released from the hospital. At the urging of Pat Passlof, the Tanager Gallery in New York agreed to sponsor a one man show of Kilstrom's works and the success of this show aided in achieving his release. The gallery was not told that Kilstrom was residing in a psychiatric hospital. Purchasers of Kilstrom's work at this show included Tom Hess, editor of ArtNews Magazine. The Tanager show of his work was a near sellout, and favorably reviewed, so Joy Soeda Kilstrom showed Xerox copies of the receipts and reviews from this show to the director of the  hospital where Kilstrom was detained. This convinced him to immediately release Kilstrom. Subsequently, Kilstrom had many successful one man and group shows.

kilstrom exhibition

Work as an artist

Attack on Marshall Gilbert

"The Attack on Marshall Gilbert", Kenneth Kilstrom, 9 15/16" x 17 11/16", intaglio, color, with engraving, aquatint and offset
(Courtesy, Harvard Art Museums)

    Kilstrom's initial success was as a print maker. Kilstrom joined Stanley Hayter's Atelier 17 in New York City in 1947, which was reportedly in close proximity to his apartment. One researcher has speculated that the painting below depicts this apartment during this time. While working at Hayter's Atelier in 1948, Kilstrom is mentioned in The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art by Gerald W. R.Ward (2008) as possibly the first artist to add real world photographic imagery onto an intaglio printing plate as an element in a composition, in his work "The Attack on Marshall Gilbert". This print is currently in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. Kilstrom had early success as a print-maker and won awards and prizes for his prints, including a purchase award from the Museum of Modern Art. Sally Midgette Anderson noted that he was known as a "star" in the world of print artists at the time when he won a first prize from the Philadelphia Print Club. Kilstrom was almost certainly exposed to a new movement in painting called the New York School, or Abstract Expressionism, when he moved to New York. He is said to have attended Robert Motherwell's "Subjects of the Artist" discussions and been very interested in this style, which is reflected in his printmaking. Kilstrom's close association with Milton Resnick, who is well known for painting in the Abstract Impressionist style, also seems to have influenced Kilstrom's work as much of his work appears to be in that style.

              of Kilstrom's apartment

unnamed, Kenneth Kilstrom, 16" x 20", oil on board (possibly Kilstrom's apartment)

    Kilstrom exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1948, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in 1949, the Tanager Gallery in New York City in 1961, the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 1963, 1964 and 1966, at the Fishbach Gallery 1964-1967 and at the Roswell Museum in 1971. According to a history of the program, he was accepted into the Roswell Artist in Residence program in 1970-1971. This history also noted that he was friends with abstract expressionists Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof, who were also members of the program, and also from New York. Pat Passlof and Milton Resnick recommended Kilstrom for the program. At various times the Kilstroms and Passlof and Resnick were neighbors in various apartment buildings that were favored by New York School artists in Manhattan. According to the 22 September 1975 issue of the Village Voice, Kilstrom's work was among that exhibited at the MOMA as part of the "76 Jefferson Streeters Show". This show was comprised of the work of 17 well known artists who had resided at 76 Jefferson St., NYC over a period of about 20 years. The building was a widely known as a residence of poor artists and musicians. Kilstrom was living there at the time of the MOMA exhibition. The article notes that the building was "a microcosm of the New York art scene".
    Kilstrom's work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian Institutionís Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sao Paolo, Brazil and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Kilstrom is mentioned in various art magazines in the 1960s including the New Yorker, Arts Magazine, The Art Gallery, Art International and Studio International. The following excerpt is from The Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program: an anecdotal history by Ann McGarrell and Sally Midgette Anderson:

"Kenneth Kilstrom (1970-1971)
Ken Kilstrom was the last of the group of artists who had applied either because they were personally acquainted with the Andersons or with one of the artists already on the grant. He and his wife, Joy, were friends of Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof in New York City. His paintings were filled with angels and wonderfully strange, naive figures. He also enjoyed the open landscape of the compound and the possible kinds of recreation available. He had a habit of coming into Bill Midgette's studio asking him if he'd like to play a game of badminton. (At this time, Midgette was scrambling to get ready for his first New York show and was not receptive.)"

    The last mention of Kilstrom's work as an artist found to date was in Arts Magazine: Volume 51, Issues 6-10, 1977. Kilstrom is also mentioned in Ten Years of American Prints 1947-1956 by Una E. Johnson, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School by Dorfman and Davenports Art Reference and Price Guide.

Identifying Kilstrom's work

    Identifying the work of Kenneth Kilstrom is typically very straightforward due to is distinctive style and uncommon surname. He typically signed his work "Kilstrom" or "Kenneth Kilstrom" in block letters or cursive. This was not always the case, though. There has been some doubt cast on the claim that a lot of paintings offered on ebay starting about 2009, bearing the "HKK" monogram, were the work of Kilstrom, since he also, perhaps more commonly, signed "Kilstrom" or "Kenneth Kilstrom". When this question was raised with the seller of these works, the seller supplied the following response:

"We bought Kilstroms entire estate from the city of New York when he died. ALL the pieces were signed HKK. There were graphics that had his full name. I had an art professor buying some of his pieces, who knew the artist and confirmed they were all by him. We have sold over 150 paintings by Kilstrom on eBay over the past 2 years all were authentic and painted by Kilstrom."

    An attempt is being made to verify this sale with the city of New York.

Kilstrom seascape

unnamed, Kenneth Kilstrom, 16" x 20", oil on board

    Subsequent conversations with the seller revealed that the art professor was a noted African American abstract artist, as well, Marvin Prentiss Brown (1943 - ). Attempts to contact Mr. Brown have been unsuccessful, so far.
    At least one of the paintings from this lot, a seascape, bears the "HKK" monogram on front and is also signed "Kenneth Kilstrom" verso. It is possible that these are early works by Kilstrom, created before he dropped his first name, possibly from the late 1940s or early 1950s. It may be that Kilstrom used a monogram during the period that he was achieving success as a print maker, in order to not shift the awareness of his work from printmaking to his painting. This may help to date his monogrammed works to the late 1940s and early 1950s.
There is a strong resemblance between some of these monogrammed works and works signed by Kilstrom in the 1960s, particularly his figurative work.

kenneth kilstrom verso

Kilstrom seascape, verso

kilstrom monogram    kilstrom
                monogram    kilstrom

Examples of Kilstrom's monogram

Joy Soeda Kilstrom

    Joy Kilstrom was born on 2 July 1915 and died on 16 November 1988 in New York City, according to the Social Security Death Index. Joy's Social Security Number was issued in Illinois, so Kenneth and Joy may have married there. It seems possible that Kilstrom and Soeda met at one of the institutions where Kilstrom studied.
    Joy has not been identified in the 1920 or 1930 Hawaii censuses. Yokichi and Kame Shoeda and son Takeo appear in the 1910 Paalaa Uka, Honolulu census. No Soedas appear in the 1920 Hawaii census, though there are several Soundex spelling variants that do appear in the census.
There is one family of Soedas in the 1930 census of Hawaii, headed by Yokichi and Kame Soeda, but no female that fits Joy's age is reported. The census lists Takiyo, Kenzo, Yoshio and Tashio as sons of Yokichi and Kame Soeda. This couple has not been located in the 1920 census, but the birth dates of their children and other information indicates they were in Hawaii by 1907. It is possible that her birth name was not Joy, or that she may have been in Japan, as indicated in other records, during the 1920 and 1930 censuses.
    Joy is listed in the 1937 and 1938 Honolulu City directories as a teacher at the Castle Free Memorial Kindergarten.
Takeo Soeda, manager at the Soeda Garage and Kenzo a mechanic at the garage are listed in the same directory, as well. Also listed are Raymond T. and Yokichi. All of these Soedas, excepting Joy, are listed as residents of Heeia, a Honolulu neighborhood.  Yokichi Soeda and wife Kame left Hawaii for Japan in 1939, according to passenger lists. Whether this was a relocation or vacation is not noted, but it was noted their last arrival in Hawaii was on 26 March 1907, so it seems likely this was vacation. A Yoshika Soeda the right age to be Joy arrived in Los Angeles from Honolulu on 14 June 1940.
    Joy Soeda was interred as part of the Manzanar Relocation Project in 1942, during WWII, while living in Los Angeles. The brief record of her internment contains some interesting information about her. She had attended one year of college, had received a teaching certificate and taught in kindergarten and primary schools. She is mentioned in a history of the Manzanar camp as a teacher and also instructor of new teachers. She had lived in Japan for a period of one to five years before the age of 19, and spoke, but did not read or write Japanese.
    Kenneth and Joy are listed as Kenneth Kilstrom and Joy Soeda at the same address in the 1957 Manhattan city directory. Joy Soeda was still at the same address in 1959 but Kenneth was not listed. This may indicate that they did not marry until later, or that Joy continued to use her maiden name after their marriage.
Joy Kilstrom received credit as the costume designer for the 1961 short film "The Sin of Christ", according to the Internet Movie Database. She is recorded as Joy Kilstrom in the Social Security Death Index.

Other works by Kenneth Kilstrom

From the collection of William Gary Lopez

Kilstrom from the collectio of Gary

              from the collection of Gary Lopez

Kilstrom's 1971 show at the Roswell Art Museum included more than thirty paintings. Only half a dozen images were included in the brochure for this show, though. The text of the brochure:

The paintings of Kenneth Kilstrom are displayed at the Museum in celebration of the artist-in-residence grant. The more than thirty canvases are testament to nine months of intense and joyous creativity. The images and subjects of these canvases are the pious reflection of the artist's daily life in New Mexico. Yet they are more that emotional expressions of encounter between artist and canvas. Manifest is the transcendental presence evident in art where the artistic integrity has evoked truth and harmony. The delicate anxiety of line and form as well as the strongly abstract resolution of form and space are reminiscent of Early Christian painting. Indeed, the almost fervid stillness in The Nude and Woman with Hat and Angel suggest this awareness of an eternal moment of salvation similar to that of the British painters of the Middle Ages.

The compositions vary from portraits and single figures to multifigured groups. Sometimes the figures are with hats or nimbus; but always with dark bands of hair framing the faces.

The visitor to this exhibition will find it a peaceful experience.

Wendell OTT
August, 1971

Kilstrom Roswell 1        Kilstrom Roswell 2

            Roswell 3        Kilstrom Roswell 4

            Roswell 5        Kilstrom Roswell 6

From the collection of the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art:

Kilstrom Anderson Museum

unnamed, Kenneth Kilstrom, 12" x 9", oil

This painting is on permanent display at the Museum.

Some images from the Internet, part of the HKK ebay lot:

Kilstrom from Etsy 1

                  from Etsy 2

Kilstrom prints from the Indianapolis Museum of Art:

Kilstrom Polymorphic Pianos

"Polymorphic Pianos", Kenneth Kilstrom, etching, 1947

Kilstrom Cock at the wake

"Cock at the wake", Kenneth Kilstrom, color etching and engraving, 1947

Kilstro Percussion Head 1949

"Percussion Head", Kenneth Kilstrom, color etching and engraving, ca 1949

Kilstrom Piano music by Evan Evissen

"Piano music by Evan Evissen", Kenneth Kilstrom, etching and engraving with aquatint, 1947