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Bold Strokes

Growing up as one of five kids in a country home built by his father, Kevin Radell ’77 took art classes from his mother, painter Renée Radell, and talked with her about mythology in her studio. “Everybody in rural Michigan sensed that she was different,” he says.

Kevin recently released a monograph about her career, Renée Radell: Web of Circumstance, through his publishing company, Predmore Press, named for the scenic road about 30 miles outside Detroit where the family lived. The 220-page book—framed as a celebration of underrecognized women artists—catalogues Renée’s far-ranging oeuvre, which encompasses political commentaries, mural-scale works, allegorically themed paintings, portraits, and landscapes.

In her introduction, art critic Eleanor Heartney writes that family is a recurring theme in Renée’s works, although she avoided sentimental conventions. “Instead,” Heartney writes, “she imbued her paintings with a sense of the tensions and obligations of motherhood and used the theme to examine more universal truths. For instance I and Thou, painted two weeks after the birth of Radell’s fifth child [Raissa ’85], presents a resolute mother clasping her child in her sturdy arms. Her face is tipped upward, asking guidance, perhaps, or expressing the anxiety that comes with motherhood.”

An art history major at Swarthmore who now runs a successful portrait business, Raissa has I and Thou hanging in her home. She counts a summer spent studying painting with Renée at the Lacoste School of Art in France and the years teaching alongside her at Parsons School of Design in New York City among her fondest memories. 

“My mother’s art infiltrated every part of her being,” says Raissa, who after Swarthmore earned a BFA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art.

Kevin holds master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He works as a corporate finance and strategic planning consultant with particular expertise in private market transactions, alternative assets, and Chinese alliances.

He has, along with his father, been cataloging Renée’s art for the past 25 years. In addition to handling the business of the book’s production, he worked with his parents and Heartney to select images from a body of work that includes about 1,000 paintings.

“After this, I have tremendous respect for editors and art book publishers,” says Kevin. “The detail, even for a son and research enthusiast, is seemingly endless, but ultimately it was a very rewarding project. Her artistic legacy needed to be recorded.”

The book focuses on Renée’s accomplishments as a pioneering social- commentary painter as well as the constraints she faced as an artist with familial responsibilities who, early in her career, used her refrigerator as an easel. Renée, with more than 40 solo exhibitions among her credentials, moved from Michigan to New York City in 1984, after her children were grown.

“Radell has achieved a great deal, but it is hard not to imagine how much smoother the ride might have been if her circumstances were different, i.e. if she had been a man, if she had been free to move to New York when she was just starting out,” Heartney writes.

“She never quits,” Kevin says of his mother, now 87. “She has been able to live in multiple dimensions: the dimensions of a woman, of a mother, an artist, and a philosopher. I learned from her that we can multiprocess, and I found that Swarthmore was the perfect place to develop that broad perspective.”