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Jeff Kahm

Jeff Kahm, a renowned painter and professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, died Friday in a car crash, according to students and colleagues.

The authorities told the school they believe Kahm had a medical incident of some sort while driving, causing his car to overturn at Cerrillos and Ocate roads on the city’s south side.

“Jeff was on his way to school,” said Eric Davis, a spokesman for IAIA. “He didn’t make class, and people started looking for him.”

Kahm was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1968 and moved to Santa Fe in the 1990s to study painting and photography at IAIA.

He finished his undergraduate studies at the Kansas City Art Institute and later earned a master’s degree at the University of Alberta. He had taught at IAIA since 2005.

“His feedback was always some of the most valuable,” said Brian Fleetwood, an assistant professor at IAIA. “There are a lot of people who come in with an ego, and despite his incredible technical ability and his knowledge of art history and painting in particular, he always came at a critique without a chip on his shoulder that a lot of people bring.”

Kahm was humble, soft-spoken and “had a tremendous work ethic and commitment to the school,” Fleetwood said.

On his website, Kahm described his paintings as being “rooted in Indigenous abstraction and Modernist aesthetics.” His work has been displayed in galleries across the U.S., Canada, Russia and Switzerland.

“We really are heartbroken about this loss,” said IAIA President Robert Martin. “It’s been a real blessing to know an artist that is so talented and creative but also is very generous with his time.”

Matt Eaton, a sculpture professor at IAIA, said: “Jeff was really good with his students, and he was a genuinely humble person. He was so important to our faculty.”

Kahm had tribal affiliations with the Plains Cree and Little Pine First Nation of Saskatchewan. Bryson Meyers, a senior at IAIA, said Kahm was one of his favorite teachers.

“He was a really good friend of mine because we both come from the same area of Canada,” Meyers said. “He was more than a teacher to me. … He was the only other [person] on campus who used our language.”

Tahnee Ahtoneharjo-Growingthunder, a former student of Kahm’s, said the two stayed in touch after she graduated.

“Right away we discovered we had relatives in common,” she said. “Jeff always found a way to talk about home with us, which I know he didn’t have that relationship with other students — to talk about old powwow songs or just to laugh and tease in the old tribal language.”

(4) comments

Alfred Young Man

Jeff's passing is a significant loss to our family. We will miss him greatly. I mentored the budding artist when he was a teenager, even to his appointment as an art professor at IAIA. He was eager to study at IAIA once I told him about the school. He never lost sight of his goals and dreams to continue to obtain his undergraduate and graduate degrees, finally to teach at IAIA. Jeff realized his dreams and was never unclear about his intent to be the best possible artist/painter anybody could strive to be. He produced relentlessly, never having enough time to finish his appointed role in life as an artist. This artist seemed to know that his time with us was finite. If this extraordinary painter intuitively realized that there was no time to be rude to others - no time to boast of his place or accomplishments in life - he always held his peace. There was no time to behave as superior to other human beings, no time to leave his work undone. He wrung the last bit of energy out of his thoughts and dreams even as he desired to paint. He was a Cree philosopher/artist in the most genuine sense and meaning of the description. He dedicated much of his life to IAIA, to his students, who were always uppermost in his mind. Jeff is and will remain a significant figure in the Native American art world. Relatively recently, he found himself rubbing shoulders with the future President of the United States, Joe Biden - we found out only through rumour, through the mocassin telegraph.

When I asked about the "rumour," he quietly replied in a humble affirmative and sent me a picture of the group. He was like that; he was not the kind to boast of his hard-won accomplishments. I would say that his life was an improbable destiny for a reservation Cree-speaking kid from Saskatchewan's wide-open spaces. Kahmakoostayo might have come to us from another time and place. Even as a teenager, I could see that he had a laser-like focus on who and what he wanted to become. He did not disappoint and went far beyond all expectations. Rest in peace, little brother. Your art will live on forever. Your spirit is now beside the deceased members of our family and with our ancestors. They are happy to have you home with them.

Alfred Young Man

Leethbridge, Alberta

Diane Rolnick

Thank you Alfred Young Man for writing about Jeff's story. I was a colleague of Jeff's at IAIA where I taught on and off for a number of years. He was exactly as you described a lovely man and fine artist. I will miss bumping into him in town and had been looking forward to exchanging studio visits after COVID. He will be sorely missed in the community!

Alfred Young Man

You are welcome Diane, stay safe.

Ernest Mann


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