BLUFFTON, Ohio - Chris Kohli's palettes and brushes are displayed, along with his wooden paint box, open and full of partly squeezed tubes.
Poignant snippets from his letters have been excised, typed, and enlarged.
And in the middle of the Albrecht Gallery is his sturdy wooden easel, holding an unfinished portrait of four children; a firefighter carried the large canvas out of Mr. Kohli's smoke-engulfed apartment early on Feb. 12.
Mr. Kohli, 46, and two other men, Frank Van Dyke, 35, and William Wagner, 76, died in their sleep from smoke inhalation in the predawn blaze that destroyed a three-story building in downtown Findlay.
The loss left many reeling, including Mr. Kohli's large circle of friends and family around Findlay where he worked as a part-time bartender at The Bistro and painted in an unheated third-floor studio in the Jones Building, wearing fingerless gloves in the winter.
"He laughed a lot and he was very social," said Phil Sugden, a longtime friend and assistant professor of art at Bluffton University. He believed suffering and wrestling with theological questions were part of creating great art. "He saw his life as romantic."
And despite Mr. Kohli's disinterest in self-promotion, a growing handful of loyal patrons commissioned him to paint their families, gardens, and favorite objects. He also painted portraits for the University of Findlay.
"I don't think he compromised himself as an artist," said Mr. Sugden, who also has a studio in the Jones Building. "He had the opportunity to have lim-ited-edition prints made and he didn't do it. He wanted to deal with his work in a more pure state."
Chris Kohli: A Celebration of His Life and Art has created buzz and traffic in this often-quiet gallery in the Sauder Visual Arts Center on the campus of Bluffton University. Many of these works are studies, done to refine form, light, or composition before the final work. None is for sale.
Paring down Mr. Kohli's body of work to the 46 pieces on view through Sept. 23 was no small feat, Mr. Sugden said.
Among the selections: a gauzy painting of a young ballerina, a remarkable pencil sketch of Michelangelo's Pieta Mr. Kohli did as a teenager, a stunning vase of gladiolus, and exquisite portraits, such as the one of Amanda Deerhake. Technically adroit, Mr. Kohli captured luminescence in his subjects.
"Here's a secret," Mr. Kohli wrote in a 1991 letter to a friend. "More than painting people, I want to paint souls - they are just people but on a more truthful level. To have a critic or just an objective onlooker recognize that would be absolute bliss. That's why we have the tradition of figure painting - nudes and robed people, removed from the mundane a bit."
Mr. Kohli grew up in a Mennonite family and graduated from Pandora High School and Anderson University in Indiana where he studied classical piano and art. He sought out apprenticeships for five years in small studio-schools in Texas and Minneapolis with two master painters of Classical Realism. Both painters, Stephen Kirk Richards and Robert Lack, were trained in the Boston School methods and employed specific procedures for layering color starting with the base coat.
During those years, he painted for hours every day, which gave him remarkable discipline. And he was skilled at mixing color and painting form.
"He got to be very good at painting light, which can be very difficult," said Mr. Sugden, noting a still life with crossword, in which a rounded glass bowl has a slivered reflection of Mr. Kohli's studio window. It has a coffee pot and cup, a bowl of hydrangeas and calla lilies, and a folded copy of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, one of his favorite pastimes. A poster of this still life has been reproduced and is being sold for $20 to support an art and music scholarship at Bluffton University.
"I want my paintings to have a healing effect," Mr. Kohli wrote. "Why can't we make our interests in decorating, dressing, cooking, and entertaining be defined by our fulfillment we get from spreading cheer?"
"Chris Kohli: A Celebration of His Life and Art" continues through Sept. 23 in the Albrecht Gallery in the Sauder Visual Arts Center on Spring Street at Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio. It is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. weekends. Information: 419-422-0498 or 419-358-3263.
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