Stripes spotlight: Airman paints himself a life in sunny Spain
CHIPIONA, Spain — Oh, to be a painter living on a beach in Spain. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeffrey Kunkle is already doing it.
“Me and Carmen already have plans to settle here,” said Kunkle, referring to his Spanish bride. “And I’ll paint full time.”
Kunkle, of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron, doesn’t just dabble in art. Last month he showed paintings for two weeks in the Pena Chusco gallery in Chipiona. His works hang at Vogelweh and Spangdahlem Air Force bases in Germany and Osan in South Korea. They were gifts to his former commands.
These days he said he sells his work for $250 and up.
“It’s lucrative, but not so much that I’m ready to quit my day job,” he said.
Ah, the day job. Kunkle is a quality assurance inspector at Naval Station Rota, which means he “follows the mechanics around and make sure they are doing their jobs safely and by the book.”
That doesn’t sound very artsy — mechanics working on C-5s and C-130s with Kunkle playing one of the “black hats on the flight line.”
“I try to approach the job more personably,” Kunkle said. “As an artist, I have a certain attention to detail and am able to see deviations [the mechanics] wouldn’t see.
“You have to hold them accountable to the technical orders and the book, but I rarely have to be a [jerk] about it.”
While the regimentation of military life does not sound conducive to artistic freedom, Kunkle said it’s enabled him to see the world and see great works of art in person. He lived for 13 years in Spangdahlem as both the airman and son of an airman. There have been seven years in Spain.
When Kunkle’s father, a retired master sergeant, was stationed in Hawaii, a teacher named Tom Inhoff motivated the teen to go from scribbling art to studying it.
“He was a bearded guy who drove a Model-A,” Kunkle said. “I thought, ‘That’s the lifestyle for me.’ ”
Kunkle got turned on to the late-19th-century masters of impressionism, such as Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who interpreted their subjects through painting instead of replicating them as their Baroque predecessors did.
“If your painting is going to look like a photograph, you’ve wasted your time in my opinion,” Kunkle said.
Then came the hippie days. Kunkle attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos before running out of money. He eked out a living in San Antonio by tending bar and working the art stalls. In 1985, the Air Force kid returned to the life he knew.
“I couldn’t support myself,” he said. “So I joined the service.”
In his 19 years in the Air Force, Kunkle said he has done mostly commissioned paintings — hired by wives to paint portraits of their husbands — “a long string of colonels, primarily,” he says.
Kunkle lives in Chipiona, which is something of an artists’ colony about 10 miles north of Rota. His wife’s mother owns the 200-year-old house where they all live.
It’s a small home across from the beach. Kunkle’s work clutters a few rooms. He and Carmen, who has two grown children, live there with the dogs.
On his wall hang posters by Claude Monet, another impressionist, and an original print by Salvador Dali. There are no Kunkles on display.
“I’m kind of loathe to hang my own stuff around,” he said. “I’d always be picking at it and touching it up. It’s best for me to get it done, get it framed and get rid of it.”
Kunkle’s not ready to retire. He’s being transferred to South Korea for a one-year assignment, which will be followed by a one-year stint at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
For his gallery show, Kunkle created about 20 pieces in 10 months. Half of them sold on the first day, he said. For two weeks he was at the center of the Chipiona art society. Collectors and painters made up most of the gallery crowd.
“Over the years I painted to satisfy one person (the client),” Kunkle said. “To be recognized by your peers and appreciated by people who know art, it was different.
“There’s an edge to it. The people here know art. Given their history and culture, they wouldn’t tolerate a hack. They’re a tough audience.”