The casual art of living well all the time

Sunday, September 13, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Why Casual Friday? Whose big idea was this? Why not leave things exactly as they were? Women in shoes engineered for maximum discomfort. And men choked by neckwear that serves absolutely no function whatsoever. Is this the work of an anarchist? Or is it merely a plan by Procter & Gamble to sell more Tide? Our Procter, not exactly the most informal company in America, has been dressing down since 1994. I'll bet somebody noticed that you can throw Dockers in the wash, but you have to send suits to the dry cleaner.

Grown-up clothes

Myself, I am too disorganized to schedule all my informal moments in a single day. To be on the safe side, I continue to wear my best clothes to the office every day. Just in case. For instance, what if the mayor is too busy to meet with the president of the United States on a Friday and she asks me to go in her place? I don't want to show up at Stanley Chesley's house in slacks and a golf shirt.

Besides, it gives me yet another reason to dream of retirement, when I plan to burn all my grown-up clothes and wear nothing but T-shirts and jeans.

So, anyway I was dropping off my dry cleaning -- mostly business suits -- when I spotted it.

Parked behind an office building in O'Bryonville was a school bus, painted white, then really painted. Psychedelic flowers on the front bumper. Orange and blue wheels. Footprints. Handprints. The front end was a tribute to Jackson Pollock.

"Pork Chop Mike" was in big red letters. A rock-star-in-training?

"Flower Power" was scrawled in a determined chartreuse. A Partridge Family reunion?

Big red lips. Monica takes her act on the road?

A daily chant

I started knocking on doors. The bus belongs to an artist. Well, of course it does.

James Michael Kahle (rhymes with sail) is a beefy guy with a beard and blond-going-to-gray ponytail. Birkenstocks and a single earring. I found him unloading glass, the most beautiful glass I've ever seen. Big glass. Foot-wide discs on stainless steel stands he calls lollipops. Asymmetrical platters of bright color on brighter color. Exquisite paperweights, plates, vases, bowls, lamps. Mr. Kahle's resume includes studies at the University of Cincinnati and the Toledo Museum of Art. He was a charter member of the management at Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, known as much for its social policies as for its Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia flavors.

Now he is his own boss, working out of his garage in Spencerville, a little town in northwestern Ohio. "I start out with a Gregorian chant about 9 a.m." And I start, of course, with the John Phillips chant, "Traffic tied up through the cut in the hill, an accident on 71 . . . "

Mr. Kahle's glass will be at the Design Consortium Gallery, 2012 Madison Road, in O'Bryonville until Oct. 9. Prices range from $20 paperweights to $2,800 lollipops. No duplicates. Not ever. "It would be more profitable to do the same blue vase 40 times. But that's not art. That's production."

I finally asked him about the bus.

It began as a school bus yellow. "Then I threw the first annual bus party and major feed," he says. Those wielding paintbrushes included Spencerville's chief of police and the president of the local motorcycle club. Artists were aged 6 though 89.

After they finished eating and painting, they took the leftovers to a homeless shelter.

The artist smiles a lot and laughs easily, almost but not quite a giggle. It's the sound of a man who gets to make something beautiful anytime he feels like it. He walks five steps to work, and every day is Casual Friday.

James Michael Kahle will never retire. He has no incentive.

Laura Pulfer's column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393, e-mail or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, is available from Orange Frazer Press at (800) 852-9332.