Margot Kernan, a Maryland video artist, created her own images for more than a half-century and spent her life supporting the arts in the Washington region. But she chose one word for her tombstone in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery: teacher.
“She loved teaching,” said her son Nathan Kernan. “She loved her students. She was sort of a force of nature.”
Kernan died Sept. 23, 2020, of the coronavirus at age 93.
Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Mass., her father was an English professor and her mother a photographer and curator. Kernan followed her mother into the arts, spending summers studying with her aunt — Maryland activist and artist Ruth Starr Rose — and graduating from Bennington College in 1948 before her marriage to Michael Kernan, who would later become a Washington Post reporter.
After Michael’s career took the Kernans to California and London, they landed in the Washington region in 1967. As Margot took teaching positions at Antioch College, which had an extension campus in Maryland, and other area institutions, her aesthetic evolved in abstract pieces that presented mysterious texts over still photography.
One Post review from 1990 said Kernan’s work was “so seductive, so absorbing, that time spent within it leaves the visitor with the sense of having passed an hour with a good book, rather than with moving pictures.”
Nancy Garruba, Kernan’s friend and onetime student, said her installations, shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among other institutions, looked “as if Virginia Woolf had been a videographer.”
“It reminded me of Virginia Woolf because she applied that same intense concentration and attention to moments where life seems to open, time seems to stop and you see your life in a way you may not have otherwise,” she said.
As a teacher, Margot opened her home on Reservoir Road to her students for deep discussions of history, art and culture.
“I felt like I was in a literary salon with the brightest lights of Baltimore,” Phyllis Berger, a former student who teaches photography at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an email. “Watching Margot teach was like a master class in pedagogy and as I watched I thought this is what I want to be. And that is what happened!”
Margot and Michael Kernan moved to Vermont in 2001 when she retired from the Maryland Institute College of Art. After his death in 2005, she moved to a Maryland retirement community in 2007, remaining active by writing comedy sketches for theater recruits drawn from community residents, penning a memoir and making art — including a video response to her daughter’s death from cancer. She canvassed for President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign while in her 80s.
“I thought that was so great,” said her granddaughter, Elizabeth Kernan. “She inspired me to become a poll worker in this election. She taught me how to be a feminist.”
Though Kernan was spared during the coronavirus’s first wave, she suffered as visits with family were cut off amid pandemic restrictions. She tested positive in August, contracted pneumonia and her condition quickly declined.
“I think it was the isolation that really caused her decline and eventually her death,” Nathan Kernan said. “When contact was cut off, she was devastated.”
Near the end, her son Nick Kernan was able to visit.
“We were granted that — what so many people were not,” he said. “Just after we saw her, the doctor said she just let go. It’s almost like she was waiting to see us.”