by Kathleen Weflen
This sixth annual Sense of Place issue presents artwork by three American masters. Over their lifetimes, Charles Beck, Marley Kaul, and Gaylord Schanilec have turned again and again to their home ground to procure the inspiration and ideas essential to their art. Their paintings and wood-engraved prints reflect the land, sky, and waters they observe daily. Yet their work does not simply mirror the natural world with realistic reproductions. Rather, these artists react to their encounters with nature by expressing their own personal visions. Looking at their distillations of time and place, we too might sharpen our senses and see what we would otherwise overlook.
Charles Beck drives his pickup truck around the hills of northwestern Minnesota on the edge of the Red River valley, where prairie meets hardwoods. He notes the play of light and shadow and the variety of textures, colors, and patterns. "Seasons add another dimension," he says. "There is never a down time when you can't see something you have never seen before." Back in his studio in Fergus Falls, he translates his observations and sensations into images by carving wood blocks to print by hand on paper. This is his daily work—to see the things that grow in the country where he was born in 1923; then to take up his carving tools, wood, printer's inks, rollers, and paper and make something of it. Many admirers of his work now look at the region's glacial hills and lakes and say the scene looks like a Beck—a beautifully simplified essence of place.
Marley Kaul went for a walk in the backwoods after returning to his home in Bemidji from his brother's funeral. There, in the woods, he encountered birches downed by a windstorm and vernal ponds formed by snowmelt. What was he to make of this chaotic but quiet place? He returned the next day to make sketches and several times after that to take photographs at different hours of day. As he looked at the ponds, he said, "the poet side" of him took over and he started making associations. Then he began to paint, conveying emotions from head and heart to hand and canvas, brushstroke by brushstroke. When he was finished, he had three large paintings—Vernal Ponds Triptych—landscapes that beckon viewers to look beyond the elements and ponder the ephemeral.
Gaylord Schanilec draws his observations and enthusiasms from his life on 27 acres alongside the Mississippi River. He fishes Lake Pepin, taps his maples for sap to make syrup, engraves wood, and runs a vintage letterpress. As a printmaker and book artist, he aims for precision in carving and then printing wood blocks in multiple layers of color. His images include mayflies, birds, fish, trees, rivers, and waterfalls. An edition of 200 handmade books can take years to craft. Time is a luxury he grants himself, using it deliberately, carefully, wisely. Now, in middle age, he imagines he might have time to produce just a few more art projects. Like many a dedicated conservationist, he sees his work with the natural world as a legacy.
Each image can tell a story or evoke a feeling. But to fully appreciate a work of art, says Marley Kaul, the viewer must encounter it firsthand. Some of us will be fortunate to see the actual work of these artists. Everyone can take time to go out and rediscover a sense of place.