This week I took a more direct approach and interviewed somebody that I found on mnartists.org. Hopefully I don't seem too much like a stalker, but I've been searching mnartists for artists living in nearby rural areas that have bodies of work that look compelling to me. Mnartists.org is a great resource for artists living in Minnesota or nearby Wisconsin cities to post their websites and portfolios. The site also posts job openings, calls for entries, articles, and residencies. The only state I can think of that has anything comparable to it is New York, which boasts the comprehensive site NYFA. Perusing its Minnesota equivalent one afternoon led me to Gloria Adrian.
I'm not sure of the exact series of clicks that led me to Gloria's page, but I believe it was the title "Becoming Amish" that caught my eye. It may have been the blunt specificity of the words, or the fact that I didn't really know that one could "become" Amish. When I clicked through the pictures, I found a delightful set of paintings that Gloria described as a depiction of a family on their path to becoming Amish.
Gloria Adrian, Sharing from "Becoming Amish" series
Gloria Adrian, Winter Storm from "Becoming Amish" series
The paintings intrigued me because of a story my parents told me recently about their trip to Glacier National Park and a group of Amish people they encountered on a train. My mom said they were peaceful and compassionate people who sang songs with the sunrise, a description that seemed so out of my realm of daily life that I soon formed a brief obsession with Amish people similar to my brief obsession with Mormon people a few summers ago (I go through the strangest phases). I was also curious to know why somebody would choose to depict this uncommon metamorphosis into a lifestyle unknown to many of us via painting.
Through a series of emails Gloria and I set up an interview at a small and cozy coffee shop on the night of the first anticipated snow fall in Minnesota so that I could get some answers.
R: So, tell me a little bit about yourself- Where are you from, did you go to school, what do you do besides art?
G: I went to MCAD, but I went back when I was 40 years old. I couldn't get my kids to go to art school, so I went instead. I thought I would be a graphic designer because that's where you can get money, but it didn't turn out that way. I was a woodworker by trade, but I fell in love with painting (especially people). I am now an artist about 3/4 of the time. I also swim and do a lot of reading. I haven't been doing a lot of exhibiting in galleries.
R: So tell me about woodworking?
G: The woodworking I did was small furniture items which I sold wholesale. It got boring because we only created designs once a year and then you did the same thing over and over again. I originally got into it because I had a boring job and a friend asked me what I would be doing if I could be doing anything, and I said I wanted to do that. I was picked up by a wholesaler and the business was pretty successful in this area.
R: I noticed in your artist statement that the changing of the light is very important to you, however, it seems to me that subject matter is very important in your paintings.
G: Subject matter's important, but it also has to be about the light. I can't paint them if I don't have the right light. Sometimes just a person's aura can be felt, and that comes out in color and light.
R: Tell me about "Becoming Amish." How did you get the opportunity to follow this family on their journey? Why did you feel it was important to depict this family's journey? Who was the ultimate viewer of these works?
G: Most of my art usually ends up to be something personal. My daughter and her husband decided to become Amish. I had really mixed feelings at the time and I find that when I have mixed feelings about something I start painting about it and it comes out. They started out when they got married; they wanted to live off the land. They bought land and built a house with no electricity. They had water but it was just runoff from the hill. They didn't have any community around them, and no one else was doing what they were doing. They also decided they wanted to have some kind of religion in their lives.
Somehow they got into contact with an Amish community in their area, and they started to live the lifestyle and liked it very much. They lived 3-4 years like the Amish before actually becoming Amish. There's a real sense of fellowship in the community. They sing when they work, and they don't have the stress that we have. If it doesn't get done today it will get done tomorrow. When we go and visit it's very peaceful. The children are obedient and happy.
At the beginning they were fine with me documenting the process, but then I was no longer allowed to take pictures. I also wasn't allowed to include faces in the paintings, and near the end they didn't want me to paint anymore at all.
Ultimately I took the paintings on exhibition to some different places, mostly in Wisconsin. I tried to get some in Minneapolis but they were just never accepted.
R: Yeah it's true, there's a really different mindset between the cities and the rural areas in Minnesota, even though they're so close to each other. Tell me about "Women Who Work With Their Hands" [another of Gloria's series]. Did you know these women? Did they pose for you while they were working, or did you take pictures of them? Do you find it more rewarding to work with people than to work with subjects in nature?
G: Most of the women I didn't know until I did the series. It started from moving out to Cushing. I didn't know any other artists and it was lonely. When I started looking for women I found that they were hidden in the area. The first one I did was of my mother-in-law crocheting, and then I just kept getting led to other women. I did rough sketches and then photos. Sometimes I would start the paintings and then would have to go back. It's more challenging to work with people and capture their spirit and be true to it. I'm not always as concerned with likeness as I am with spirit. Sometimes people would disagree with their likeness. Sometimes it will look exactly like the person and other times not.
Gloria Adrian, Dog Groomer from "Women Who Work With Their Hands" series
It's very hard to describe the difference between learning about someone's art from their own mouth vs. reading about it on a wall in a gallery. It feels more sincere. It's kind of like the difference between growing your own food and buying it at a grocery store. To be honest I'd much rather buy my food from a grocery store, because I'm lazy when it comes to food. But I like growing my own art stories. Maybe I should create a new occupation for myself called an Art Farmer. It would make an interesting business card, that's for sure.