A Call to the Curious

If you're a traveler, artist, adventurer, or whomever post a comment, leave a story, give a piece of advice, and take a part. This blog is meant to be a free exchange, so help make it rich!

22 February 2008

Painting personally vs. painting for others

A Dutch art student named Siri Hol asked me a number of questions about travel drawings and journals for a project she was doing. "What is the reason you're drawing your travels?" she began. "Do you want to show other people what you've done, is it a personal thing, or is there a different reason? What is the function of your journals?"


Mainly it's personal but there is always the pleasure in new people seeing them and the way in which a drawing/watercolour is interpreted differently by each person who sees it. A travel sketch is an edited version of the reality I experienced, whereas a photograph captures everything in a scene and more or less gives every element equal weight. And the more sketchy and unfinished a watercolour is, the more room it leaves for the imagination of the viewer.

An interesting example of that involved the little watercolour of my wife Christine on the balcony of the Hotel Proven├žal in a town called Bormes-les-Mimosas on the Mediterranean in January, 1993. It had been very cold in the south of France for a couple of weeks, but the weather improved a bit and our hotel room had a narrow balcony facing south that was bathed in winter sunlight. So lunch went on practically forever, Christine sitting with the crossword puzzle from the International Herald-Tribune, the wine and water bottles still on the table ...

Anyway, the poet Susan Snively, who teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was looking for a cover image for her book Skeptic Traveller, and saw in the image the same feelings as she'd put into her poems. That's the kind of synergy that I also hope to find between my work and work in other media.

01 February 2008

A Brief Biography: Gregg Fretheim

In 1985 I began my journey as a travel painter. By putting my gear in the car and going to South Dakota, the first step began. In 1988 I set out on a trip to paint the world beyond the United States. I did not know how long the traveling would last. If it was to be a week, a month, or a year, I did not know. I did know if I did not begin this journey, test myself as a painter and an artist, and face the unknown world in which I live, I would live in chronic regret of not doing it or at least attempting it. My fears of traveling alone were little when confronted with that other fear of not traveling, not seeing, and not experiencing the world’s unspeakable brilliance.

My first foreign destination was England. Over a year later, and after at least 25000 miles, I returned to the States. After the gales of Wellington, the Newcastle earthquake in eastern Australia, 120 F heat and three day storms full of bulldust in the Outback, the jungles of the Malay, Thailand’s Songkran water festival, and strolls through Venice, Munich, and Paris, an English Bitter in a Birmingham pub never tasted so good. I had become a traveler. This began my goal to paint the natural landscapes and people of each continent, save Antarctica (although I resign nothing to impossibility). I focus on whatever impacts me and infix this force into my work. Since my first trip, I’ve painted further in Asia: the Philippines, Bali, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Hong Kong’s Lantau Island; Central America: Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica; and South America: Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. I’ve spent roughly two decades painting Asia and Central and South America. I hope another decade each will be spent in Africa, Central Asia, and a final tour of North America. I continued to work in North America through the 90's and have made numerous sketches throughout my travels.

My vision is to create a whole and unified collection of my artwork representing the entire world. Each piece is a part of the whole, and while complete in itself, is part of a greater scheme. I do not sell my paintings for this reason. The collection must be kept together otherwise my vision of the world and its validation, through my artwork, will be lost.

I do not reproduce my works in any alternate form whatsoever. They should be seen as they were first created. I realize mine is not the only way. Nor is mine necessarily the right way. What is important is that my art represent my experience and vision as truly and essentially as possible. I never try to embellish my work or make it a feel good illusion.

I hope this can become a place where other travel painters, travelers, artists, and those who explore all quarters of life, can exchange stories, information, advice, and encouragement to others who are journeying down similar paths. I know it’s a hard and difficult path. There’s constant struggle along the way. But every step forward is an achievement, and what a grand journey it’s been.

My next destination is Africa. Of particular interest to me are the animals of the Serengeti, the Nile, and Hemingway’s plane crash near Murchison Falls. I also believe General Patton said something like, "All plans go out the window when feet hit the ground." I would have it no other way.

Gregg Fretheim currently resides in Bloomington, MN, USA.

A Question and Answer with Gregg Fretheim

The following was recorded on a cold Minnesota afternoon on January 10th 2008. I, David Frank, provided the questions and hope they will only lead to more. A recording of Spanish guitar played in the background, and trails of smoke from a fine cigar floated through the air.

What were the first steps that interested you in art and painting?
I painted watercolor in 9th grade. That was through a watercolor course that I stayed with all year long. Before that I just drew. I was a failure at math and other things so I worked at things I enjoyed doing which was drawing. I got involved that way.

What made you decide to go to school in the Arts?
I was going after other things I didn’t have a passion for. I was doing things thinking of a career. Maybe to make money, to be successful. I was disillusioned by that and I just decided to see if I could become successful financially in art by making a living at it. Thinking I would make money at something I enjoyed doing.

And that was through illustrating?
It ended up being illustrating because that was my strongest subject. That’s how I got into art and started moving towards doing what I wanted to do and finding out it had nothing to do with money. So by the time I was out of school I was already peeling that off. Going into my own realm of just painting, taking a model outside and just doing work out there. And it just kept going. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kept the idea of success, or what I thought was success, away from it. I just worked on it myself and with people around me who were doing the same thing.

So then the next step was immersing yourself with people who were doing similar things?
I was immersing myself in nature really. It sounds cliched but it’s the truth. I could drive around and find things I thought would be really neat to paint and go from there. So what was leading me was what you’d probably call nature, and what I was viewing in the natural world was the teacher. And I went after that.

Eventually, after reading and looking at photographs from around the world I thought, ‘God, it would be great to be there. I would like to see if I could paint that.’ With different countries and different colors...it was just exciting. What would happen if I just traveled and painted, and collect the stuff? I just went after things that interest me.

Your first trip was to Birmingham, England?
The first trip was to go to a landscape painting school through Duluth university. That was great. I just exploded. England was incredibly lush. The clouds were five feet above you and it was...just really, really nice. And to be able to be free like that - take my paints where I want to go. We’d go to different gardens to paint, but where I learned the most about travel painting was on the weekends where I would take my personal gear out, hitchhike, go out in the countryside and paint and go back.

And how long did that last?
I finished the school after a month or two, and then I traveled further on my own. I got a rail-pass and went on my own. And that was fantastic. Just staying at the B&B’s, and eating at the pubs, and drinking at the pubs, and meeting people, that was really a reward. I knew this could work. I knew the paintings had a lot of damage. And there were problems with carrying my gear. I knew I had to get different equipment and figure out how to make it work. And that came all through time.

What’s the preperation for a trip?
I try to read a lot before I go. I get my equipment ready. I arrange everything a month ahead of time. I don’t want to carry stuff I don’t need. At the same time, I go into areas that don’t have a lot of materials, so I want to make sure everything I need is there. Turpentine was always a problem because I couldn’t fly with it. I used inflammable turpentine for a while then I couldn’t find it, so I had to use turpentine the environment presented and the quality can vary greatly. Even their best and most refined turpentine was kind of a nightmare. It forced me to work fast so I didn’t have time to sit and worry about it. I had to make it work. The restrictions it put on my painting forced me to look at things a little differently.

How did that change your painting?
Some turpentine has a binder unit that is very sticky. Even the most refined turpentine, a very small jar, can be about $40. I would buy it and it still had a binding, sticky unit in it. It would form a layer over everything, sort of like a glaze, but it had some pleasant surprises as well. Sometimes I couldn’t go for the full painting, but for scenarios, and I put the scenarios together as best I could with the speed that I had. Some of it worked out. It wasn’t as fluent with energy and speed as I prefer it. It was fun altogether. It was part of the experience.

Was there a certain area harder to find good turpentine?
The north of Vietnam was tough. I had stuff where I could literally stick the handle of my brush to my palm and it would stay. That’s the stuff you clean your brushes with. It would cut the paint, but to paint with it...it definitely cut my speed because it just wouldn’t spread, and it would layer and depending on what paint I used, it would just disappear. It was a challenge, which is fine. I was never expecting it when I went there. I just had to modify and I did. I’ve used gasoline, or whatever. I’ve used lighting fluid for torches in the Phillippines...just anything I can spread the paint with.

Have you ever lost a painting?
Oh yeah. Once the wind was so strong it lifted a painting off the easel, the easel tipped over, and the painting hit a fence and broke the stretcher bar...which can be a problem. But I’ve been pretty lucky. Most of the damage comes through carrying it back...a lot of my work has scratches, but that’s all part of how I’m doing it in my time. It doesn’t affect the painting visually, only if you examine it closely can you see it.

I have been very, very lucky not to have lost the case where I keep my paintings, or lost my paints. I’ve just been very lucky. I suppose if that ever did happen, I would just go to the nearest city and pick up what I can find.

What’s really nice about travel painting is that there isn’t any one process to follow or a guide to tell you how to go about doing it. It’s a learning process for me. I seem to be experiencing nearly every facet of it, and I’m bound to after so many years. All travelers know, it’s bound to happen to you in one way or another.

When you come to a new place everything is new, unknown. How do you go about learning about a place or finding your way around?
A lot of areas I go to aren’t tourist attractions, it’s not somewhere most people go. I’ll hear where places are, where the watering hole is, where an old church is falling apart...it may be in a village a long way away, so I have to find a driver able to take me there.

When I go into these environments, I feel alive and am searching for visuals that the people who live there like. Visuals that they see everyday that are very nice, that very much describe the environment these people live in. I listen to what people have to say and look at photographs and pictures too to see if I would like to go there. Some of these areas are stunning and they should be seen. Whether I paint them or not, I want to say I was able to experience it.

To the person who says, "I don’t get painting," or "I don’t get art? It just doesn’t connect." How do you respond to that? Or is there a response?
Nature affects people in different ways. Whether they’re willing to open up and allow themselves to hear or see things in their own time...maybe something might have to happen to them for them to see certain things. I don’t think it can be forced on somebody. I suppose someone could read and start being more educated on it. But I think that’s really what the artist is doing, what I’m doing - looking at things in pictorial of an impact instant. And when I see it I know I see it, I know I have it. And it’s just really stunning. And it takes a long time to develop skills needed to see, needed hear, to be able to sing. These skills have to be worked on. Somebody who doesn’t understand it either won’t or will figure out a way to start the process of experiencing life.

Art is a mirror held up to Nature?
Yeah, and the answer for the individual is within the natural system. The natural system makes you find the answers for yourself. If somebody has been in a system and been taken care of, they don’t need the answers for themselves unless they get stuck outside and have to figure it out for themselves. It’s about what’s going on inside. When the answers for what is Beauty, and what is Love, and what is Sublime start affecting you, you’re on a solo journey. There’s nothing I really can say to anyone. It’s the circumstance of where they’re at in their life.

What is the chief aim of the artist through his work? Does art speak solely to the individual or is it something larger than that?
I only reflect the world from myself. If the work has impact of nature then it can stir me and have an effect on me.

So it’s the natural self...?
How can landscapes, and trees, and simple things give me the answer? I know when I see it. It stirs me. It just gives me the answer.

And what is that answer?
When I’m doing my work and there’s a celebration inside then I know I’ve got it. And that celebration gets transferred to other people who see it who are traveling down the same path. I can only base it on the individual.

Why is the painter not celebrated today as compared to the past? Is the painter too old-fashioned?
Could be. The generation may be too involved with the computer. There are new technical challenges. But it doesn’t matter what materials you use, it’s the way you go about doing it. That’s the key. It’s not the technical. There are other travel painters I see when I’m traveling and I take a look at their work and it’s singing for our time now. It’s alive, and it’s talking right to me. It just hits me. There’s nothing to be said.

You work with the intention that one day people will look at your work. How do you want your work to be viewed? And how important is exposure?
I’m taking the approach now to have control of my work and watching it very closely, whether that’s correct or not. I had a show in 2002, and I had complete control of it. I rented out the space, put the money towards it, and lined everything up, and put it out there. There was nobody in-between the viewer and the work and that’s the way I wanted it. There’s no other purpose than to let the people experience it. If you have too many people on the wheel steering, you’re eventually going to go off course. I wanted to make sure I have that control at this point, and I probably will my whole life. When I look at someone else’s work it’s really nice to see the artist through his own struggles and just not trying to please somebody.

How painful is that struggle when you devote so much of your energy and life into this and are virtually unrecognized?
I think the painting and struggle keeps you in line with the direction you have to go and keeps a check on you. That’s where the struggle is. I would imagine if I had to make 10 paintings a month and sell them, eventually I would find ways to make those 10 painting technically sound to where I could produce a lot without having to think too much, other than the process, and try to get away from the struggle and just make money. From a struggle aspect, the last thing you’re thinking about is making money. I don’t go overseas with my easel and think about what’s going to sell, or what’s the fashion of the time.

Is there an advantage to being the outsider?
There definitely is. I didn’t show my work for 16 years. I let people take a look at it, but I never showed it. Many artists say, "You should show your work, it’s a part of the process." And it is. But that’s not the way I work. I don’t have a venue to show all the time. If I had it I probably would, but I don’t have that. Being frustrated by not showing or not exposing in my time, I think everyone has that. But from what the past shows about other artists who struggled all their lives and never being shown, who am I to bellyache and complain? There’s a part of me saying, ‘I’ve been doing this for twenty-some years, and I want to get exposure.’ I’m not asking for money. It would be nice to get exposure. But it’s up to me to do it. We all want to be celebrated in our time in some way.

And the longer I work, the bigger the fire will be in the back hill in South Dakota when I burn my work and drink my beer (laugh). But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And that isn’t the reason I’m doing this. I’m doing it because it’s just in my path.

What is that desire for some artists to destroy their work after they die?
It could be that it’s underground and they never had a chance to express themselves, or there was not a format to express themselves in their own time. And if they’re not going to celebrate their work in their own time, they might think, ‘To the hell with it, I’m going to be dead, I’ll destroy it.’ That’s the way I think they’re thinking. If society doesn’t have a vent to express their work when they’re alive why should they care when they’re dead? A lot of the greatest artists of their time were celebrated after they died.

After you’re dead, what difference does it make if your work is there or isn’t there?
Well, Norman Rockwell said, "How you did your artwork is going to deteroriate, to fall apart. That’s not my problem. The next generation is responsible to produce their own work. I had my time.’ Of course he was celebrated in his time. And I’m not one to say whether society is right or wrong when dealing with people’s work. I find it easier to step outside society and run on my own. I prefer to tap into other artists and start up a nice discussion. Not an angry discussion but a thought provoking one on the difference between pleasing and filling yourself up.

So who is art for ultimately? Everyone, no one?
It’s important for me here and now. And are you brave enough to keep going. I know people who say, ‘I’m going to make it to the end. This is going all the way.’ And after so many years you don’t hear anything from them, whether they’re still working or not. I think that’s one of the basic problems in society that there are people working and not communicating. I think strong periods in art form when artists are working together...usually small art groups. Young guys get together, form a friendship, and develop a strong movement...until they all have to make a living and fall apart.

How is travel intimately connected to your artwork?
In a sense the trip isn’t outside but inside. So all artists are traveling inside. It just depends on how much fear they can break down to keep going deeper inside. Traveling and the struggles of that are incredible ways of self-reflection and through all this the work becomes free. It’s free from any kind of thought whether it’s a success or not. It’s just what you see?

And is travel necessary for this freedom of the spirit?
It might be for me because of the stimulation. Once I got in the car and traveled to South Dakota and began to see how spectacular other places can be, it just kept me going. Somebody doesn’t have to do it that way. I look around myself and search out new experiences and follow that. That’s been the key to how it continues, and it’s an endless, endless process. Adventure and life are ahead and I just paint off that reflection. It’s just constant. I don’t have to try and think about a successful painting or how to make one, I’m just too busy capturing my time through the adventure of my life. It leads you. We’re all traveling. It’s the fear you have to break down.

Have you been able to see this through your artwork? As you dig deeper inwardly has it shown itself outwardly?
There’s an instant gratification. Some of my work has been sitting untouched for years and if I pull it out sometimes it shocks me, stirs me. Who did this? I lived this but what that’s saying...I don’t know. It’s fresh and re-shocking me again. My senses have lived it but after a while I’m not going through it. After I pull it out it’s alive.

What hits me hopefully will hit another viewer and split their head. And there’s a good chance if it stirs me, it will stir them.

If it doesn’t stir your head. What exactly does it stir? What inside of you becomes excited?
It’s not just through painting. I think it’s the human connection of life and nature. The oneness of nature...I know it sounds cliched...all religions in essence talk about it. It’s all things becoming one. That’s what it is and you’re actually living it and having a chance to really touch that. And it’s stunning and radiating. It seems like it’s radiating from me but it’s actually from what I’m seeing. If I connect with the painting and get it, there’s not a better feeling. I seized a piece of life that I experienced without manipulating it. It goes beyond what I could ever manipulate. When I look at some pieces of the old masters, it hits me. It goes past the technique and into me. It’s stirring me. It’s connecting. If it were about technique I would go closely up to the work and my eye would start examining and I would be stopped.

You’re asking me to put this into words, and I’m trying my best to do so. It goes beyond anything I can say. Maybe you can relate to what I’m trying to say.

The technical part is not a challenge to me. The challenge is to go one-on-one with nature and to get this. And it’s never easy. Sometimes I think this is going to work, and it just doesn’t. It’s a little gift given you from nature. And you don’t know when it’s going to come. But when it comes you know it. And if it’s a gift to me, then hopefully, somebody will get the gift. Would I hope people would travel, go to these places, and see it for themselves? Yes, but if they’re not going to, my hope is one of these paintings might stir them for an environment that stirred me.

Certain paintings stir you, certain sculptures stir you, and this is the universalness of art that relates to me as an artist. Artists relate unified in the spirit. Something says this is so profound...there’s no thinking nature. What can you say about a sunset without screwing it up? It’s something you look at and it’s beyond you. Being able to translate that from whatever form of art to another individual is a success. That’s the type of art I’m looking for whether in writing, or painting, or sculpture. All the artists who are working towards that...I know it, and they know it. It's like a code of celebration. And it’s unified from the earliest time onwards. I have to do it in my time with the medium I have.

How do you react to a critique from somebody looking at the same artwork as you but who comes away with a very different reaction?
I treat critiques by not giving critiques. I usually don’t like to talk about my work at all. It’s up to the viewer. If I look at another artist’s work and there is something that stirs me, I’ll let them know. But I’m not there to try and make it better. To me if it works then it works, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t. If I go to the Phillippines and paint a boat scene and bring it back, who’s to say it should be different, without their experience of going over there and seeing it? I’m trying to be mindful and having respect for artists rather then telling and really holding somebody down in a temporal aspect. And the painter should know...should know if it worked for them.

Say your next trip is to be your last trip, say something happened, a plane crash or car accident or whatever, would you be satisfied with what you have accomplished?
Yeah, I set this up to do the best I can in segments. I know when I was younger I had more energy and could see more places and probably produce more. As I get older I’ll have more problems physically. In these sections, in these areas, I did my best. There will be no regrets. There will be changes, there’s changes already. I’m seeing better now. I’m seeing things with impact much easier now. I have a little more confidence, even though it doesn’t necessarily work out this way, that I can get it.

Is this a good time for the individual?
Yeah, yeah, it’s the hardest time. We're in a hard period. Something is happening, it’s just not being celebrated. So much of the great art hasn’t been celebrated in its time. I believe that travel painting is on that edge right now. How long can people endure the physical struggle? That’s always a question. It’s a tip of an iceberg of what’s being shown, compared to what’s out there. The energy level of the people that I ran across, the travel painters I have crossed on my travels, is the same as mine. They were all on fire. All of them said, "This is our time to do it." The world is coming together as one and this is where the artist is.

 
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