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01 January 2010

A Question and Answer with Gregg Fretheim

The following interview with Gregg Fretheim about his recent trip to Africa was taken in Bloomington, Minnesota on December 4, 2009.

What was the general outline of your trip?

Before I left I decided to go to South Africa where the old Zulu villages are in the east and the game reserves in that area have the black rhino. I planned to fly into Johannesburg and go to the Mkuze reserve and then stay on a private game reserve called Abu Madi. I knew from correspondence between the reserves that transportation was going to be tough so I knew getting any sort of rides was going to be rough but I just had to take it from there.

Did you give yourself a certain amount of time to acclimate yourself once you arrived?

I spent four days in Johannesburg to adjust myself and I didn’t want to be in any rush. I went to Swaziland and stayed overnight and then went down to Mkuze and stayed in a little town called Ubombo. It’s definitely a different world. It’s scrub brush and Tshaneni (Ghost mountain) rises in the distance at the end of the great rift valley. I didn’t know a lot before I left. But as you see more and more it’s like a book that opens up for you. My main stay was the animals and painting the animals because I haven’t done that.

Did you have any idea how you were going to paint the animals?

No. There are painting groups from England that offer trips but I didn’t want to go with a group. They’re very expensive as well. I wanted to maximize the time I had to paint these animals. I saw what some other people were doing and they were very brief sketches of the animals, very brief, so I thought I’m going to be lucky to get a chance to paint any of these animals, and how am I going to see them?

Rides with a professional into the bush can cost anywhere from 200 to 500 dollars a day. I couldn’t afford that so that might be a problem. I corresponded with Martha at Abu Madi and she said they could bring me to a watering hole and have a chance to see the animals in the morning and evening but I really had no idea how it was going to work at all. Everywhere else I tried was very expensive or they didn’t know what I wanted.

So the idea was to drop you off somewhere in the reserve and leave you and pick you back up later?

The idea was to bring me down to a watering hole in the morning, where there’s protection, and the animals come in and I can paint this. Martha told me when I was there in the morning at the watering hole behind protection I would have a chance to paint them. It worked out really well. My driver, Bongani, brought me to the watering hole in the morning and picked me up about five hours later. We became good friends and after a while was bringing me with him to help with his work, so I was able to go on the reserve almost everyday.

So what was the protection?

The sleeping area was inside heavily electrified wire. And when I got to the watering hole the protection area was a small box with a slit in it and no wire. They had three or four major watering holes, one had a fence, the others had these boxes with slits on the ground that you could crawl into.

So there was enough room in this box to setup your easel?

Yeah, at an angle. I had to look either one way or the other. They had a little chair in there but there wasn’t a whole heckuva lot of room. I had to position myself at one end and look out that way which obstructed much of the view so I had to watch for animals only from the angle I was looking at.

Did you find that worked for you?

Oh it did work. It was exhilarating. I’ve never painted with that level of exhilaration before. The anticipation and these animals....

How close was the box to the watering hole?

About 40 to 50 yards away. Some animals were very close, about 20 feet away. I had imagined what it would be like, but this was really different.

Can you describe a scene in front of one of these watering holes as you’re watching it from the box?

So you’re in there waiting, and you hear them coming. You hear the gravel on the road, or they’re breathing and you know something’s coming close and you get ready. Hopefully they will come in. A lot of the animals sensed something quickly. Zebras did - I had only 20 or 30 seconds to get a small sketch of a zebra. They lifted their heads, sensed something wasn’t quite right, and took off. Other animals, the impala came in large groups, would just hang out at the watering hole and that gave way to other animals feeling comfortable. Wildebeests, warthogs, monkeys, came in with the impala laying around and that was nice because it gave me the chance to do many small studies of different animals. And it was special when animals did come by. I spent days, literally days, in this box where nothing came by and I could only hear the animals around me.

And how would you describe the result?

The result is a combination of landscape painting and cave painting. It’s kind of a floating world to get the impact and image of these animals. It’s as fast as I’ve painted to get that image. They were always moving so it was quite a challenge. The exhilaration to being so close to these animals is intense, and some of them are absolutely humongous, and you feel so small in that box, and the reason for that box is protection.

Did you feel protected in that box?

Yeah, but my mind went to wander and knew the black rhino, as schizophrenic as it is, has been known to attack trains, so if it would sense something...it very well could be trouble. Once out on a road in the reserve a black rhino took a charge at our car, we revved our engine, it lifted its head and ran into the bush and hid. Over the next couple days we were hearing stories about a black rhino charging white cars. At the watering hole the rhinos stayed at a far distance. I was hoping to get one close to paint, the tracks showed it had been there during the night. But I was happy to get a sketch of one even at quite a distance. Also, the box had to be checked every morning for snakes, especially for mambas or a spitting cobra, so that was a concern.

So with this intense exhilaration did you feel, looking back at the work you produced, something different?

Yeah, for open air painting it goes to another level. There isn’t even the convenience of the slow sun that moves. This is rapid fire. It must almost feel like a combat situation, it’s like hunting these animals as they come within range to be able to paint them. And the sounds and size of these animals...I’ve seen them at the zoo...but when the driver says I’ll be back in five hours to pick you up, it’s like...well, I’m here with my paintbrush and my easel, if something were to happen, it could be trouble. Everything worked out very well. It was different from a lot of my work. Not having time really pushed me into other areas, all rules and ways I had done landscape before were completely thrown out. It was almost like survival trying to get the animal on the canvas.

I want to move on now to a different subject but one that you’ve touched on before. You’ve previously talked about your approach, or an approach, to painting when you’ve said to go beyond the technical. But for many people that seems like a contradiction. For example, if a painter heard, ‘It’s not about the technical’, they could rightfully say, ‘How can it not be about technique? It’s involved everywhere from mixing the paints to catching the light to the brush strokes. It all seems technical.’

It is for the student. When you start out you study the masters and you see the masters only in technical and not in cause and effect. When I often go to galleries and artist’s web sites, I see a claim that they are Impressionist, Realist, etc. So, can an artist today lay claim to a period of historical art?

I suppose they can but I think it’s more just feel good wishful thinking. I just don’t think that anyone today will be in the history books next to C. Monet. Impressionism, the period, already happened. When you’re a student you start out studying through historic periods like Impressionism, Realism, Pointillism, Cubism, etc. Then, as a painter now, you won’t be living the historic cause and effect of Impressionism but just looking at the technical. The student in their studio can study the period techniques for twenty or fifty years but some artists may feel that they want to break out of that technical bondage to find themselves. This is the hardest question the artist has to ask himself. How do you do this and am I brave enough to go against schools that have their own rules and the artists that created groups of past historic periods?. How does one get out of the technical bondage of the past?

I believe one way is doing the same thing the Impressionists did during their time. They broke away from thinking nature by getting out of the studio where each individual can record nature in their own interpretation, wow, did it work.

You can try starting with small student size canvasses and start going larger and larger. This will be hard to finish, but you won’t be thinking technical, because you won’t have time. You’ll go past the technical and start painting what you see. Some great things will start happening. Stick with it and don’t be afraid. You’ll start finding yourself.

A few days after hearing this I, that is David Frank, was reading from the diary of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. A passage there bore a keen resemblance to the topic above, and I post it as reminder that the issue at hand is as much an individual one as it is a generational one.

I said to Eichler (a young Polish painter):

“I am amazed that Polish painters do not try to exploit their trump card, which is their Polishness, in art. Are you going to imitate the West forever? Prostrate yourselves before painting, like the French? Paint with gravity? Paint on your knees in great deference, paint timidly? I acknowledge this type of painting, but it is not in our nature because our traditions are different. Poles have never been especially concerned with art. We were inclined to believe that the nose was not for the snuff box but the snuff box for the nose. We preferred the thought that ‘man is higher than what he produces.’ Stop being afraid of your own paintings, stop adoring art, treat it in a Polish manner, look down at it, wield it, and then the originality in you will be freed, new avenues will open before you and you will gain that which is the most valuable, the most fertile: your own reality.”

I could not convince Eichler, who had invested a great deal of energy and effort in creating a solid Europeanism for himself, and he merely looked at me in that by now familiar way, as if to say: how easy it is to talk! Painters and sculptors are crushed by the enormity of technical difficulties and so they concentrate on their struggle for the perfect line, color: they do not, generally speaking, desire to extricate themselves from their workshops. They underestimate the fact that a new way of seeing allows them to undo several knots that would otherwise not get untied. When I, therefore, demand of them that they be people who paint, they want only to be painters. I am confident, however, that today we have room in ourselves for thoughts about art which are more specifically ours and more creative.

Do not waste your precious time in pursuit of Europe. You will never catch up with her. Don’t try to become Polish Matisses, you will not spawn a Braque with your deficiencies. Strike, rather, at European art. Be those who unmask. Instead of pulling yourselves up to someone else’s maturity, try instead to reveal Europe’s immaturity. Try to organize your true feelings, so that they will gain an objective existence in the world. Find theories consistent with your practice. Create a criticism of art from your point of view. Create an image of the world, man, and culture which will be in harmony with you, because if you can paint this picture, it will not be difficult to paint others.1

1Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary Volume I. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Above is a photo of a friend helping hang paintings for Gregg Fretheim's last gallery show in 2002.

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