June 10, 2010
Idyllic life lives on canvas
By Christa Lawler
Meet Lars Lundberg: He hunts, he fishes, he has
xylophone abs. He enjoys playing hoops, has a younger brother and
he’s lucky with the ladies. Maybe too lucky. Lars will choose
the military over college. He’ll sport camouflage and make
friends named Omar, Ryan and Eric. Spoiler alert: Things do not
end well for young Lars.
It is this imagining of a life that is at the
center of acrylic painter Russell V. Gran’s exhibit “Favorite
Son,” which opens Friday at Washington Gallery.
Gran, 74, is a Duluth native and graduate of Denfeld
and the University of Minnesota Duluth. He moved back 20 years ago
after a stint on the East Coast. He is the oldest resident of the
Washington Studios Artists’ Co-op. A former neighbor and colleague
recalled him as “the patriarch of Washington Studios. The
soul of the place.”
The idea for Gran’s narrative-turned-visual
art comes from a mix of places, including young friends who ended
up in the two “worthless wars,” as he calls them, Desert
Storm and Iraq.
“I hated to think of these young people
in their flower, getting killed,” Gran said. “This is
the story of Lars, the favorite son of the Lundberg family. …
Giving a story to it gave me focus.”
Gran started developing the character more a year
ago. Recovery from knee surgery gave him time to think about and
create the character — a young boy of Norwegian descent living
somewhere like Wrenshall.
The storyline is rich in details that go even
beyond the paintings. The husky woman in the white-tiered dress
wearing red shoes is Violet. Outside of the painting, she will have
a baby, lose 100 pounds. Someday she will be Lars’ grandmother.
But in the painting, it is her prom night. There
is an image of a farmhouse. What you don’t see is that it
was built 120 years ago.
There are literal representations: A handful of
women in dresses holding cell phones, while a distraught Lars seemingly
paces in the hallway, his own phone flung down at the ground in
There are more abstract images, including a diagonally
spliced version of Lars — part boy with bony ribcage.
Flowers, peppers and other household items also
help create the story.
“[Gran] enjoys strange things and idiosyncrasies,
which shows through in his paintings,” said Ryan Tischer,
a photographer. “There is a wonderful strangeness and awkwardness
that shows off in his paintings.”
Gran doesn’t do a lot of narrative/art mixing,
although about five years ago he joined forces with poet Ryan Vine
for an exhibition, “Distant Engine: a Broadside Series,”
which included both of their work: Vine created poems based on Gran’s
art, and Gran made art that represented Vine’s words.
Vine was living at Washington Studios during that
time, and was familiar with Gran — whom he refers to, with
affection, as “the quintessential cantankerous old man.”
Vine remembered Gran shuffling down the hall in slippers, and knocking
on doors, heated with complaints.
“I really enjoy his work. That’s one
of the reasons we got together; it was a mutual respect,”
said Vine, adding that he has six of Gran’s paintings in his
home and office.
The writer said that his poem “On the Jetty”
was represented with a painting that included beach and waves.
“He captured the crux of the poem, and in
that capturing made it more,” Vine said. “It’s
not simply an interpretation. Now I have a hard time seeing [the
poem] away from the painting. They’ve become something bigger