Denfeld News

June 10, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

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 frustration.

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 together.”

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