Monday, September 17, 2012

Jen Dietrich’s American Iconography

UMD art professor Jen Dietrich is an intelligent mix of broad experience and creative expression with a strong positive rating from students whom she has served. Pretty much a trifecta in my book. We first met in late March after an episode of Robert Hughes' Shock of the New film series presented by the Duluth Art Institute. Dietrich was a guest speaker that day, fielding questions like a shortstop.

The following is a description of how she approaches her work, excerpted from her website:

My inspiration is American icons,
My vehicle is paint, and
My obsession is the painting process.
My process of working involves no magic,
No mystical elements, and no special inspiration.

EN: How did you first come to take an interest in art?

JD: Sometime during my Junior year at UMD. I was a German and international relations major. I took an art history course and realized that dates and artists came very easy whereas German vocabulary was work. I ended up with a double major, a BA - German and a BFA pre-grad painting and drawing.

EN: What attracted you to painting?

JD: I was lucky enough to have natural talent for realism from a very young age. I was always drawing realistic figures but never considered it a viable career direction.

EN: I really enjoyed your baseball series. What can you tell us about how they were conceived and executed?

JD: First, I'm a closet jock and sports fanatic. I love watching and playing, however, I knew I wanted to investigate a postmodern perspective on the American iconic game of baseball. It had to be more than merely realistic drawing of players. That came too easy and was not unique by any means.

I started to draw comparisons with religion and the rituals surrounding both baseball enthusiasts and religion. The title of the show was Baseball: A Secular Religion. I attended many farm league games in southern Minnesota, analyzing and observing everything from the crowd to the bat boys. I loved this direct participatory research.

Here’s a little backstory on the Baseball series. I played fast pitch softball in high school (Hibbing) and also summer league. We actually went to state. I was starting third base and back-up catcher. Although I loved both positions for different reasons, my passion was catching. My heroes were Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson. I looked forward to putting on the armor (shin guards, mask, chest pad.) It felt like heading into battle. I loved getting in the dirt and being the field marshal of the game. And this is what I learned from further investigation and looking through adult eyes and a body that can no longer play. I always thought that the game depended on the catcher/pitcher relationship and that the game hinged on the moment the pitcher released the ball from fingers, thereby the pitcher was the catalyst. However, the pitcher gets the sign from the catcher. This is no great surprise to many, however, it was all I needed to reaffirm my passion for the position of catcher. The field marshall of the game, the captain, the commander-- calling all the cuts, dictating the plays from the moment the ball connects with bat. Whew! As you can see I'm not objective.

Anyway, that is a fun series and I seem to revisit Baseball each spring with fresh eyes. I'm not finished with that subject. Currently, I'm focusing on football. 4 years ago I married a man who happened to be a former college tight end and place kicker. Needless to say, having a source close is wonderful and insightful. The baseball series was males. This current series is football players and coaches with female characters overlaid. A studio visit will help at this point.

EN: You also have barn themed paintings. The two together remind me of Field of Dreams. Is there any connection between farms and baseball in your work?

JD: For the past 15 years I've been working on the topic of American icons and each series addresses a different sub-theme -- American barns, baseball, the Kennedys etc. I was born in Wisconsin and while I was living in Alaska I started missing the barns. That was my thesis project.

EN: How did JFK influence your generation since you were born after he was assassinated?

JD: We were raised by parents whose dialogue was always pro-Kennedy. It was very much embedded in the everyday dialogue. It was centered on politics, not religion. For some reason even the next generation was influenced by and fascinated with the Kennedys. I see it in my kids. They carry this torch for Kennedy.

EN: How did your interest in film come about? And what prompted you to collaborate with Sarah Nitschke to form Underbelly Films?

JD: When I was in Alaska for nine years at the Alaska Art Institute, we had a week long summer program for teachers, and I called Chuck Close. He couldn’t come because of handicap issues, so I called Philip Pearlstein and he came. Afterwards he mentored me and said to Sarah, “We have to get him on film.” He was one of the last left from abstract expressionism movement of that era, part of Leo Castelli’s first opening. He taught with Ad Reinhart in Brooklyn and was a classmate with Andy Warhol whom he lived with for 6-8 months.

As artists we’re all compared to Andy… Phillip is polar opposite. Being small and intellectual, he was also a contrast to the brawly male type of Abstract Expressionists.

We started the film in 2004, which really pre-occupied Sarah and I. It was especially challenging being a single mom with three kids.


Photo of Dietrich's image of Hillary (and details) is a work in progress and part of her newest series. This portion of my interview with Jen Dietrich appeared in this week's Reader.

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