Editor’s note: Airstream will host a fine art invitational exhibit of landscape art, May 31-June 5, at its headquarters in Jackson Center. This is one in a series of stories that will profile the artists whose work will be shown.
SIDNEY — Morten Solberg, of Bluffton, South Carolina, is well known for his wildlife paintings, and for good reason.
His representations of American fauna capture the quality of being acutely alive in the great outdoors. They are at the same time deeply calm and highly charged with the electric energy of anticipation. They encourage spirits to soar.
This soaring artwork has landed in some rather impressive places, including the White House and the National Gallery of Art. That kind of honor was what Solberg, now 80, sought when he first dedicated his life to painting. It wasn’t about selling artwork. It was about being recognized as an artist.
“My father would have put me through college for anything but art. If you want to be an artist, you’ll find a way to do it. So I did it on my own,” he said by phone recently.
Solberg determined that the best way was to go where lots of artists were, so he got a job as a “go-fer” at a design studio and then went to American Greetings, a greeting card company in Cleveland. He learned everything he could there.
“If I wanted (to learn) something, they’d do it. I’d watch them. That was my apprenticeship to be an artist,” he said. In 1970, he decided to go it on his own.
“Watercolor is my favorite medium,” Solberg said. “I start with colors and values and shapes. Some kind of atmosphere will start to happen. The shapes and colors will start to say what it’s going to be. I work flat so (the paint) doesn’t run. It will pool. You can drop other colors in there. It spreads out and creates different things.”
Once an environment is established, the artist spends a lot of time looking at it.
“There’s something interesting in there and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know the subject matter until the painting is finished. The very interesting ones come totally out of imagination. That’s allowed to happen because of the watercolor, the explosion of the paint,” he said.
Sometimes, he’ll add a tiny figure — a fly-fisherman, a dog, a bird — to tell the story and give the artwork scale.
A series of paintings of Native Americans seem to have painted themselves, Solberg said.
“When I’m done, I have no idea how the heck I’ve painted it. It’s all internal ideas. Those are fun, but, boy, they are so difficult,” he added.
Despite his now decades of experience, Solberg said he’s still challenged by everything.
“There’s nothing scarier than a blank sheet of paper. In my head, I know I’m a professional and should be able to do this. Then bang! Two paintings are bad,” he laughed.
Sometimes it’s a color that’s not right, or the composition doesn’t work. Solberg saves them all for another look later. He might find a section that’s worth expanding or reworking, another piece that could become a background for a future work. To Solberg, everything is worth saving.
He feels even a child’s crudest attempt at art has value.
“When kids are painting, they say a blob is a dog. The first time someone says, ‘That doesn’t look like a dog,’ they get discouraged. So say instead, ‘That may not be the best dog I’ve ever seen, but if you say it’s a dog, it’s a dog. Keep painting,’” Solberg said. “When I was a young child, the only thing I was good at was coloring in the lines. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to go outside the lines.”
His animals and still lifes are caught as though emerging from highly abstract, color-wash backgrounds that merely hint at the surrounding landscape. They arrest a viewer with their contrast between detail and emotion-charged shapes.
He gravitated to putting both styles in a single painting because couples shopping for art had differing tastes.
“In most couples, the woman likes looseness, the man likes tightness,” he said.
Shannon Hanna, director of the RS Hanna Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas, enjoys showing Solberg’s art to potential buyers.
“We are proud and honored to be able to share Mort’s work and talent with our clients. Mort Solberg’s viewpoint and voice expand the narrative with a lightness of being and a certain spontaneity to the stories he tells us,” she said.
It’s not just the stories in his paintings that Solberg tells. He also tells beginning artists how to make their work better. Painters from as far away as Australia send him photos of their work through his website, www.mortenesolberg.com, and Facebook page.
“I’ll take the photo, paint on it, give it a better composition or whatever. Then I photograph what I’ve done and send it back. I do that all the time. It’s payback for the people who helped me,” he said.
In the same way, he advocates for art any way he can. That’s why he agreed to participate in the Airstream Fine Art Invitational.
“If I’ve got the time and I’ve got the piece and I can promote art, I’ll do it,” he said. He sits on the board of the Susan K. Black Foundation and assists with its annual Wyoming workshop during which 130 artists mentor high school students.
Those young painters face stiff competition, thanks to the Internet.
“I started to paint big, splashy things. Then I started to put animals in,” Solberg said of his early career. “A print publisher picked it up. Prints were a gold mine. It got your name out to 3,000 or 4,000 galleries. Now we have Facebook. It scares me all the talent I see every day on Facebook. It’s wonderful, but there’s so much competition.”
He noted that artists never get into art to make money. They get into it because they have to. His advice for would-be painters is to find an artist they like on Facebook, befriend him and send him work.
In a pre-Facebook era, Solberg had hoped to befriend Andrew Wyeth. It would be a watercolor by Wyeth that Solberg would own if he could own anything.
“I talked with Andrew Wyeth by phone one day,” Solberg said. They were supposed to meet, but plans changed and the meeting never took place.
“He painted America. Here was a man who could paint tight realism in egg tempera and then come back with watercolor and explode it. This is a man who thought for himself. He was a neat, neat man,” Solberg said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.