John Lamb, Published February 23 2013
Natural surroundings: Charles Beck’s art, home reflect Otter Tail environment
The view of his property on the outskirts of Fergus Falls has all the great features of some of his best woodcut prints: rolling hills, thick clusters of trees and a strong wooden structure.
Beck’s woodcuts are abstract interpretations for the Otter Tail County area. And like the blocks of wood he hunches over and carves into, the house was built with his own hands, walls raised by putting his own solid 6-foot frame into it.
After 50 years, the rambler, like its creator and his art, still stands, notable for how it reflects the surroundings but also becomes part of it.
A home all its own
Like his assessment of his art, the 90-year-old Beck is modest about the house where he lives with his wife of 64 years, Joyce.
“It was a family project. I did it before I knew better,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
Maybe he didn’t know better about building a house, but he knew what he wanted and he did so on the blue-collar budget of a sign painter.
Sitting at the dining room table his father, a carpenter, made for the house, Beck explains the story behind various features. The exposed ceiling beams were fashioned from trees blown down in Itasca State Park. The rough interior wall paneling is reused from old railroad fences. A car bridge that spans a gully from the road to the house is supported by old utility poles. The brick outside on a patio and inside by the fireplace were salvaged from an old Fergus Falls hospital.
Beck’s father was a cabinetmaker and, in addition to helping with the structure, fashioned the dark wood cupboards in the kitchen and dining room.
“You never know how much wood is in a house until you see it in one pile,” he says, recalling the building process.
He points to two coffee tables with round, textured surfaces in the living room, explaining how one is covered in rocks set into a binder, the other in shells he found.
“I’m a scavenger,” he says. “A lot of stuff here people would’ve thrown away.”
One thing he never considered doing away with are the trees that surround the structure. The house was designed to sit among the trees, to the point that one is so close to the front, it shoots through an opening in the deck and the roof above.
“Most people build way too much for what they need. We’ve used every ounce of space here,” he says, referring to his wife Joyce and the three children, Karl, Carolyn and Paul, they raised there.
He credits Joyce as not only his wife and the mother of his children and to a large degree his business manager, but also the reason he could make art.
Before getting a job teaching art at what is now the Fergus Falls campus of M State, Beck made a living as a sign painter, “to support my art,” he says. “I had a wife willing to put up with that.”
‘It’s a hell of a house and a way of life’
The site of the house was already special to the artist. Raised in Fergus Falls, he used to ski down the hill where he now lives.
His respect for the surroundings and environmental design has, “worked out pretty good,” he says simply.
It’s done so even better than he lets on, and had had a profound effect on those who visit the house.
“He’s living in harmony with nature the way great architects want you to do,” says Beck’s friend, Mark Strand, the chairman of the Mass Communications Department at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “It’s all of one piece, the way he lives and the way he works. He lives in nature.”
Strand first visited the Beck house in 1972 to photograph the artist for James O’ Rourke, then head of the Rourke Art Gallery where Beck showed regularly for decades.
“I consider myself really lucky to have ever gotten into that place,” Strand says. “I’d say that changed my life, taking that trip. You see how people should live. It’s a hell of a house and a way of life.”
Room with a view
Sitting at that oak dining room table and looking out the adjacent picture window, he acknowledges such a view inspires his work “quite a bit.”
It looks out into the woods, and with that afternoon’s gentle but steady snowfall, the branches carry a thick, white coat, the kind you find in some of his wintry woodcuts.
“You can spend a lot of time looking. I just love a snow fall,” he says. “This is all mine for now. It’s always nice to see fresh snow without a track in it. Nobody’s here to pollute it. Distort it.”Just outside the window hang a couple of bird feeders, attracting chickadees, nut hatches and woodpeckers. He leaves out feed hoping deer will come by to eat and sometimes they do, but not today.
Years ago he didn’t get to enjoy the view as he spent a couple of winters in Arizona. But it only took a few for him to reconsider.
“What are we doing down here rotting when we could be enjoying winter in Fergus and I could be working,” he recalls thinking.
A work in progress
Even at 90, Beck is still working, spending about four hours a day on his art and creating around five new prints a year.
“I try to do what my body allows me to do. I can still work. The nice thing about being an artist, it’s not too challenging physically,” he says. “I sit down to look at what I’m doing and pretty soon I’m sleeping. I get a few naps in a day.”His big hands are marked with ink, and aged, but still able.
In his studio, an addition he built 30 years ago with a skylight to allow for good, natural light, Beck gestures to various works in progress.
“There are some in the incubator,” he says referring to half-finished wooden waterfowls. When finished, the forms will be soft, sleek and subtly painted.
Though splattered with paint and inks in spots, the studio is remarkably organized, and everything has a place. Old printing blocks are stacked, labels facing out in upright bins. Old map drawers store paper and older works and today act as a drying rack for fresh prints.
“When you live as long as I have, you accumulate a few things,” Beck says.
His stylized picture frames are also neatly stored here. True to his work ethic, Beck built his own frames, having old telephone poles milled down to his own specification. The result is a rough wood, often painted a muted gray or brown, that reflects the texture and earth tones in his prints.
Strand describes Beck’s ethic as, “a strong, authoritative approach to things, but also humble.”
While some of his early prints were religious, his work over the past three decades has focused on nature and the landscape. Yet Beck shrugs off the “regionalist” label.
“I like to think my stuff has some universal quality,” he says. “Most people like my stuff because it tells them something about looking at nature, not just the superficial things.”
However people relate to his works, his views resonate with them and he has become of the most loved artists in the area,
To celebrate his 90th birthday, Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls hosted an open house for the artist and showcased one of his newest prints, “Morning Flight.”
Strand drove down for the reception and says the space was “packed with hundreds of people.”
“That’s remarkable to me. That a guy like that has that much influence in that community of people,” Strand says. “He’s their artist and they like him.”
Beck has his own, workman-like take on his life’s work.
“Art is a lot like life,” he says. “It’s a lot of little things that happen that you never planned on that can be nice, but you can’t sit back and wait for luck to take hold. You get lucky in the process.”
For more information: You can see a selection of Charles Beck’s woodcuts in the Plains Art Museum’s atrium
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533