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Erik Burgess, Published April 05 2013

Artistic differences: Critics question quality of Rough Rider portraits

Bismarck - Portraits of the famous North Dakotans who have won the state’s highest honor, the Rough Rider Award, are becoming pretty consistent.

Critics would say they’re consistently, um, busy – more of a visual “shopping list” than an artistic representation of a North Dakota native who has earned national recognition.

Recent renditions of the paintings, all 38 of which are displayed for perpetuity at the Capitol building, surround the recipient with a collection of symbols meant to memorialize his or her life – as many as seven elements, including corporate logos, buildings and smaller images of the subject doing various tasks.

For instance, the most recent portrait, of 2011 winner Ronald D. Offutt, the Fargo agribusiness magnate, included two logos, his company’s headquarters, two pieces of farm machinery and a scene of him talking in a field.

“If it represents them in some way, I can find a place for it,” said Vern Skaug, the Minot-based artist who has been commissioned by the governor to paint Rough Rider portraits for 36 years.

Skaug has done 21 of the portraits, including the past six. He’s also working on the soon-to-be-unveiled portrait of novelist Louise Erdrich, who was named as the newest Rough Rider winner earlier this week.

Portraits of many of the first Rough Rider winners are more traditional. Even some of Skaug’s early work is less multi-pronged, focused on a few scenes and logo-free. But Skaug said his montage style is deliberate, and he’s never fielded any complaints from the subjects of his work.

“I just wanted to show part of their lives, more of their lives than just their face,” said the self-taught Skaug. “It’s sort of a storytelling portrait.”

Yet some local art experts question whether it’s the best story to tell about the state of the arts in the state.

“If I were to do something like that and enter into a show, it would never be accepted,” said Patrick Tupa, 61, a full-time portraiture artist who has a studio in Fargo. “It’s scattered all over the place, and it doesn’t make sense artistically.”

A ‘very difficult job’

Skaug, 71, who sharpened his skills doing sketches at Disneyland in the 1970s, is one of only three painters who have been commissioned to paint Rough Rider portraits since the first award was given in 1961.

He was handed the gig in 1967, when then-Gov. William Guy wanted a painting of Theodore Roosevelt and was unhappy with other work he had received. A friend suggested Skaug, and Guy was overjoyed with the Roosevelt montage Skaug painted.

The portrait work has never been put up for bid or other public selection process, said Jody Link, a spokeswoman for the office of Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

“We have artists who we know can do it because it’s a very detailed and very difficult job,” Link said.

Does Tupa believe he can do it better? “Most definitely,” he said with a laugh.

In fact Tupa, who holds a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota in visual arts, said he’s called the governor’s office on multiple occasions, hoping to be commissioned for the portraits, with no luck.

“I’d like to take it in a different direction myself and do a fine-art portrait and not so much what he’s (Skaug) done,” Tupa said. “It’s almost like an ad, the way I look at it.”

That’s not to say Skaug is not skilled, said Zhimin Guan, a professor of painting at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He said Skaug is good at portraying the likeness of his subjects.

But his montages miss out on the personality and spirit of the model, often seen as the higher goal of fine portraiture work, Guan and Tupa agreed.

“I look at it and I say, ‘Well it’s well done, but it doesn’t move me,’ ” Tupa said. “It doesn’t do anything to me. I’m not enlightened by it.”

But maybe that’s not the point. The recent Rough Rider portraits are commercial, in the sense that they’re not meant to hang in a museum, said John Volk, an assistant professor of printmaking at MSUM.

“Being in a museum, you are recognized by your peers that this is good work,” Volk said. “This (Skaug’s) is work that’s being recognized by legislators and businessmen.”

“That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing because he’s commercially successful,” Volk added. “They’re not aesthetically, in the art world, as acceptable.”

The argument isn’t all about aesthetics. A well-done portrait could be a real benefit to the state, Tupa and Guan said.

Culturally, it’s crucial for the state to always grow and display its “higher fine-arts collection,” Guan said.

“In order to get the general public to understand what is the best art, what is the finest human creativity,” he said. “That would make the citizens of North Dakota see that and strive for their imagination.”

Bio at a glance

Skaug is in the final weeks of finishing his portrait of Erdrich, a work that will be unveiled when Dalrymple gives the author the award in an April 19 ceremony in Wahpeton. He said it will include many elements of her life, including multiple photos of her at different ages and a few of her book covers.

“I’ve never had any rejections or any changes that they wanted, so I guess that’s a good thing,” he said.

Link defended the artist’s style, saying that a montage is an effective way of capturing a person’s life.

“When somebody looks at that portrait, they can just sort of see at a glance what that individual has contributed to the state,” she said.

But Guan said if a portrait is done well, all the background clutter of a montage can simply be implied through a careful rendering of the model.

“It’s almost like writing a shopping list” of the person’s life, Guan said. “You don’t need that.”

This can sometimes happen in commissioned art, Tupa said. He was once hired to do a portrait of a UND official in the mid-’80s, which featured a growing list of must-haves that he found too odd to include.

Regrettably, a penniless Tupa completed the portrait, tassels and all.

“When you’re trying to please a client, it’s one of those things that you had to do,” Tupa said. “I wasn’t really in a position to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do it then.’ Because then they just find somebody else to do it.”

But Skaug said unlike other commissioned work he’s done, he maintains a lot of creative control in the Rough Rider portraits. “I usually can talk them out of things, why it would not look good, et cetera. Just from experience,” he said.

Opening the job up to other artists could inject some competition into the endeavor and be exciting for the state, Volk said.

One day, Tupa hopes that will happen.

“I always figured the reason why they went that route or stuck with that person is because they could get it cheaper,” Tupa said.

For example, Skaug’s Rough Rider portrait of Offutt cost the state $2,500.

When the Offutts commissioned Tupa for a personal portrait of the businessman in 2008, Tupa charged $5,000, which he said was only half price.

“Basically, it’s night and day the difference between the two,” Tupa said. “One’s a portrait; the other is not.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518