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John Lamb, Published October 08 2013

Work forces Fargo-born artist to examine family life

FARGO - T.L. Solien is having an epic homecoming.

For his first solo hometown show in 24 years, the Fargo-born artist found inspiration in the great American novel, “Moby-Dick” and “Ahab’s Wife,” the 2005 re-telling from the widow’s perspective. “Toward the Setting Sun,” opened late last month and shows at the Plains Art Museum through Jan. 12.

“It’s absolutely delightful and very gratifying,” the 64-year-old says of having the major show of more than 50 works open at the Plains. “I started to function as an artist in Fargo-Moorhead before anywhere else. Fargo was enormously influential for me, and I’m happy to be back and embraced by the museum and the community.”

The communal appreciation he’s feeling includes a number of events tied to the show. The Fargo Public Library encouraged and led discussions for both books and paired with the Plains for a 10-hour marathon reading of an abridged “Moby-Dick.” The Plains also hosted scaled-down performances of an opera about the white whale and “Ahab’s Wife” author, Sena Jeter Naslund, visits town next week for a number of book talks and signings.

“It feels great,” Solien says of having the display, 10 years in the making, open up at the Plains. “It always feels good to be home.”

Home is significant to the show, not only as it opened in his hometown, but the work also forced the artist to examine family life, both his and his ancestors’.

Family portrait

The show doesn’t illustrate the novels as much as allow for Solien’s interpretation and envisioning what happens after the texts.

The source material wouldn’t have been possible two decades ago. Growing up, the painter struggled to read and focus and discovered after age 45 that he had ADD and dyslexia.

“I’d gotten fed up with the disappointment in myself that I’ve felt all the time I was reading-capable for not attempting to read the heavy-weight Western canon,” the artist explains from his studio in Madison, Wis., where he teaches art at the University of Madison.

Once he cracked Herman Melville’s classic, he was hooked. The short chapters allowed for slow but steady nightly readings, and he was drawn in by the voices of different characters.

As an artist, he related to Ahab’s drive and obsession to the point of the character’s withdrawal from family and domestic life.

“It sort of spoke to the isolation of the artist and how it is to spend 10 hours a day in a studio by yourself, 365 days a year for 50 years,” Solien says, though he calls the character, “absurd.”

Making marks

Often tagged as a surrealist, Solien conceived a line of work using symbols to represent characters rather than depict them as described in the books.

Ahab, the sea captain hunting for the great white whale, is identifiable with his chin-strap beard, but he’s sometimes represented just by his smoking pipe and his hat, symbols of the civility he loses in his single-minded quest to kill the whale. Queequeg, the South Seas islander and harpooner, is represented by organic shapes of black, white, blue and red, a reference to primitive French artist Jean Dubuffet.

References to other artists abound. Subtly, Solien’s “Blue Poles,” nods to Jackson Pollock’s “Blue – Moby Dick.” More overtly, Solien pays homage to Winslow Homer and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, modeling “Composition in Black and White” after Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.”

The latter is one of many depictions of Ahab’s wife, who is not named in Melville’s novel, but called Una in Naslund’s book. The character is the dominant figure in the exhibit. (Solien said there are at least 30 more associated works that didn’t make the cut, since the works will be shipped to Lincoln, Neb., and Billings, Mont., next.)

The wife is often seen in flat profile, wearing a large hoop dress, big, black bouffant hair, ghastly white skin and a coal black nose to give her a clownish appearance. This image was derived by a children’s activity book the artist found at a thrift store.

While the look is haunting, Solien has a sympathetic view of her as a sign of hope and humanity in a tale of obsession.

“She mirrors my wife,” he says, referring to Deborah Jane Danz, his wife of nearly 40 years.

He explains that in the late 1970s and 1980s, as his art career was taking off, he was traveling around the country for exhibits, including the Whitney Biennial in New York, and living in Paris for a year. During this time, Danz was the steady presence, making a home for their two children.

“I’ve been absent much more in life than I’ve been present,” he says. “I sort of commiserated with Ahab’s widow through my own sense of guilt over my own domestic situation.”

Solien takes his lead from Naslund’s novel, where Una is an adventurous young woman, eager to leave home and discover the world around her. In the painter’s eye, after a period of grieving, the widow heads out west, among the pioneers that settled Minnesota and North Dakota.

Solien’s later images of the character, who he doesn’t name, show her engaged in life, riding horses, walking through Island Park or painting on Pelican Lake, where Solien had a house and a studio before he turned to teaching. As life goes on for the widow, we see her from different angles, getting a fuller picture of who she is other than Ahab’s wife.

Wild West

This dovetails into the second part of the show, located on the third floor of the Plains. The artist explores the western expansion of America and in doing so touches on his own family’s history.

Pictures of settlers and farmers trying to make a go on the harsh Northern Plains are mixed with particular events, like an image of the Children’s Blizzard from 1888 that killed 235 on the Great Plains.

An oil painting, “Carpet Bag,” features a steamer trunk with a Norwegian flag as a train engine. The name “Grafton” is emblazoned on the body, a nod to Solien’s maternal side that settled in the area. Another painting and corresponding mixed media piece, both called “Norwegian Costume,” are shown next to a photo of his mother as a young girl dressed in a similar outfit.

Unlike Ahab’s wife, after a decade of working with characters from the books, Solien isn’t quite ready to move on.

“I couldn’t have predicted when I started the work that turned into this vast body of work that this was what I would be doing for the next decade,” he says. “It’s a shock. It’s like I watched all this work made by somebody else.”

And now he’s creating work as someone else. He’s developing a nom-de-paintbrush and style to create the works he believes Ahab’s wife would make.

“After dealing with this body of work for 10 years and trying to bring it to a semi-rational conclusion, I’m still left with a lot of unexplored tangents,” he says. “Right now I’m trying to explore those and see where that goes.”

If You Go

WHAT: T.L. Solien’s “Toward the Setting Sun”

WHEN: On display through Jan. 12

WHERE: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo

INFO: Admission is free to members, $5 for adults $4 for seniors and educators and free for students and kids. (701) 232-3821.


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533