Giving and Getting

It’s not often you get to give back to those who have helped you along the way. I recently had the opportunity to help a former painting professor of mine have a show of his paintings at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (HAUMC) in Minneapolis from June 6 - August 1, 2022..

Dale Johnson is a Professor Emeritus at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He taught art at Bethel for 41 years. I had the privilege of being one of his students when I attended Bethel from 1981 - 1985. Freshman year I took a painting class from Dale and had a world of color open to me. One of the first assignments he gave us was to paint a still life with a writhing piece of tinfoil as the dominant item. I had never witnessed so many subtle colors in all my life while trying to paint that crazy crinkled reflecting piece of metal. I was hooked.

I did not have Dale as a teacher for many other classes, as he went on sabbatical during my junior year at Bethel. But we quickly became good friends. I house-sat his home while he and his wife, Karen, moved to Michigan during the sabbatical. I also visited them in Michigan and helped him build something or other in his studio. We have gotten together over the years and Dale even asked me to come and teach art at Bethel when a position opened up.

The exhibit included works from a bike-and-paint trip through Europe, Saint Paul and Michigan landscapes, and figurative works of acquaintances, including many of children from his many years visiting the Dominican Republic. I spent time with Beth Arel, from HAUMC, and Dale’s son, Simeon, going through his studio to choose paintings for the exhibit and then curated the placement of the works.

During the exhibition at HAUMC, Dale gave a talk about his art. A talk by Dale is always an interesting voyage. He launches into a thought but will often divert mid-sentence to another thought or experience. He is conscious of his odd “syntax,” and apologizes for it during his speech a few times. Afterward, he mentions it to me again and I simply shrug and tell him there is charm in his unique way of stringing thoughts and ideas together. He smiles back at me, knowingly or disbelieving - it’s hard to tell. Knowing him, it was probably both.

During his talk, he often mentions how thankful he is for the artistic life that he has had. At this stage of his career, the intertwining of art and life has created a simple experience of gratitude: to paint is to love, to love is to express, to express is to paint - repeat, while including all those who enter your orbit. Here are some quotes from his talk:

  • ”It is an honor to express grief and joy through painting”

  • “To have eyes to see and not take the time to see is a shame. It is an honor to take the time and see things that are beautiful.”

  • “People have a kind of essence. If I can use color, pose and atmosphere to capture some of that, I am happy.”

  • “It is fun to handle paint and make color sing.”

  • “My mother had enough love that I could give love to students and people in need.”

  • “I am thankful for my family and my wife putting up with a lot of crap.”

  • Referring to a painting of a neighbor holding his young daughter, “This is a painting about a good relationship. No need for a lot of color, just work the relationship.”

  • “How do you paint a spirit? Naturally, you grab tin from a roof and paint on it.”

  • “People are so fragile, especially kids.”

  • “Jesus was a teacher, just like any other teacher. He would teach by pointing to things. That is what artists do. We don’t have to be so afraid. We can listen to artists and support them.”

Dale ended his talk by saying: “I have a faith that has freed me to paint stuff. I am a thankful bugger.”

The audience was packed with family members. Even his great-grandson was in attendance and ambled up to Dale at one point during the talk. Of course, Dale picked him up, gave him some love, and then set him back down and continued the talk.

The exhibit was an opportunity for me to give something back to Dale, but in Dale-fashion, I got just as much out of it. Dale was my first painting teacher. I have had many teachers since who have taught me much about color and composition and the art business. But Dale was my first impression of why to paint. What I learned from Dale, in that cold grey painting studio at Bethel and which was revisited at this talk, was that the reason to paint should always be because one is so full of love that it must be shared. For that I am ever thankful.