Mike Paul: Midwest Artist with Ancient Technique

Jerry Anderson | Art Director, University of Mary
Patrick J. McCloskey | Director or Research & Publications, University of Mary

Mike Paul paints mostly landscapes set in the northern states from the Great Lakes to the foothills of the Rockies.

The works are as breathtakingly beautiful as they are subdued. Rather than jumping out at the viewer in bright colors and reflected light, Paul’s paintings invite the viewer in—deeper and deeper. Color and light seem suspended in his scenes, with forms giving shape to sky, lake, tree, prairie—and to the radiant essence that sustains creation. Big skies flow overhead as oceans with clouds swelling and breaking like waves. Nature seems to inhale and exhale at the pace of constellations overhead, with barns, farmhouses, telephone poles and other human fabrications bobbing gently as time and terrain merge.

Yet there is a deep rootedness: human beings in the land as farmers, artists and viewers, even though people seldom appear. Barns and houses sprout from the ground and flower along with the surrounding flora and waving prairie grasses. A light gentle at times, pensive in other works, falls across compositions without sentimentality. The muted, indirect quality of light in the paintings allows the solidity, for example of the severe rock island in “Boxcar, Pigeon Bay” (page 44), to reveal an inner luminescence. The fractured yellow and beige stone monolith glows subtly like the shell of a primordial beeswax candle burning down deeply into its core.

Paul paints in encaustic, an ancient technique dating back 2,000 years, which involves applying color pigments mixed with melted beeswax to canvas or linen. Applying and then fusing multiple layers of color and wax is a laborious process, but it produces translucent, richly textured paintings. Paul prefers painting on linen rather than canvas, which he says, “is much more expensive but provides better quality.”

Mike Paul: Midwest Artist with Ancient Technique

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in encaustic because the main technical problem—how to melt and fuse wax efficiently—has been solved by using a heat gun, which is a robust version of the everyday hair dryer.

Encaustic paintings are very durable, unless exposed to extreme heat or cold. They are impervious to moisture (perhaps not floods), and the colors encased within wax layers will not yellow or otherwise change over time. The paintings retain luminosity indefinitely. In fact, ancient Egyptian mummy portraits have survived two millennia without cracking, flaking or fading.

Mike Paul was born in Helena, Montana, in 1956 and grew up around the country in an Air Force family. In 1979, he completed a BA in Art History and Mathematics at Concordia College. Then he served in the Air Force as a geodesist (who determine exact navigation coordinates) until 1988. Paul studied drawing and painting at Minnesota State University Moorhead and earned a BFA in 1995. The same year he founded Flathead Studios (after his military hairstyle) and began working full time as an artist—with various side jobs, such as furniture maker and math tutor at Mathnasium.

Paul lived in Bismarck from 2008 to 2014. Then he moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his wife, Karen, who works as an industrial and corporate psychology consultant. They have two children, a daughter who is currently training to become an Air Force pilot and a son who is applying to join the United States Marine Band.

[T]aciturn dignity, a mater-of-fact stillness argues for finding poetry in the plain … a principled ethos of painting well without showing off.

Gregory J. Scott, art critic, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Fagerland

Opposite Bottom, “Fagerland,” 2014, encaustic on linen.

“The ‘Fagerland’ painting is my maternal great-grandfather’s homestead near Pierpont in northeastern South Dakota,” said Mike Paul.

“At fourteen years of age, Elias Fagerland emigrated by himself from Fagerland Island, Norway, to New York City in 1884. He worked there for two years and then traveled by wagon train to the Dakotas. In 1892, Fagerland filed for a 120-acre homestead, which cost $13.00. On January 21, 1899, he made the final $3.00 payment and, on the same day, became an American citizen. I believe he built the barns, which still stand, but not the house. My grandfather Ernest Fagerland was born there in 1898. Six years later, the family moved to western Montana to establish another farm, which is portrayed in ‘God Must be a Cowboy’ (pages 32-33). That’s where my mother was born.”

Painting in encaustic

Paul adds turpentine and stand oil to the beeswax as he melts the compound to the consistency of paste.

Paul adds turpentine and stand oil to the beeswax as he melts the compound to the consistency of paste.

Then he adds color pigments, often in powder form since the particles suspend better in wax. Although the wax-paint mixture can be applied with a brush, Paul prefers a painting knife, which has a pointed tip and is “cranked” like a trowel. Painting knives are better suited than brushes to creating texture, areas of flat color, precise edges, and to fashioning tiny shapes and color details. With this deceptively simple tool and a sheet of plate glass as a palette, Paul transforms flat, blank surfaces into Northern Plains scenes, “which have a mystic hold on my imagination.”

I paint in encaustic to get the luminosity and texture I can’t get with oil. It allows me to break up the painting’s surface. So you’re looking through the wax into different layers of suspended color and reflected light.

Mike Paul

“Yet somehow she had hope”

“Hutu,” 1999, graphite on Rives heavyweight paper.

“I met this Hutu woman in 1996 when I was volunteering with Lutheran Social Services in Fargo,” Paul recalled.

“Her entire family, including grandchildren, had been massacred in Rwanda, yet somehow she had hope, at least in the afterlife, and kept her sense of humor.”

Paul’s works are included in the public collections of the North Dakota Museum of Art, the Plains Art Museum, the University of Minnesota, Steensland Art Museum, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Mayo Clinic, Lutheran Brotherhood, Pillsbury and Cosmopolitan Magazine. In 2012, he was awarded a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Paul is represented by Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Rather than jumping out at the viewer in bright colors and reflected light, Paul’s paintings invite the viewer in—deeper and deeper.

Gift of the Barn People

Gift of the Barn People

“Why are you planting a new orchard?” Mike Paul asked two farmers who were digging holes and placing seedlings in a field on their farm, which was 30 miles north of Fargo near the Red River.

The farmers were brothers in their mid-80s who already had a large orchard, which they had tended for decades.

“It’s not for us,” they replied. “The orchard is for our grandchildren.”

‘Remarkable,’ Paul thought. The brothers Tjornehoj had emigrated from Finland as teenagers. They never married nor sired children. Their “heirs” would be whoever farmed here after they passed.

Paul lived in Fargo from 1986 to 2000 and made many excursions north to farming areas in the Red River Valley to sketch and photograph landscapes and barns for his paintings. He met the Tjornehoj brothers in the early 1990s and returned to visit their farm on several occasions.

“It was a beautiful farm with neat, simple buildings,” Paul recalled. “And there were fascinating old objects in the barns and elsewhere on the property.”

The brothers said little when Paul examined or talked about an item. Around 1997, they asked if he would like to take any objects home.

“Very much,” Paul replied and the brothers Tjornehoj led him into their main barn where “in a pile was all the stuff I had looked at during my visits.”

Paul took the things back to his studio and began fashioning statues from the pieces of wood, wire and metal, and objects such as old pulleys, iron hinges and oxen yokes. He christened the works “Barn People” and created 14 sculptures, nine of which have sold and five are still available.

“I love to use found, leftover and unique materials to make something interesting,” Paul said in his softly resonating voice. †

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360 Review presents in-depth inquiry, analysis and reflection on important issues, trends and events happening in and affecting this region; there is a special focus on North Dakota, where we are located.