Living in Northern Wisconsin is honest living; simplicity trumps frivolity, and integrity, among neighbors and the beautiful natural surroundings, is a way of life. Here, sunsets and sunrises are unimpeded by concrete skylines and dirty skies. Here, the sounds of children playing in the sheets on the laundry line are always heard, not droned out by ambient noise. Here, the days come and go with the reassurance that the cows will always bellow, the turnips will be a gorgeous palette of purple and white each season, and that some simple, yet beautiful instant is waiting to be captured. These honest moments and simple truths are the inspiration for Jeffrey T. Larson’s breathtaking artwork.
Larson, 49, is a nationally recognized oil painter who lives in Cloverland, which sits about halfway between Superior and Bayfield on the state’s northernmost scenic highway and near the Lake Superior shore. Trained at the prestigious Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis in the style of the Old Masters, Larson brings a degree of photographic realism to his pieces that is both precise and subtle, capturing slice-of-life snapshots.
“When I came out of art school, I was very idealistic, wanted to do big, grand things,” Larson says. “But I came to the realization that if I just painted what I know best and paint from the heart, those are the paintings that turn out best. There is rich subject matter everywhere. The more you look around, the more you notice the beauty in things, everyday, simple things. We don’t need grand sunsets or noble scenes. In fact, it’s the simple moments that we probably remember best on our deathbed.”
Larson grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, but Wisconsin has long held a special place for him. Both sets of grandparents had farms in southern Wisconsin, where he spent time growing up. “I knew I liked rural life,” he says, “and we wanted to get out of the Cities.”
Larson and his wife, Heidi, also an artist, first tried Duluth, looking for an old warehouse or church to turn into a studio home. But a real-estate agent directed the couple to an abandoned schoolhouse in Cloverland. More than 20 years later, the little town – with two other houses, two farms, a church and an abandoned gas station – remains their home.
In warmer months, Larson spends his time outdoors, working en plein air. He works on multiple paintings daily as the sun, and his models – including his wife, children and members of the community – allow. The interplay of light is a central and captivating figure in his work. “Part of the beauty of the training of the Atelier is that they are not training you to be an artist, but training the eye to see. Anyone can play an instrument, but you train a musician to hear. With light, I have all the instruments of a symphony at my disposal.”
At first outsiders, the Larsons have become woven into the fabric of their community, its people and places bringing a unique element to Larson’s work. “We formed a lot of friendships, everyone is very nice, welcoming and enthusiastic. Living here has really been wonderful … and I have more models than I know what to do with!”
This time of year, when the lake-effect snow is piled deep outside the door, Larson turns his attention to still lifes. Using the same approach as his plein air painting, he examines and replicates the light streaming through the frosty windows to create paintings that are simple in form and appearance, but exacting with the density, energy and life they convey on the canvas.
Out of the shadows and into the light, honest moments and simple truths are brought to bear. It is art imitating life in its purest form.
“The works of the past that strike me, that I go back to again and again, are simple, direct truthful observations. You don’t even notice the artistry because they are so deceptively simple. Yet to come across as simple and hold your interest, there’s a lot of knowledge behind that. I really hope that’s what my work conveys.”
Amanda N. Wegner is a freelance writer in Madison who appreciates art and photography, but can’t draw a stick figure to save her life. This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.