Minnesota artist Charles Beck celebrates 90 with strong artistic visionby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Outside the door of Charles Beck's home, the Ottertail River winds its way through western Minnesota. Bird feeders hang from nearby oak trees, and deer frequent the densely wooded yard on the way to the house of a neighbor, who feeds them.
Beck, a master woodcut artist, draws on the natural environment in prints that capture his modern, perhaps abstract, views of the surrounding landscape -- with its wooded hills and lakes, and nearby flat farm fields of the Red River valley, itself an ancient lake bed.
"I can show you the color of most of my skies in nature," said Beck, who continues to work in his studio nearly every day. "Early morning, sunset ... you can find every color of the rainbow in the sky."
On Saturday, Beck will be honored at a public reception held to celebrate his 90th birthday on Jan. 31 and his work -- a life of searching and discovery.
A visit to the home of Beck and his wife Joyce on the edge of Fergus Falls is revealing:
The Becks are scavengers, as is clear from a wall in their home paneled with distressed wood. Joyce Beck said they salvaged the lumber years ago from abandoned railroad snow fences.
"We found this section over by Elbow Lake," she said. "So he was able to cut them in half using each side."
Scavenging is a useful skill for an artist, Beck said, because most don't make a lot of money. For him, it is a skill that dates back to his childhood in Fergus Falls during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Railroad tracks near his childhood home helped the family get by. They collected what dribbled out of rail cars -- coal for heat and grain. "That's how we fed our
chickens," he recalled. "We'd go down there every other day and fill the sacks of grain."
As a child in grade school, Beck drew scenes of cowboys and Indians. Not long after that it dawned on him that he wanted to be an artist.
After World War Two service as a Navy pilot and then graduation from Concordia College in Moorhead, Beck earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1950. He returned to Fergus Falls to work as a sign painter and then as a part-time art instructor at the local community college, where he worked for nearly 30 years.
Tall with silver hair, Beck has never had to scavenge for artistic inspiration.
Some call his art modern or abstract because it is not an exact representation of a scene. Trees become stark silhouettes, or a farm field bursts with golden rows of grain against a brilliant blue sky.
Light and distance affect a viewer's reaction to Beck's prints. His newest, "Morning Flight," captures thousands of snow geese rising from a field. But the effect takes hold only when the viewer stands back a few feet from print.
Beck spent decades prowling back roads in his pickup truck to collect scenes for his art. He'd stop and park to sketch or paint a view, and more than once a local would ask if he was stalled and needed help. Once, a helper fell silent as he looked at Beck's version of a farm scene.
"I finally broke the silence, and I says, 'Well, I'm just a beginner,'" Beck recalled saying facetiously. "And he [said], 'Well, I can see that.' "
Beck has an irrepressible sense of humor. He jokes that he walks to work, but his studio is attached to his house. The art space is the size of a medium sized bedroom with windows and fluorescent overhead lights.
Metal cans on a work bench are stuffed with dozens of brushes. He mixes colors from tubes of printers ink on strips of glass.
Beck carves most of the woodcuts on pieces of three-quarter-inch thick basswood. To create layers of image, he may carve several different wood blocks for each print. He then applies printing ink to the raised surfaces that remain on each wood cut and then presses them onto paper.
Sometimes, Beck seeks comment from others about a work in progress, but beyond that he works solo without a studio assistant. One of his sons frames his finished pieces. He draws on his past to create some of his woodcuts.
"Morning Flight," for example, is a scene from a trip to Mexico decades ago that Beck stored into memory.
"All of a sudden they all came up at once," he said. "It was like putting a big white sheet up in the sky. And I never did [think] about doing a print of it until just recently because, again, you're looking for new ideas, not to do the same thing all the time."
Joyce Beck, his wife of 64 years, is one of his biggest fans. She managed a home-based art gallery for years.
Although people sometimes ask her husband how he likes retirement, she said he hasn't stopped working.
"He says, 'Well, you know I retired from teaching, but I'm not retired.' And he isn't," she said. "Every day he goes into his studio and does something."
"Mostly to take a nap," Beck said.
"No he doesn't," his wife insisted. "He's still productive."
For example, there's "Thunderstorm," a work in progress for more than a year.
"I've never been quite happy with what I've got," Beck said. "I'm now just getting back to looking at what I've doing on it so far, and I'm gonna give it a try again."