A not-so-still-life: Michael Dunn reflects on a life in art and education
Michael Dunn is quick to tell you that, odds are, he might not have done anything in his life worth talking about.
As he walks around the warm and clean studio in his Fargo home, he points out individual paintings that trace the arc of his career and life, noting times of success and loss and new directions taken. Each is a chapter, and they’re all tightly bound to important people and times of transition.
Art, it seems, has given him a lot to talk about.
It’s hard not to compare where we’re standing to where Dunn’s creative life began, in the only place he could find refuge from a house filled with seven kids.
“We had this closet that was extra large, and I put a little table in there, a lamp, and I would draw and draw and draw,” Dunn says.
Dunn brings up the word “refuge” a few times, and not just in a physical sense. Due to a learning disability made worse by a lack of understanding at the time about such conditions, his grades suffered. But art classes kept him coming to school, and he swears he wouldn’t have passed any other subject without that experience.
“We have multiple learning styles and, unfortunately, there’s a perception that we are all test takers, we all learn at the same rate and we will all learn as much as the next person, and that’s not true,” he says. “Art was this refuge. It helped me problem solve and get through my other subjects.”
That experience helps him connect with his students as an art teacher at Moorhead High School, a position he’s held since 1988 and will retire from next year. He offers himself as an example of how to find strength in artistic practice and challenges students to use their creative impulses to explore different ways of thinking.
“One of the things I’ve stressed to my students over the years is to stop asking yourself, ‘What’s the answer?’ But if you ask yourself, ‘What could the answer be?’ man, then the abstract part of the brain kicks in.”
Art is central to Dunn outside of education, too. He found success with a realistic, “wet-on-wet” painting technique in the late ’70s and early ’80s and created a few conservation stamps for the state of North Dakota, soon finding himself an in-demand wildlife painter and making supplemental income for his family.
But he began to grow restless with the work he was creating and wanted to get away from the marketable “recipe” he had. He began to explore new media, particularly sculpture and pastels, to broaden his horizons.
Susanne Williams, director of Fargo’s Uptown Gallery, is impressed by the range of his technique.
“He is incredibly accomplished in every medium you can throw his way,” she says. “He describes himself as being well versed because he’s an educator. He sees his mastery as a way to translate his ideas. It’s quite impressive.”
Williams notes the work in Dunn’s upcoming Uptown Gallery exhibition is a distinct departure from the wildlife paintings he did in the past, focusing more on landscape and figure. And, she adds, it becomes even more meaningful as Dunn ties his unlikely practice and life together.
“When you hear him talk about his inspirations, you start seeing a lot more,” she says. “He might be painting a landscape, but he’s also going through a journey or responding to something. The eye immediately sees ‘landscape,’ but there’s so much more going on.”
Much of that journey Dunn attributes to a friend, Mark Sanchez, whom he befriended while playing football at North Dakota State College of Science. Sanchez introduced Dunn to the energetic artist community in Taos, N.M., and for years would play host as Dunn researched architecture, landscape and pastel painting techniques. Sanchez recently passed away.
“I’d go down there and take photographs and paint and paint and paint, and I’d hang out with Sanch and his family. I’d come back and have enough references to get me through the winter,” he says.
Despite his upcoming retirement, Dunn doesn’t plan on slowing down. As we’re winding down the stroll around his studio, covering his decades of work, he’s visibly excited about trying his hand at new work. He ties it all back to something he often says to his students and the impact that art could have on their lives.
“I explain a lot of what I do as an artist to them to show them the humanity of it,” he says. “I want them to understand my successes and struggles. I tell them it’s no different than you at your level.”
Images, from top: Michael Dunn in the studio at his Fargo home, photo by the author; Michael D. Dunn, “Entering Alcolade” acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30″; courtesy of Uptown Gallery and the artist.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the September 15, 2014, issue of the paper.