Three Artists in Residence
When it comes to viewing exquisite examples of trompe l’oeil, the ancient art form in which a painter creates three-dimensional illusions on two-dimensional spaces, you need not go to Paris, Venice, or Greece. Local artists, Ann Gumpper, Brian Olson and Tom Napoli have multiple installations here in the Northland for you to view. Read on and you’ll learn that many of these amazing works may be seen while attending a local production or visiting your favorite restaurant.
When Ann Gumpper was six-and-a-half years old, she and her family discovered that she was near-sighted in the extreme. Up until that point, all that she saw looked much like a Claude Monet painting: soft, colorful images suffused in light. “I, of course, had no basis of comparison, so when I got my first pair of glasses, life suddenly snapped into focus,” she explained. “Until that moment, I believed that all people perceived this huge imaginary world as I perceived it: birds flying, leaves on trees, the moon changing shape appeared as soft, amorphous shapes. The visual world is a miraculous thing; I have never taken it for granted. That early experience had a profound effect on everything that I create.”
Ann was born in Hawaii where her father was completing his medical residency. The family settled in Michigan, where Ann and her two siblings grew up. She later attended Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond where she received an MFA in Theater Set Design.
When Gumpper moved to Duluth in 1988, she had no idea that she was going to spend the next thirty-plus years of her life in the Northland. “When I moved here, there was no Lakewalk, no interstate…Duluth seemed to be at a crossroads, and on the verge of recognizing its incredible natural assets as a tourist destination. At the time, a group of citizens were lobbying for a new design for Interstate 35 so as not to destroy Leif Erickson Park and the view of Lake Superior. They were visionaries.” It was during this time she met her husband, UMD Professor, Mark Harvey, and they decided to settle in Duluth.
In undergraduate school, Gumpper particularly enjoyed doing group projects, “Making art collaboratively was a lot more fun than working alone in my studio.” Gumpper had been designing and painting scenery for years, but after starting a family and needing more regular hours, she expanded her craft to include murals. Arrowhead Supply, a kitchen and bath store, was the first to hire Gumpper to paint its displays. “The manager asked if they could put out my business cards - so I got some made! All my work came to me word-of-mouth, it was an…[she hesitated] inadvertent business!”
Up until that point, Gumpper’s career had been exclusively in theatre, including the designer/technical director position for the College of St. Scholastica’s Theatre Program, and teaching scenic design and painting for the UMD Theater Department.
When asked who had most influenced her art, Gumpper had a challenging time zeroing in on a specific artist,“There have been so many, famous in the field, but not well-known everyday names.” When pressed, she offered, “Early in my career, I had the privilege of working for a couple summers at Theater-By-The-Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island.” It was there that she worked with designer J. Robin Modereger, a beautiful painter who had apprenticed with Jo Mielziner, known as the “most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway”. Mielziner was an innovative, evocative designer who was responsible for a new American scenography, including original scenic designs for Death of a Salesman, many plays by Tennessee Williams, and remains one of Gumpper’s inspirations.
Gumpper generally approaches set design and murals similarly: “Both the challenge and reward of any design is its collaborative nature. Set designers work with a creative team: we are bringing to life a visual environment that helps tell the story the playwright and director want to articulate. It’s very rewarding when it works! The murals, faux painting and color consultations I do are for specific clients; there is a collaborative aspect to those as well, with the goal of creating a space they will love.”
Chances are excellent that if you have attended plays or musicals at The Duluth Playhouse or Lyric Opera of The North (LOON) or UMD or a local high school, you will have had the pleasure of seeing one of Gumpper’s set designs. I asked Gumpper to share one specific work of hers that could be viewed by the public, and she did not hesitate to answer.
“I was hired to be the artist in residence overseeing the creation of a mural in the Social Hall of Pilgrim Congregational Church.” Pilgrim Church, as many Duluthians know, is the Tiffany-windowed wonder gracing East 4th Street. “Three different people sent me the description for the job, because they knew the project matched my skill set” she remarked. “I met with members of the congregation, learning about Pilgrim’s identity and goals. We met over several weeks; I made sketches and shared them with the whole congregation.
We used a number of techniques that involved transferring imagery, so the project could be accessible to anyone who wanted to participate; no one had to climb a ladder if they didn’t want to. The youngest muralist was one-and-a-half years old and made a handprint flower; the oldest contributor was ninety-two.
At the time, the Congregational denomination was using a comma to symbolize that ‘God is still speaking’, meaning God’s message is still evolving - so we painted commas as a seek-and-find throughout the mural. That meant that, in addition to illustrating the history, present traditions and future goals of the church, we created a fun activity to engage kids of all ages.”
Gumpper wanted to add that she is deeply grateful that our community has given her opportunities to do what she loves. Her advice to someone wanting to pursue a career such as hers: “Work from a place of gratitude. Be respectful of others and generous with your gifts.”
Bryan Olson has never had an interest in making anyplace but Duluth his home, “My family is all here. I am a native of West Duluth. I only left to attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design between 1980-81.”
Before he became a muralist, Olson worked for Lamar Advertising, “I was previously a billboard painter for Lamar between 1988 – 2000.”
In 2000, as markets and technologies changed and cost-efficiency became a more pressing matter, Olson was faced with finding new work. “I have to say that the leaders at the local Lamar Advertising were great about it, helpful, supportive, but I was going to have to find different work."
"My son, Nick, at the time was a baby so I had just done some cartoony murals in his bedroom.”
With time on his hand, and the need to get a small body of work together for a brochure, Olson did some free murals for friends.
After completing his brochure, Olson set up a booth at the Duluth Home show that following spring. “It was the best thing I could have done,” he reflected.
Ever since The Home Show, “The work for both private and commercial murals has been steady.”
While working for Lamar, Olson learned from a graphic artist and (co-worker friend) how to use a Photoshop-type program to create billboard designs.
“I have often said that, in addition to the Home Show, this was one of the best things I ever did. I used (and use) this program to show clients almost exactly what they’ll be getting before it happens. This is great way of keeping (unpleasant) surprises out of the equation.”
When Olson works, he is very aware that, unlike billboards that he had cut his professional teeth on, each project he is hired for is for a custom space. “Clients comes to me with ideas and it’s my job to make their dreams come true.”
He added, “Many skilled artists capture what is important to themselves and hope that it sells; often it doesn’t.”
Olson pays close attention to his clients. “Ideally, the client gives me a hint of an idea of what he or she is looking for, and working from that point, there is still plenty of room left over for my creativity to be let loose.”
When asked to share once piece of work that could be viewed by the public, Olson talked about Jack’s Place on Tower Avenue in Superior, Wisconsin. “Jack’s had me paint thirteen murals including inside and out.
One of the more recent murals is a 1950’s view of Tower Ave looking north. Though some artistic license was taken (I deleted some buildings) to highlight more famous landmarks like Globe News. It is still recognizable as Tower. I spent many hours studying historic photos from the Douglas Co. Historical society to paint this.” Olson hopes folks will swing by and take a look!
Gannuccis, West Duluth on Central Avenue
Growing up by a trout stream in Duluth, muralist, Tom Napoli, has been drawing for as long as he can remember. “My deepest inspirations come from nature,” he offers when talking about his art. In his late 20’s, Napoli traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad, “It was my goal at the time to find a place where artists were more appreciated.”
Tom enjoys the irony, “Not knowing at the time that my journey around the world would lead back home to Duluth, where I’ve raised my four children.”
Napoli has worked many jobs over the course of his life, “But,” he clarifies, the only career I feel that has always been my one and only career: art.”
There is a deep spiritual component to Napoli’s art, he says his Creator and his family inspired him to pursue his art. Another particularly inspiring person from Napoli’s past was a family friend, Patti Scheer, who was herself an artist. “When I was a young kid Patti encouraged me to think outside the box. She encouraged me to experience the world through my 5 senses. We would explore the woods together; depending on the time of day, we would notice the color changes of ferns, moss and trees, feeling their texture, watching shadows on the water and how, as it ripples, and the right combination of paint colors can bring that water to life in a still painting. Patti helped teach me to allow my imagination flow with no restrictions.”
When talking about the rewards and challenges of his work Napoli responded, “I anticipated the long hours necessary to create a mural, what I did not anticipate was the great amount of positive energy I would receive from people in the community watching me work.” When asked to share a particular piece that might be viewed by the public, Napoli recommend people drive by and see his mural at The Tortoise & The Hare Shoe Store on the corner of on 40th Ave West and Grand Ave. In collaboration with Tortoise and Hare’s owners, Mary and Jim Stukel, Napoli integrated the ancient fable of the Tortoise and Hare with the region’s local scenery. “For me, this mural is a personal gift to Duluth. It’s also a gift to Duluth from the Stukels who invested in the work, and who gave me the creative license to expand my vision for this project. “ He noted, “If you look at the mural you’ll see Ely’s Peak, Spirit Mountain, The Quarry Park, Enger Tower and the Aerial Lift Bridge. Additionally, the Natural Habitat & over 70 animals that bring beauty to our Northland and Twin Ports are all depicted in the mural.
One of the most rewarding and unexpected aspects of this project was the interest and encouragement of people walking and driving by. Horns would honk and people would yell out compliments as I worked on the mural. I was inspired by the community support and humbled to know that my art was having a positive impact on my community. Napoli enjoys encouraging other artists, “If you have the gift, the passion and courage to pursue your dream. Do it! There is nothing more rewarding than being able to live your dream everyday.”