Maturing vision

Four ‘mid-career’ artists receive fellowship

– What does it mean to be a "mid-career" artist?

Like middle age, the term mid-career implies a certain maturity. The mid-career artist is no art school naïf with paint-splattered pants and an eccentric haircut.

But both labels also raise similar existential questions: How did I get here? Where am I going?

Or not.

If the artist is someone like

David Bartley of Minneapolis, he’ll just keep plugging away, as usual.

"The art world is so funny," Bartley said. "Everything has to have a label: emerging artist, mid-career artist."

Bartley was one of four Minnesota visual artists selected for a McKnight Foundation fellowship last August, an honor meant to recognize and celebrate mid-career artists. Each recipient was awarded a $25,000 grant and will participate in an upcoming exhibition at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

By his own count, Bartley has produced 60 new works in the last year. He said the extra money will allow him to do some nice things for his daughter – and maybe eat a little better – but it won’t alter the frenetic pace in his studio.

"I would be working this way I am whether I got the grant or not," he said.

Maybe that’s a better way to define the mid-career artist: someone who has stuck with it, who can’t help it, who will keep producing art whether anyone cares or not.

Jan Estep, another McKnight Fellow, put it this way: "You’ve just been able to, like, do it."

Estep, a University of Minnesota art professor, said the old cliché is true: Many professional artists toil in at least relative obscurity, putting in long hours alone to realize their visions.

When the art world sits up and takes notice, "it helps your confidence on a basic level," she said.

Chris Walla, a Minnesota State University Moorhead art professor, and Minneapolis painter Gladys Beltran round out this year’s grant recipients.

In an interesting coincidence, Walla, Estep and Bartley all produce work that deals with language, text or communication in some way.

Bartley, a painter and mixed-media artist, picks words and phrases from long lists he’s compiled and combines them with images to create dense and complex works. Walla, a sculptor, renders phrases, word balloons and punctuation marks in three dimensions.

Estep, who often works with text and maps, will display evidence of a pilgrimage to Norway, where she found a small hut once occupied by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Beltran’s subject is often the Twin Cities and its landmarks. She plays with perspective in busy cityscapes.

What unites all four is their artistic maturity. They have each developed a set of tools to explore the world, a language to interpret what they see.

And they still have something to say.

The McKnight Artist Fellowships for Visual Artists group show runs July 6-Aug. 12 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design gallery, 2501 Stevens Ave.