Follow this unfolding story on Instagram…
This is kind of how I remember the portrait, a hovering glimpse in the dark above my uncle’s bed in the farmhouse where I spent summers growing up. It scared the shit out of me as a child, and I love it.
I own the painting now. My wife, bless her, puts up with it hanging in our house’s most prominent spot. (But she thinks the dress is white and gold, so all her decor opinions are suspect.) Visitors young and old call the portrait ugly and ask, “What’s it doing up there?”
That’s a good question, and it’s been asked enough that I’ve decided each day this month I’m going to post a slice of the answer.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #blueandblackdress #dressgate
My uncle Ralph owned the painting before I did.
I don’t know why, but on a short visit home from grad school May 22, 2007, I took a lot of photos of him and the farm where the Rutz family lived since the 1890s.
This photo is the closest thing I can find to the painting in situ where I would encounter it as a child. It was hanging directly behind me as I shot this photo of my father pulling aside the curtain in his brother Ralph’s room to get a better look at the piano. For some reason we were documenting that kind of thing that day—where and when things on the farm were built, what shape they were in, who might want them some day.
I try to avoid nostalgia, and I see a fine line between that and an honest look at how our past echoes in us. I aim to stay on this side of that line.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx #oldminnesotafarmhouseinseriousneedofdusting
I took this photo of a photo on a pile of old pillows that day in May 2007. The framed aerial shot shows the family farm, taken from the air about the time Ralph’s portrait was spooking me from a dark corner any time I snuck into his room. It was still a working farm. They had ducks and chickens and a few cattle. My brother and I helped feed them and get the eggs each summer. This scene doesn’t exist anymore. All but two of these old buildings were torn down because they were falling in anyway.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #bulldozeitbecauseitisfallinginanyway
This series of posts is about how pictures affect us… not that they do or why they do, but the ways we carry images and associate them with the rest of our world, the ways their meanings change while we grow.
Soon after this moment petting the cat in 2007, uncle Ralph would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His heart is still beating today (March 4, 2015) but it’s been years since he recognized any of us.
I just didn’t think to ask him about the painting until it was too late. Now there’s this puzzle. In 2010, after he moved from the farm to a retirement home, I met with him and asked when he got the portrait. He looked at me with a wan smile for a few beats and said, “About… ten years ago.” Twenty years before ten years ago I was already being frightened by it.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #portrait #art #alzheimers #oldmancatlove
This photo shows uncle Ralph around 1969, about the time he would have received the portrait, a gift from a friend. Here’s Ralph—a little younger than I am now—as he often appears before Alzheimer’s softened his exterior: tough, clean cut, unsmiling, focused on something more important than this stupid picture. Ralph loved boxing and ham radio. He never married, never talked about having kids, and only once did I hear a story about a girlfriend.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #art #pdx #painting #1969
On the back of the portrait, scribbled in pencil, it says: “Art Schaible 1968 The Indian Gall Fought against Custer and gave the best account of the battle.”
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #art #painting #1968
Photo from “Peterian ’67,” St. Peter High School, St. Peter, MN, 1967.
I never met the man who painted the portrait over our mantel. And until last week I had never seen a photo of him either.
Art Schaible (pronounced “shy-bull”) taught high school art in St. Peter, Minnesota, for decades. My ma, who grew up in St. Peter, says she probably took art from Art in 8th grade but doesn’t remember it. There are photos in yearbooks, she said, and scanned three for me. Here’s the first, with some excellent yearbook strangeness to come tomorrow.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #art #portrait #highschoolyearbookdiscoveries
Apparently Art Schaible painted pictures of Nazis in front of children.
This is the second of three photos my ma scanned from her St. Peter high school yearbook, vintage 1967, showing Art in his teaching prime.
This photo fascinates me because it depicts the chasm between today’s school climate and the one my parents grew up in. I’m trying to imagine the circumstances that would get a photo like this published in a 2015 yearbook. The school leadership would have to totally disregard political correctness and potential parental complaint. But that’s just the beginning for me. It’s not just the Nazi, professionally framed yet staged on an easel as if Art is still working on this painting. It’s the suits they’re wearing in an art classroom and the gesture with the brush’s wood tip. What are they doing? Who was this guy who the next year painted the portrait of a Native American that I own? Was this painter/teacher a Fascist, or a war-loving provocateur, or something else?
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #nazisinstrangeplaces
“What do I remember about Art? He was eccentric. He had the balls to wear leotards to teach school on occasion. He was a painter of dubious quality…” – Roland Rutz
A man’s leotard balls in midcentury rural Minnesota! I’ve been asking around about Art Schaible, and my dad, Roland, gave that wacky account of the man. He recalled other details: Art was married, had kids, then divorced. He loved antiques, worked as head wrestling coach at St. Peter High School, and died young—of what he doesn’t know.
In this, another photo from the “Peterian ’67,” Art poses with his assistant coach. The guy on the right would be replaced by uncle Ralph in fall 1968. Ralph taught tool and die making and helped Art coach wrestling. Ralph’s brother, my dad, has no idea why Art painted the portrait or why he gave it to Ralph.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx #wearyourleotardtowork
I contacted uncle Ralph’s lifelong friend Larry for more on Art Schaible and the portrait. He supported my dad’s line about the leotards: “Art would wear what he wanted to school, especially if they were in art instructionals,” Larry said. “He was a muscular, big guy, and no one would give him grief.”
Larry started working as an administrator at St. Peter high school in fall 1968, the same time Ralph started teaching there. He remembers the portrait as a going-away gift: “Ralph got it from Art when he left St. Peter.” Larry said Ralph cherished the portrait less for the subject matter and more because it came from his friend. Ralph and Art did college together at Mankato State and had same wrestling coach there. According to Larry, Art excelled at college wrestling and Ralph didn’t exactly. Ralph looked up to him, I think.
After his divorce Art married one of his former high school students and died of diabetes in his late 50s. “He just didn’t take care of himself. He liked to drink,” Larry said.
And the Nazi painting? Larry doesn’t remember anything about that.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx
Larry said Art probably painted the portrait during a special topics art class on Native Americans, which Art would teach every two years or so. “He had a special attachment or fondness of Native Americans, and Art liked to connect students to the local history, especially with the treaty here in Mankato.” Art would paint right along with his students, explaining the techniques he was using. “He was very hands on,” he said.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #dakota
From “Harper’s Weekly,” January 1863.
The treaty Larry mentioned took place in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1850s. The U.S. Government broke that agreement in 1862 and got what people now call the “Sioux Uprising,” a war between feds and Dakota, that ended in the trial and hanging of 38 Native Americans—the largest mass execution in American history.
I liked hearing the story as a kid, the big things that took place where I grew up, how the troops took this road or camped over there. It took until I was well into my own military service for me to fathom the terrible brutality and lack of honor in it.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #painting #art #massexecution
For years I thought Art’s title for the painting—The Indian Gall—was a bit of sarcasm about “gall,” as in bold, impudent behavior. “Those galling Indians. How dare they violently fight for rights to the land they’ve lived on for hundreds of years?” Turns out that was probably a misreading. “Gall” also means “gall bladder,” of course, and people get named for the strangest things.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #art #portrait #pdx #custerslaststand
Chief Phizí, whose Lakota name translates to “gall bladder,” acted as military chief for Sitting Bull in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. Gall, as he came to be known, took five years to surrender to U.S. forces after defeating Custer, but when he did surrender he worked peacefully with federal agents on a South Dakota reservation until his death in 1894, trying to reconcile the two peoples.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #art #pdx #portrait #thegallofthatman
This is my best guess at the source Art Schaible used to paint his portrait of Chief Gall in a St. Peter high school classroom, 1968.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #portrait #art #gall
The photo on the left represents a bunch of fish on ice. On the right, a roiling cauldron of netted fish. Have you ever heard of seining? These photos show something of how my grandfather, Elmer, did it. He and his brother would drive a crew onto one of Minnesota’s many lakes—when the ice is a foot thick, you can park a truck on it—they’d drill a series of holes through the ice in a big ring and use long poles to work a net under the ice, then they’d pull all the fish in the area out with one big sweep. The “rough” fish got tossed into live tanks for the trip to restaurants in New York.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #art #painting #seining
The Rutz Bros. had Native Americans on their seining crew, pictured here. One story about them, with segregationist tones, destroyed the idea in me that my neighbors were better than those people down south who gave African Americans such a hard time. After a long day seining, Elmer and the crew sat down at a restaurant in tiny Morristown, MN. The waitress refused to serve the Indians. Apparently Elmer’s blood took a quick boil and a major argument broke out between patrons and the restaurateur. I don’t think there was any violence that night, but the story makes me wonder how often this kind of thing still happens. Minnesota racism—echoes of the Sioux Uprising?
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #art #painting #minnesotaracism
This photo, like Art’s portrait of Gall, conjures many strange beauties for me—like an archeological artifact, battered and struck through by new growth. My brother Karl took this photo as a teenager in the late 1990s. If you look closely below the bullet-riddled window on this dead husk of truck you can read, “Elmer G. Rutz/ Waterville, Minn.” It’s a relic of those seining days that sat in the cow pasture, an inviting place for a tree to take root and for growing boys to build a fort.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #pdx #art #portrait #treesgrowinginfunnyplaces
That’s a stuffed fish on a pile of junk on the farm, and my father going through boxes—photo by me in May 2007. A world record for a carp at the time, Elmer’s seining crew netted it on Parley Lake in the early 1950s. At the time it was caught, my dad’s nine-year-old body matched the length and weight of the fish. He said it was the Rutz Bros’ big claim to fame, and they tried to cash in. Elmer and Arnold “would put it on display in bars and have the info on the board it was mounted on. They got very little for their efforts other than thanks and a beer.” For me this bends the classic big fish story from the realm of tall tales into something sad.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #painting #art #worldrecordcarp
I’m not sure when this photo was taken, but it’s in the Rutz family collection, and so this image of a car swept into the water feels like part of my heritage. Art’s painting is like that, a link to the epic world the ancestors seem to have lived in—floods and famines.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #pdx #flood #aestheticallypleasingsinkingcar
Photo by Mariano Cecowski, Argentina, 2005.
Looking at Art’s portrait is a little like viewing handprints in a cave—evidence of the ancestors really being here, a piece of creative debris from what must have been enormous expressive output, now mostly lost. Like a handprint, it’s a one-of-a-kind signature and a universal, human portrait at the same time.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #art #portrait #handprints #cavepainting
Little by little we change the pictures we love—and not just our perception of them. Here’s a shot of Art’s painting as it sat on my easel recently. I set it up to shoot photos for this series and noticed my handprint in the dust. I’m seeing this painting in many new ways thanks to this little Insta-series, and here my fingerprints have become evidence of physical, chemical additions I’m unknowingly making to it.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #artrestoration
A couple years ago, I removed the yellowing varnish from Art’s painting, cleaned it, and revarnished it with Gamvar for first-rate archival protection. It took more than confidence in the chemistry of oil paint to decide I had the right to overhaul it, though. Looking back, I realize it took owning my own house and starting my own family.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #artrestoration #gamvarpicturevarnish
A painting isn’t just its subject matter. Brush strokes are a record of the painter’s bodily activity, and when I revarnished Art’s portrait, I was undoing some of that, replacing some of it with some of my own. We have to do that to the objects that link us to the past, or watch them rot.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #pdx #portrait #painting
In his excellent book What Painting Is, James Elkins writes, “To an artist, a picture is both a sum of ideas and a blurry memory of ‘pushing paint,’ breathing fumes, dripping oils and wiping brushes, smearing and diluting and mixing. Bleary preverbal thoughts are intermixed with the namable concepts, figures and forms that are being represented.”
#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #pdx #whatpaintingis
“All the past can help you,” writes painter Robert Henri. I’m told I’m a very detail oriented painter, obsessed with accuracy. Art Schaible’s painting draws me in because it isn’t my kind of picture, yet it still gets me to buzz with emotion. I wonder if I’d like this picture so much if I had known Art. He isn’t here. His painting is.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #portrait #painting #pdx #goodadvice
I look at this painting every day. Any viewer can be forgiven for deciding Art’s picture is ugly, or that it doesn’t deserve the attention I’m giving it here. But everyone loves things other people find ridiculous (more on that tomorrow). Some day I want to make a picture that affects someone as thoroughly and as unexpectedly as this one has me.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #painting #portrait #livingroomdecor
The painting I hang over the fireplace as talisman to aid my own work barely competes with my wife’s talismans to the king of pop. This photo shows just a hint of the memorabilia she and her twin sister have collected: doll, blanket, pillows, book, mug, bowl, soda can and more. Check back tomorrow for even more.
#themarchofthetalismanportrait #thisisridiculous #art #areyoukiddingme #pdx #michaeljackson #livingwithmichaeljacksonobsessives
A picture of marriage. My wife dresses up as Michael Jackson—most recently two weeks ago, out for drinks and karaoke. She allows me to put Art’s portrait of Gall on the wall, and I indulge her requests to dress up as Blanket or Elizabeth Taylor and act as entourage to her one-gloved jazz pop moves.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #costume #michaeljackson #mywifeasadeadpopstar #michaeljacksonanonymous
I’m no longer the kid who would feel intimidated by this foreign and dark and alluring face. It’s in my space now, and after a month looking deeper into its stories, the painting’s mystery and power has shrunk to even more manageable size. This painting appeals to me differently today than it did even last month.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #painting #portrait
I set out this month to explain why a portrait by an obscure painter hangs above my fireplace, and ultimately it comes to this: For whatever reason, Art Schaible’s painting keeps leaping out of its frame when I look at it. The simple picture contains little but suggests much more to me, and it makes life feel fuller than my daily routine.
#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #portrait #art #pdx