Charles Beck started selling his drawings in grade school for candy and marbles growing up in Fergus Falls. Some 90 years later, his prints and paintings of nature and landscapes are displayed around the world.
Beck, 94, died Sept. 12 after a prolific career during which he became one of the state’s most well-known artists.
“His work is timeless,” said Scott Gunvaldson, a Fergus Falls artist who was once Beck’s student. “His work wasn’t photographic. His whole approach was to distill everything down to its essence.”
Beck studied at Concordia College in Moorhead. He would later say in a television interview that he knew nothing about art until he met Prof. Cyrus Running, himself a renowned artist for whom Concordia’s art gallery is named.
Beck said his professor started taking him out to sketch nature and farm scenes. “That was my interest, and it never left,” Beck said in the 2014 interview.
He joined the Naval Air Corps in 1943 and trained as a pilot, though the war ended before he could serve in combat. In 1960, Beck began teaching art at the Fergus Falls Community College.
In the 1970s, Beck started working primarily in woodcut prints, which would become the medium for which he gained acclaim.
Typically using a piece of soft basswood, he would carve an intricate image in reverse, then coat the wood with ink. After pressing a paper or canvas onto the wood block, the ink would display the first image. If he wanted another color, he would need another block. He would sometimes carve up to six different blocks to create a single image, a process that would require precision in matching the carvings and often mystified his fans as to how he did his work.
“That’s the genius of it,” said Dick Crockett, who has been buying Beck’s pieces since the 1970s and has more than 50 of them on display at his home and lake cottage. “Each image had to be different, and yet they all had to connect.”
Beck would get the inspiration for his work by driving his pickup truck around the rolling hills, wheat fields and serene country of rural Fergus Falls and Otter Tail County.
Gunvaldson said Beck’s work, influenced by modernist artists at the beginning of the 20th century, was accessible to both those who studied art and those who knew little about it. And because he made prints, his work was also affordable.
“Charles Beck is an artist whose work we want in our homes,” Crockett said.
His daughter, Carolyn Glesne, said Beck made more than 250 wood prints and sold thousands of copies of them to buyers around the globe.
In 2016, Beck suffered a stroke, robbing him of the ability to walk and use his arms for woodcuts. He went back to painting, where he continued to be just as prolific. He had an art gallery opening in Fergus Falls in June 2016, where 50 of his paintings were displayed, said Glesne. He had another show in July, where he displayed another 50 works.
That night, he injured his back getting into the nursing home van. The pain forced him to stop painting, and his health deteriorated rapidly, his daughter said.
In a 2014 Prairie Public Broadcasting feature of Beck’s work, he said there was nothing better than to create an image and have someone say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ ”
“Well, that’s the essence of it,” he said. “It’s new. It’s enlightening and exciting.”
He is survived by his wife, Joyce, and three children, Karl Beck of Fergus Falls, Glesne of Underwood and Paul Beck of Lafayette, Colo. Services have been held.