Gregg Fretheim’s colorful oil paintings and pencil drawings, many of which can be found on the walls of his Bloomington home, offer a unique world tour.
Over the past several decades, Fretheim has devoted as much time and energy as possible to travel painting. He describes it as a sort of cross between painting “en plein air” (in the open air) and landscape painting. It’s not as commonplace as those art forms, however, probably because it’s no easy task.
Through the years, Fretheim, who’s visited six continents, has battled extreme weather conditions, car trouble, language barriers — just getting turpentine can be troublesome — and countless other challenges that have arisen along the way.
Recently, he spent some quality time in Morocco, where his parents and his sister lived for several years in the 1950s.
In many ways, the country probably doesn’t look too different from the way it did back then, with its streets humming with carts, donkeys, snake charmers and musicians. “The pulsation is incredible … it was sensory overload,” he said.
People there get away from it all by climbing onto the rooftops. Taking a cue from them, he did some painting from high up, capturing a mosque in the mountains and the buildings around him, not leaving out a cornucopia of satellite dishes. Fretheim labored as quickly as he could before he lost the light.
Travel in and of itself brings its own lessons and pleasures, but he stresses the inner journey: It’s about taking risks, overcoming fears and venturing into the unknown, said Fretheim, who wore leather slippers the color of a yellow highlighter, which came from Morocco.
Especially when crossing international borders, there’s no telling what might “come out in front of you,” he said. Also, as a result, “Every painting has a story,” he said.
That also has to do with Fretheim’s spirit of adventure. He typically sets out solo, and he stretches out his budget as much as he can. At times, he’s done odd jobs to make his travels possible.
Instead of signing up for tours, Fretheim immerses himself in places that are lesser known, and he often enlists locals who become travel partners. Serendipity plays an important role.
In terms of his subjects, he looks for definitive characteristics of a place. It could be an archaeological site, a dilapidated church or a figure collecting shells on the beach. His interests vary wildly, depending on the trip. That said, the main idea is to “get visual impacts of the environment, so you can bring that back.”
Once Fretheim situates himself, standing or sitting, he tries to tap into the flow of a scene. “The ultimate achievement in open-air sketching is to capture the air,” or the atmosphere, similar to how Claude Monet described his approach, he said.
Fretheim, 57, who has a background as an illustrator, said it’s about letting go. “There are two different animals that are coming together — travel and open-air sketching,” he said. Both require an open mind. And, with open-air sketching, “you don’t want to think at all.”
It’s easy to get too wrapped up in the technical details, but travel painting is about “pulling something deeper. You’re searching. You don’t want your brain getting in the way,” said Fretheim, whose pieces have an impressionistic feel.
The travel painter is “working from life,” he said. “You can’t control it.”
Developing his own rules
As a young person, Fretheim did a lot of drawing, and in high school, he discovered watercolors. Travel painting didn’t come until later, when, in college, he started working outside. “I just really enjoyed it,” he said.
In 1985, he brought his art materials along on a road trip to South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, he attended a landscape painting school in England. He ventured into the countryside on the weekends, doing his art. Then, in 1990, he took a yearlong trip around the globe.
“It was a real learning process for me, getting from point A to point B,” and that was part of the fun, he said.
Travel painting doesn’t have much in the way of art history, as few define their work around physical movement, so he’s sort of invented things as he’s gone along, Fretheim said.
Early on, as he got a better handle on the travel part, he found inspiration in the Impressionists and the Asian masters.
Fretheim was intrigued by “what little detail they put in, what they left out. There was a mysterious quality to the work,” he said.
And just as the Impressionists’ works are often exhibited in natural light, Fretheim shies away from photographing his work. “I want people to see it in the natural light, how I saw it,” Fretheim said.
Capturing the moment
Tom Laukkanen grew up in Bloomington, just down the street from Fretheim. That was how the two painters crossed paths, though they’re nearly a generation apart.
The two of them exhibited their work together at the Valley West Shopping Center in 2013.
A decade ago, when Laukkanen was bored in the studio, Fretheim suggested that he take his painting outdoors. There was no time to nitpick each brush stroke, which made it more fun, he said. “It’s about trying to capture the moment and live in the present.”
Eventually, Laukkanen realized it wasn’t just about the paintings. “You’re working on yourself at the same time you’re doing this” he said. “It’s a life based on experience, following a path of finding out what’s on the other side.”
Just as in a journal, travel painting has a lot to do with documenting things. At the same time, “You go places that you wouldn’t otherwise because you have a drive to paint it,” Laukkanen said.
He compared Fretheim to Brad Pitt’s character in the movie, “A River Runs Through It.” Pitt’s character was “taking fishing to another level, that of pure bliss. That’s the artist; that’s where Gregg is taking it,” Laukkanen said, adding, “Nothing has kept him from pursuing his passion, seeing the world.”
Wayne Howell, a fellow painter who lives in Minneapolis, met Fretheim when he was painting at Minnehaha Falls many years ago.
“Every time he comes back from a trip, we get together, and the paintings are lined up in the living room. He tells the stories of the paintings,” he said. “He’s been all over the place, places people don’t normally see. It’s just incredible.”
One of Howell’s favorites shows rice paddies and a hut on stilts with the forest in the backdrop. It’s set in the Philippines. “It’s cloudy, like it’s going to rain any minute. It’s a beautiful work,” he said.
White Bear Lake resident Christopher Copeland, a landscape painter who met Fretheim in college in the 1980s, said they share an enthusiasm for the Impressionists and working outdoors.
“He’s a very astute observer of the life and the landscape,” Copeland said. “He’s not just trying to check off the places on a list. He has a purpose as to why he’s where he is and what he wants to convey. He takes you along with him.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.