A vision of wind-filled sails on the open sea will entice visitors up the main stairway at Minneapolis Central Library next week, when a new gift to the library goes public.

The ship is the centerpiece of a three-part, 11-foot-wide painting that's a $40,000 gift to the library from a Minneapolis man who fell in love with reading as a kid.

When the man, Eric Fermstad, died of cancer two years ago, his family and friends were surprised — and delighted — by the generosity of his unknown plans.

"The fact he gave this money to the library for art was incredible," said his brother, Thom Fermstad of Seattle, who coordinated the gift.

Recalling how their parents were always reading to the five Fermstad boys while they were growing up in Robbinsdale, Thom noted that his brother often hopped the bus to various branch libraries "just to check out books."

"That wasn't really cool at that time, but he was kind of a rebel and didn't care what people thought," Thom said in a phone interview. "He was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who used the library throughout his life for research on different projects."

A computer consultant and tinkerer, Fermstad invested in the stock market and in houses and apartments around Minneapolis. He kept an old houseboat on the Minnesota River and fell in love with an elementary schoolteacher, Lynn Townsend, with whom he shared a home for 27 years.

"On my first date with him I told him I was married once, to an artist, Jerry Ott," Townsend recalled recently over lunch with her former husband. "He said, 'Omigod! I love his work.' I think that's why he gave money to the library for art."

Small-town sweethearts

Ott was the high school sweetheart whom Townsend married in 1972. Small-town kids, they'd grown up in southern Minnesota — he in Wells (pop. 2,343 ) and she in nearby Minnesota Lake (pop. 687) — and didn't marry until seven years after they graduated from high school.

By then she was teaching and his painting career was about to supernova. Although Ott had studied inconclusively at Mankato State and the University of Minnesota, he was basically a self-taught tyro with an airbrush, then a novel tool in fine art. Abstract painting was still dominant but Ott wanted nothing to do with it. Intent on reanimating realism, he found inspiration in photography, producing lush nudes-in-nature paintings that were sensual yet chaste and startlingly modern. Walker Art Center bought one of his 1972 nudes and showcased it in a traveling exhibition that launched Ott's career.

By the end of the decade, Ott's paintings had been seen in more than 80 exhibits around the United States and as far afield as Monte Carlo, Switzerland, Germany, Finland and New Zealand. And by then Ott was basically burned out from meeting production deadlines for art dealers in New York and Sweden.

After five years, the marriage was over, too. It had been, as Ott put it, a "miserable, miserable relationship." Or, as Townsend put it, "We should never have gotten married."

Time and maturity heal many a youthful wound, though. Following a "friendly divorce," they resumed a deep friendship that now has them talking several times a week. For the past 22 years Ott and his partner, Ann Pellant, have been living in Duluth, where he continues to paint, though at a more measured pace than in his frenzied youth.

Family pictures

About a year ago Friends of the Hennepin County Library, a nonprofit organization that oversees gifts, invited him to propose ideas for the project. He hesitated because, though Fermstad had become a good friend, Ott had another exhibition in the works that he was reluctant to postpone. Still, he was touched by the situation and came up with several proposals for the advisory committee.

"Everyone was totally impressed and so excited by his presentation" that it was approved unanimously, said Tonya DePriest, manager of the Central Library.

Called "Pillars/The Last Monarch Butterfly," the 8-foot-tall painting is filled with personal details from the entwined lives and interests of Fermstad, Townsend and their extended family. Eric and two brothers listen intently at left as their father reads them "Paddle to the Sea," a favorite Minnesota children's tale. Lynn Townsend is the lithe beauty on roller skates at right. Eric is the young man gazing into the sun at the painting's top, his image breaking up into pixels — a subliminal metaphor of his death and more concretely a reference to new technologies sweeping through libraries.

The boy at upper left clutching "The Last Monarch Butterfly" book is Ann Pellant's nephew. The handprint at bottom is that of Dana, a beloved Fermstad brother, but also alludes to the smoky cave-handprints that are the first human signatures in art. Next to it Ott, who collects prehistoric tools, has drawn his own hand holding an ancient stone ax head.

Graffiti-ed maxims, and pillars of books on art, language, history, science and the environment represent the civilization that libraries hold. In little vignettes around them are animals threatened by human exploitation, and at the bottom lick the flames of ignorance, bigotry and violence that endanger the whole edifice. Still, the ship sails onward, lightly overlaid with the words "There is no ship like a book to take us lands away."