Setting out to make her first feature-length film, a documentary about abstract-landscape painters, Minnesota filmmaker Kristen Lowe knew what she was going for.
“I believe in brevity,” Lowe said. “Too many art films are too long. I wanted it to be informative, intimate and — this is most important — entertaining.”
Enter editor/producer Brian Forrest with the daffy old movie clips, illustrations and comic asides that punctuate the earnest chatter and philosophic musings in “Painting the Place Between,” Lowe’s 60-minute film that premieres Friday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
Ostensibly the movie is about four Minnesota artists, their self-doubts and aspirations, triumphs and setbacks, bad weather, great light, influences and all the other stuff that creatives mull over while watching the paint dry. But at heart “it just shows what you have to go through to have a lifelong career in painting,” Lowe said.
The featured artists — Betsy Byers, Jil Evans, Holly Swift and Andrew Wycks — are longtime friends or colleagues of Lowe, an associate professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. Byers is an assistant professor at Gustavus. Evans previously taught at St. Olaf College. Swift has taught at various colleges for more than 25 years, and British-born Wycks is an associate professor at Hamline University.
Lowe and Forrest sliced and diced 100 hours of interviews with the artists into a fast-paced collage with overlapping voices, an original soundtrack by Michael Legan and amusing counterpoint of found footage, home movies, drawings, cartoons, big-name artworks and excerpts of early black-and-white movies featuring such stars of yesteryear as Edward G. Robinson and Lillian Gish.
“I never did understand this art business,” Gish sighs in befuddlement as she watches a painter at work. That clip appears after Swift recalls the sexism she experienced in art school and Evans talks about the utter indifference she met as a Stanford University student: “For the first year nobody said anything to me about my work.”
Elsewhere the camera follows the artists as they roam the landscape, work late in the studio, scrape an errant line off a canvas and insist that there are ways to judge a good painting from a bad one, just as it’s possible to tell the difference between two hamburgers.
Lowe and Forrest adapted their fast-cut style from American auteur Errol Morris, especially his absurdist cult classic “Fast Cheap & Out of Control,” a biographical mashup involving a lion tamer, a gardener, a rodent connoisseur and a robot designer.
A Minneapolis native, Lowe graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1988 and then headed east to Tufts University and the Boston Museum School, where she earned a joint MFA in drawing and media arts. After graduation she decamped to Paris to help Tufts professor Judith Wechsler make four short films about art in the Louvre Museum’s collection.
“Then I looked at how many school loans I had” and returned to Minnesota, Lowe said. She taught at MCAD for a dozen years, ran the New French Cafe for a few seasons with her then-husband, a chef, and “made esoteric little art films that weren’t very good.
“It was not a straight line,” she said of her early career. She now lives in Chanhassen with her daughter, Francesca, 14, and their dog Nellie, a rescue husky-lab mix who accompanies her to class at Gustavus.
The film is a two-year labor of love that cost about $150,000 to produce, including a lot of time donated by Forrest and others. She has raised $60,000 in cash including a $10,000 Minnesota State Arts Board grant and $15,000 from a crowdsourced fundraiser.
“I’ve made a big whopping zero,” Lowe said, laughing.
Aiming for the universal
The project grew out of Lowe’s desire to demystify and humanize the lives of artists. The title “Painting the Place Between” refers to the type of art the four do — a cross between realism and abstraction — as well as to the Midwest’s position between the coastal art meccas of New York and Los Angeles. Careerwise, the four are also “between” unknown and famous.
“I feel in our culture that artists are glorified and damned and heckled all at the same time,” Lowe said, noting how they are often acclaimed as geniuses even while people trivialize their work by saying “my kid could do that.”
“Just as in any field, there are quacks in art,” she said. “But I wanted people to see that artists care about what they do and put a lot of energy into it. We all have disappointments, hopes and dreams, have to overcome failures, are wrongly perceived, or someone just doesn’t like you or what you do. We all have those experiences.”