As a boy, Mat Ollig often tagged along with his grandparents to Red’s Cafe in Montrose, 45 miles west of Minneapolis.
Today the Wright County town is a bedroom community, but in Ollig’s youth it was more rural than exurban, with Red’s the gathering spot for townies and truckers who pulled off Hwy. 12 for the soup of the day and a sandwich.
“My grandpa was a farmer, and he would sit in a booth with his buddies in their flannel shirts and shoot the breeze,” Ollig recalled.
At 33, Ollig is too young to remember Red’s most famous regular; former U.S. Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But he heard tell that Humphrey, who lived in nearby Waverly, frequently dined on Red’s famous beef commercial.
“Humphrey had his own booth,” Ollig said. “The older generation told the same stories about him over and over.”
Ollig, a painter, has transferred those fragments of memories into a work of art.
He has painted 10 small panels that fit together to form an impressionistic pastiche of Red’s — the signature sign on the front of the cafe, a plate loaded with a burger and fries and a head-and-shoulders portrait of a grinning Humphrey.
It’s one of 10 original collage-style paintings that Ollig is crafting to honor and preserve the cafe culture in Minnesota’s small towns and neighborhoods, from Stillwater to Pipestone to Red Wing to Fergus Falls.
Although Ollig hasn’t lived in a small town for a decade and a half, he’s sentimental about restaurants rooted there, the kind of places that don’t serve lattes or heirloom anything, the kind of places that keep ketchup bottles and paper napkin holders on the tables.
“The diners I selected are local landmarks,” he explained. “Some of them have been around for decades, and one is only about 10 years old, but they all have an atmosphere. I want each picture to evoke a memory: I paint in bits and pieces because that’s the way we see the world.”
With a grant from the Minnesota Arts Board, Ollig spent the summer traveling the state with his Nikon and sketchbook, spending time in Main Street diners taking photos of images to help him flesh out his concepts.
With his bald head, rectangular spectacles and Van Dyke beard, Ollig looks every bit the artist, but he’s comfortable enough to act like a regular, slurping coffee and ordering the special while chatting up mom-and-pop owners, wait staff and loyal local customers.
“I was looking for places that had a nostalgic spirit, and they all had to have that diner smell: grease, coffee, grilled onions, with just a tinge of bleach,” he said.
Returning to his windowless studio in an industrial warehouse in north Minneapolis, Ollig went to work. This fall he produced 10 paintings and prepared a unique show of his original series.
Each painting hangs in the diner that inspired it. He also printed postcards of each painting.
Using a Twitter hashtag (#mnArtHunt) and his website, matollig.com, he wants to encourage diner lovers to trek from one greasy spoon to the next to see his paintings, dig into a meal and pick up a free postcard as a souvenir.
“I want it to be a scavenger hunt, where friends do the circuit and collect the postcards,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be an epic road trip?”
Working into school
Ollig’s parents divorced when he was young, and he bounced between several small towns in Wright County.
“I was never a country boy. I didn’t like hunting or sports. When I was 12, I tried basketball because I’m tall, and I literally fell over during practice and broke my ankle,” he recalled. “I spent my time in my room drawing; I was happy with paper and pencil.”
As a junior, he enrolled at the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley to study visual arts.
“For the first time in my life, I was with peers,” he said. “Being recognized and pushed as an artist in that environment was a pivotal experience.”
After graduating in 2002, Ollig dreamed of attending art school, but couldn’t afford it. He took a security job at a building in downtown Minneapolis, where his duty rounds took up 20 percent of his shift. He spent the remaining 80 percent filling sketchbooks.
“I put together still lifes — fruit, action figures, wadded-up pieces of paper, the hardest things I could think of to draw,” he recalled. “I got faster, and my eye got better.”
In his off hours, he set up an easel in his tiny Minneapolis apartment and spent his free time dabbing oil on canvas, experimenting with texture, color and brush strokes and perfecting his painting technique.
Three years into his self-designed apprenticeship, “the shoeshine lady” in the building where he worked had an idea for a patent and asked Ollig to draw her design. When her patent lawyer saw Ollig’s illustration, the attorney started giving the fledgling artist assignments. Ollig was able to quit his security gig and work full-time as a patent illustrator.
“After a year of that, I had enough money for school,” he said.
Keeping the stories alive
His expansive portfolio earned him a generous merit scholarship at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It also helped him become the first person in his family to go to college, which included spending a semester in Florence, Italy.
“I knew how to get the most out of every class,” he said. “I was older, so I had the discipline. I knew how to budget and plan and balance my time.”
Shortly after Ollig graduated, several of his paintings were offered for sale on the MCAD website. A representative of a Minneapolis law firm spotted his work and commissioned a painting for the firm’s lobby, then asked for 16 more large-scale oil canvases.
“That was my big break,” he said. “I became a full-time artist. I was ready; I knew how to work on deadline.”
Today Ollig’s commissioned oils hang in corporate and commercial spaces, including oversized multi-canvas panels on display at the Hyatt Regency and the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis, Omni Brewing in Maple Grove and Minneapolis software company Code42.
He expects that sometime next year, he’ll bring his diner paintings back to the Twin Cities for a gallery show. If the series proves a hit, he hopes to find a way to broaden the visual narrative of authentic cafes.
“I’d love to do a national version, to travel to every state to find their quintessential spot,” he said. “I hear from some owners that diner culture is dying; the older generation is retiring and no one is stepping up to take over.
“I want to tell these stories while they’re still here.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.