It was a subzero kind of day in Minnesota, but Mike Lynch was at the Groveland Gallery dressed entirely in blue denim. His wiry white hair poked out from behind his collar, and his thick glasses made his bright blue eyes look even bigger.
It looked like he might’ve just returned from a plumbing job — his attire reminded me of my grandfather, Earl, who actually was a plumber in Chicago.
Turns out this all-denim get-up was just his regular outfit. It’s fitting for an artist focused on the everyday streets and alleys and industrial landscapes of Minnesota.
A collection of Lynch’s oil paintings, drawings and lithographs is on view in the exhibition “Pictures by Mike Lynch: 1955-2017,” opening Saturday at Groveland, which has represented the artist since 1979.
“We’re cleaning out the studio,” said his wife, Ann, when asked about the show, a retrospective of sorts. “There’s a lot of good work in there. We’re also going to have a studio sale in the spring. It’s kind of a way of taking stock.”
Lynch is a quiet, somewhat understated artist. We hardly even made eye contact during our conversation that morning, perhaps a reflection of shyness.
But he is not shy in his work. He was one of the first winners of the McKnight Foundation’s prestigious Distinguished Artist Award, back in 2003, and a three-time McKnight Fellow, among many career accolades (including four State Fair first-place prizes for his prints and paintings).
Best known for his on-site, no-holds-barred, art-making style, Lynch is legendary for going to the same place over and over again at night to paint in a plein-air manner. Lynch had sensitive eyes, and growing up his mother used to get him sunglasses. Painting at night meant less disturbance from people, and a cleaner look at shapes and forms. The night is what he’s known for.
He mixes his own paints, often collecting iron ore from mines for pigment. When he’s painting outdoors — capturing small towns, building facades, landscapes, train tracks or shipyards in Duluth — he’s accustomed to people wondering what the hell he’s doing there.
One time, he recalled, he was sitting in his car, making a painting of a house. “This guy came out of the house. He came out to the car and said, ‘You know, there’s nothing illegal going on here.’ He thought I was a cop.”
Those kinds of experiences used to happen all the time. But Lynch, 79, stays closer to home these days.
“He’s more in the studio, doing still-lifes,” said his wife. “It’s better. He’d be out in the middle of the night, at grain elevators, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to get a dog or a cellphone.’ ”
A new series of still-lifes, created over the past five years, is included in this new exhibition. There’s a panda bear with arms spread, awaiting a hug, an old-fashioned car, a train, a pack of Camel cigarettes.
Lynch grew up in Hibbing, where the Iron Range landscape that captured his visual imagination. As a professional artist, he recalls getting a room at a super-divey flophouse in Duluth, the Seaway Hotel, for $35 a week, and then visiting locations from Grand Rapids to Ely. In jest, he even created a spoof cartoon guidebook to Duluth on $5 a day.
His frugal nature helped make it possible for him to create art cheaply, and to come and go as he pleased.
A Minnesotan through and through, Lynch did live briefly in Amsterdam, studying at the Rijksakademie in the early 1960s. He also checked out the scene in New York around that time, even hanging out with Franz Kline at the legendary Cedar Bar. But that city didn’t prove to be the place for him.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to go here. You can never make a living in New York — there are 10,000 artists living there.’ ”
And besides, why would he leave his home state? It’s been, and continues to be, his inspiration and subject matter.