Artist Mike Lynch Celebrates Over 50 Years of Painting in Minnesota

The instances are few in which heralded Minnesota artist Mike Lynch becomes even close to talkative during an hour-long interview on a cold morning at the Groveland Gallery. Flanked by his wife Ann and gallery director Sally Johnson, Mike makes his way around the two stately rooms where some 100 of his works compose a January 20 to March 2 exhibit and sale titled Pictures of Mike Lynch: 1955-2017. He and Johnson, who have known each other for over 30 years, prop paintings against walls and lay them out on the floor, considering where each will show best.

“I tried to pick four lithographs that could go one-two-three-four,” Johnson explains to Mike, gesturing toward several prints. Mike appears satisfied with this clustering, although less so with three oil-on-board paintings (Dutch-master realist renderings of a boot, a panda bear and a coffee pot) Johnson has placed together against another wall. Not that he says so, of course: he simply moves the coffee pot to a different spot. Watercolors, oils, drawings in both pencil and ink, etchings, woodcuts and lithographs are placed and replaced, moved and moved again, until all parties are satisfied. Or at least until someone picks up one of these brooding, quietly-lit paintings, presented in life-like detail, and walks it to another location.

“Going out painting”

Most of the paintings have been completed outdoors, and one instance of Mike’s garrulousness (a word used loosely, for Mike) is when he speaks of “going out painting.”

“I could never go out painting with anybody else,” he muses. “I don’t know why, but when I went out painting with different people I never painted. I’d want to eat lunch or something.” It seems difficult for him to pinpoint why he preferred not to paint in the company of other artists, although Johnson assures us that many people wanted to paint with Mike. An occasional companion was Ann’s father, artist Eric Austen Erickson. “Eric just used the subject [the scene in front of him] as a springboard and he’d change everything around, but I had to do it just the way it was,” explains Mike. Sometimes “the scene we were at wasn’t something I wanted to paint,” he admits. In any case, for the most part, he says, “I just couldn’t settle down and paint” unless he was by himself.

One reason Mike worked better alone might have been the sheer inconvenience of his painting practice. According to Johnson, Mike paints in the tradition of the American Scene Painters of the early 1900s, working on location and returning to paint day after day at the same time of day—often dusk, dawn, midnight and twilight. Citing both frigid weather and sometimes-dangerous streets, Mike describes in detail how he often painted out of his car. “I had little flashlights on the sun visor [because he often painted in dim light], and a little thing on the steering wheel for the canvas, and all the supplies over there on the passenger side.” It wasn’t uncommon, it seems, for a policeman to approach to ask what he was doing. Frequently, Mike says, “If they saw I was painting something they would just let me stay.”

A lifetime of work

Mike was born in 1938 and raised in Hibbing, Minn., studied as a teen at the Town Hall Art Colony in Grand Marais and in his early 20s moved to Minneapolis to attend the Minneapolis School of Art (now Minneapolis College of Art and Design). He and Ann speak back-and-forth, finishing each other’s sentences, when they talk about the earliest recognitions of Mike’s artistic talents. “Tell them about the day that kindergarten teacher taught you how to draw a house in perspective,” Ann asks.

“Oh, I can remember that,” Mike responds. “What a day that was.”

“And then when you were in high school you got some kind of youth award down here,” continues Ann. “You came down [from Hibbing] in a snowstorm with your mother.”

“They had the Scholastic Art Awards,” says Mike. “You got a gold key for a prize.” The story goes that, influenced by both the snow and a lack of familiarity with the city, Mike and his mother entered the Basilica instead of the Walker in search of the prize. Eventually, they found the right place. He figures he was 15 or 16 years old at the time, newly cognizant that art was going to be his life.

A 50-plus-year career followed his first exhibit, at age 22, at the Kilbride-Bradley Gallery in Minneapolis. His work can presently be found in private, corporate and museum collections throughout the Midwest, including the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker, the Duluth Art Institute as well as General Mills, Cargill and the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, among many others. His subjects range from still-lifes to portraits to rural landscapes (often of northern Minnesota) to urban scenes, nearly all local to Minneapolis and St. Paul. In addition, Mike drew illustrations for Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone Days (not the cover, however, Mike interjects: “The cover … I was too soft, they said. They wanted it screaming off the wall.”) His repertoire does include book covers for Jon Hassler, however, adds Johnson, and for local poet Margaret Hasse.

The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award

In 2003, when Mike was 65 years old, he was awarded the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, a grant designed, according to the McKnight website, “to support working artists to create and contribute to vibrant communities.”

“They just gave it to me,” says Mike, still apparently surprised by the honor. “I didn’t even have to apply for it.” Asked if the award changed the course of his career, Mike says, “Well yeah, probably some,” but Ann chimes in that he used the McKnight grant money to design and build a free-standing art studio in their backyard. (Mike indicates that he usually held some kind of at least part-time job to supplement his artist’s income over the years; positions included teaching at St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota, as well as working at a picture frame shop for many years.)

“The grant money made building the studio possible,” Ann says. And made it possible to extend her husband’s career, she believes, as venturing out in the bleakest hours grew less attractive as time passed. “There was more studio work” late in his career, says Ann. He designed the workspace, she adds, to his very specific preferences for light and physical layout.

Working at the Black Forest Inn

When he learns there is information online regarding his McKnight award associated with a Black Forest Inn website, Mike animates once again. “What did it say?” he asks. It is an online version of the book about Mike written by the McKnight Foundation when they granted him the 2003 award, but why would the Black Forest Inn post it? Did Mike know someone there? “Oh, yeah,” he practically gushes (for him, at least). “I lived in that neighborhood and it was a watering hole. They had a restaurant there and I tried to be a cook but there was too much to keep track of,” he says. He ended up doing some painting for the owners, he says. “Inside and outside,” he continues. “I did all kinds of paintings for them.” These included, he recalls with evident pleasure, the sign out front, “all kinds of crazy paintings” high on the exterior walls of the building, “like a few of the Rhine river,” and then “a big mural on one wall in the parking lot, and another painting nobody ever sees on a little archway above the door as you walk out.” He was friends with the owners, Joanne and Erich, he says. “I painted their house, too. I did a lot of work for them, part-time. And they were very …” He seems to search for the right word. “They were very tolerant,” he adds, with a rare grin.

Joanne Christ, co-owner with Erich of the Black Forest Inn, seems happy to recall Mike’s work at the restaurant. “That was sort of not uncommon at the time. There were a lot of artists who came over from the art school and the Children’s Theater to work with us.” She goes on to say that Mike helped design the deer head that became part of Black Forest Inn’s logo. “Mike really has been a stand-out, and a very substantial person and artist.”

What’s next?

Mike and Ann have lived in the East Harriet Farmstead neighborhood since 1985, which he likes, he says, because it’s generally quiet. Ann says her husband retired from painting some 15 years ago, at which time he joined a band and played piano and harmonica. But both he and Ann note a recent uptick in his painting. Regarding future plans to paint, Mike says, “I don’t know, I might do some more. There’s some writing I might want to do, too,”—about painting, he says. “So I won’t be painting then, but I’ll probably do a couple more.”

A final question: Does he have any advice for up-and-coming artists? Mike Lynch, nearly 80 years old and with a half-century of highly awarded creative work in his portfolio, considers the question for some time. “No,” he says. Perhaps on second thought, however, he offers the following: “There’s no accounting for taste.”  

Mike Lynch
For photos of Mike’s work at the Black Forest Inn, go to the website here.
His exhibit and sale at Groveland Gallery closes March 2.