Arts Magazine: Paper Dreams on Fire

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Paper Dreams on Fire: Narrative drawings by Bruce Anderson, David Baker and Frank Bigbear chronicle personal journeys and the creative process

"Drawing," wrote Vincent van Gogh, "is working oneself through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do." Matisse wanted to produce a "language of signs." Drawing, for him, was both "plastic writing" and "a perspective of feeling." For Philip Guston, the act of drawing was one of discovery: "You're painting a shoe, and it turns into a moon; you start painting the moon, and it turns into a piece of bread."

Drawing has played an important role in modern art. As a primary expression, it becomes a kind of litmus test, a direct record of the mental and physical effort of putting pencil to paper. For Bruce Anderson, David Baker and Frank Bigbear, whose work is on display in "Paper Dreams on Fire" beginning December 20, 1991, drawing is a way to map personal narrative.

The three are friends and collaborators, artists in mid career who have known each other for many years. David Baker describes the way they work together as musicians: "We listen to each other. I like to see the moves they make with their pencils." Because the three are friends, the temptation to draw comparisons is hard to resist. The most basic similarity seems to be in the dedicated relationship of artist to his art. After receiving a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Yale University, David Baker eschewed city life for a solitary residence in the north woods, where the drama and flux of nature offer inspiration. Bruce Anderson studied painting in Harrlem, Holland for two years, and then apprenticed with a fine art printmaker in Amsterdam. Today, a historic home in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis serves as both his home and studio. Anderson saved the house from the wrecking ball: the house's electric cobalt blue trim is a beacon to creativity. Anderson is frank about his relationship to his art: "My creativity is my faithful companion. In tough times, it's all that I've got. I often think that if I were shot or stabbed, paint-not blood-would come gushing out."

Frank Bigbear grew up on the White Earth reservation. He moved to the Twin Cities when he was 14 to start a new life. Bigbear recalls getting lost in downtown Minneapolis when the Foshay Tower was the only skyscrapper. While he has made art all of his life, it was studying with artist George Morrison at the University of Minnesota that helped define his artistic identity. His life in the Twin Cities is divided between driving a cab and working on his drawings, which can take months to complete.

If the three artists are, as Baker suggests, like musicians, then color is their shared instrument. Anderson literally pours enamel paints onto paper, where different viscosities react to create marbled miasmas. Baker's ethereal drawings flicker with delicate flames of color, and Bigbear's images vibrate with a rainbow of color and pattern. Color, more than line, defines both form and symbol in each artist's work.

Because each artist exists in such close relationship to the act of creation, the final expressions are ultimately as different as their personalities. Anderson refers to David Baker as both a gentleman and a scholar, and his work does indeed reflect both a gentleness and an intellectual approach. Delicate, tangled lines are intertwined with text from prominent writers, artists and aestheticians. The house that reappears in his work represents a haven from the intricacy of the natural worlds, among them "Zup Zup," an imaginary character who fights the hysteria of the modern world.

For Frank Bigbear, drawing is a powerful way to chronicle the Native American experience within the context of White culture. Bigbear is a storyteller, and he weaves history, fantasy and myth together in large-scale colored pencil drawings that mix a sense of carnival and play with a hard political edge. In a recent work still in progress, a Native American warrior fights horned centaurs in an unnatural yellow landscape littered with the debris of modern life. Bigbear's warriors do battle with the past, with themselves, and with perversions of their cultural history.

There is also a sense of play in Bruce Anderson's recent works: Bears, dancing dogs, birds and cats with fiddles cavort on pedestals and large vessels. Anderson begins these pieces with a gestural line that he builds up with a variety of materials, including colored pencils and enamel paints into which he sprinkles metallic powders. He describes each work as a "self portrait of a kind, as an impression of my personality," and he dedicates the recent work to partner Susan Northrup and to his parents. Anderson's mixed-media pieces combine a controlled chaos with a riotous use of color to express an uncanny sense of balance.

The vase, or vessel in the works refer, he says, to "containers for precious materials." Just as these vessels spill onto the page releasing a waterfall of color, so does the artist pour himself into the work. "It's an act of blind faith," says Anderson. "You don't know what's going to happen, what the confluence of line, gesture and color will birth."

An opening reception for "Paper Dreams on Fire," free and open to the public, is scheduled for Thursday evening December 19, 1991 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Minnesota Gallery. The Minnesota Gallery has moved to the second floor, East Wing.

Citation: Kira Obolensky, "Paper Dreams on Fire: Narrative drawings by Bruce Anderson, David Baker and Frank Bigbear chronicle personal journeys and the creative process," Arts 14, no. 12 (December 1991): 16-17.