ST PETER — Having witnessed some of the great trials of injustice in modern American history, Ann Martin’s paintings could look much different.
As a freelance court sketch artist for the ABC Network during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the one-time Judson resident and Gustavus Adolphus College student was present during the trials of the Chicago Seven, Gainesville Eight, the Wounded Knee Incident, the Kent State Shootings and Watergate.
For all of them, she sat in the gallery, feverishly compositing the idiosyncrasies, expressions and actions of the main players into courtroom drawings that later appeared on news broadcasts. And all the while, the young woman who had been accepted into Gustavus before she even had a high school diploma began to see a very different America than the one she had hoped for as a youth.
Her disillusionment eventually prompted her to relocate herself and young children to Ireland in the early 1990s.
Along the way, Martin never stopped painting. But rather than creating images that evoke social inequality, violence or cruelty, Martin’s paintings strike at the more optimistic and sympathetic sides of human existence.
“I want my paintings to be observant and loving,” she said, speaking from her home in County Cork, Ireland, “with touches of humor.”
Martin’s work is on display at Gustavus’ Hillstrom Museum of Art through April 21 in an exhibit titled “How Things Are.” Her work is being shown concurrently with an exhibit of works by the so-called Ashcan School artists, an influential group of early 20th-century artists who based their works on scenes of real people and real lives rather than classical and romantic subjects.
Martin draws a direct link between her work and that of the Ashcan artists, whose work forms the core of Hillstrom’s permanent collection (see accompanying story).
“Painting amuses my peculiar talent to witness,” Martin said. “The skill is the skill to communicate what I see.”
Among the works on display at the Hillstrom is “Liver and Onions,” a piece Martin painted in 2008 during one of her occasional visits to the area after moving to Ireland. Martin painted the image at the Ulmer Cafe in New Ulm. In her typical style, she took no photographs and painted the majority of the work on site.
The result is a bustling, robust composition that is more than the sum of its parts. As Martin writes in the essay that accompanies the work, “Liver and Onions” illuminates how such meeting places are “steeped in an honest affection for the pleasures of company and attention.”
Martin said she didn’t paint the Ulmer because she longed to belong to that society. Instead, she painted it because of an inner desire to relate to humanity on a deeper level.
“I have a mandate in me that is hardwired to understand people,” said Martin, who added that she will be visiting St. Peter in April to view the exhibit and is looking forward to renewing the fellowship she enjoyed while painting the Ulmer. “I believe that we, as humans, use the arts as a way to know ourselves. We use the arts to augment our lives.”
Such threads unite much of Martin’s work.
In “Livin’ the Life,” three eccentrically clad young woman flounce down a crowded boulevard, reveling in their expressive freedom. In “Sunday Faithful,” a preacher booms his message to an attentive crowd. In “Hackett’s Bar”, patrons imbibe and converse in a well-trodden pub.
In each, Martin’s subjects are portrayed without irony or sarcasm. Instead, they are crafted with an eye toward preserving their authenticity and integrity as human beings.
“You have to get out of the way and let (the subject) flow to you,” she said. “You create the space for people to be able to come forward and reveal themselves.”