Art from Jean Formo and Don Sundeen now on display inside OAC gallery

This month in the Owatonna Arts Center gallery, patrons can view the varied art of Jean Formo, as well as watercolor paintings by Don Sundeen, who spent his formative years attending school in Owatonna on the campus of the former State School Orphanage.

Don Sundeen’s watercolors

Though Sundeen’s watercolors were completed over the past couple of years, the experiences they depict date back to the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. His mother was only 15 when she gave birth to him in 1944, and he became a ward of the state.

Though initially sent to Faribault, that “was a bad experience” compared to his longer tenure in Owatonna, which was much “more positive,” he said. While by no means a charmed existence — children labored from a very young age for no pay, for example — it was “well-run by those in charge” and delivered Sundeen a “well-rounded” education.

Sundeen hopes his art can inspire those with similarly Dickensian childhoods, he said.

“I experienced that,” he said, adding, “I’m an artist, now.”

His teacher, Maria Brown, ARTS Program Vocational Specialist and Visual Arts Instructor for CHOICE, unlimited, appreciates the fact Sundeen “has no fear of exploring or being creative,” she said. He’s “definitely a standout artist willing to share his experiences,” and he “does it from the heart.”

Perhaps her favorite painting of Sundeen’s in this series is one in which Sundeen—who worked in the kitchen during his time at the school—drew himself as a small child pushing a massive cart of dishes, she said. “It really draws you into the experience.”

Sundeen started kitchen work when he was roughly 10 and continued until leaving school when he was 21, he said. The children weren’t paid for their toil, and his main task in the kitchen was grinding coffee beans each day.

In addition to disenfranchised youth, individuals with disabilities and the aged can also find solace in the way Sundeen has overcome obstacles to produce his art, Brown said. “It’s never too late in life to start with art, is it?”

Indeed, art can be therapeutic and illuminating at any age, said Sundeen, who will turn 74 next month. “I’m still learning at my age.”

Those interested in hearing more from Sundeen are welcome to drop by West Hills next Friday, Oct. 19, when he’s scheduled to be on site for a tour of the OAC and the State School campus. Though Sundeen has been back in Owatonna on a few occasions since leaving the campus in 1965, this will be his first visit in several decades.

“It should be like a homecoming for me,” he said. “The last time I was there, it was all closed.”

His visit to Owatonna next Friday is part of a grant he recently received from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council that involves adding commentary from that trip to the art and narratives he’s already compiled, Brown said. That content will then become a book, which would both tell the story of his life, as well as “be relatable to others.”

“I hope” this month’s exhibit, as well as Sundeen’s other exhibitions and forthcoming book, can “broaden the perspective of where you find story, and what you expect in the storytelling,” she said. “His art is very raw and personal.”

Jean Formo’s “Draw, Paint, and Writer (A Calligrapher’s Mark)”

While some artists tend to work in series, crafting many pieces around one subject and in one medium, “I get bored doing that,” so Formo experiments with a variety of mediums, she said. “I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and this show reflects the different things I’ve done,” from silverpoint drawings, colored pencil sketches, and calligraphy, to pastels, acrylics, and unique artist books.

Though Formo works both abstract and realistic, colored pencil drawings are typically more detailed, and Formo’s are no exception, she said. In this exhibition, her colored pencil drawings of pebbles from England’s shingle beaches are in the spotlight.

Over the course of “eons and eons,” the ocean batters cliffs, leading to the fall of rocks, and the colors of those resulting pebbles “are amazing,” she said. “Every stone I picked up in my hand (while visiting those English beaches) was like a painting.”

Formo has been a calligrapher for more than 40 years and spent more than a decade utilizing those skills in the greeting card industry. She also executed “commercial calligraphy” for advertising agencies, since — before computers — “everything was drawn by hand.”

She “got really into silverpoint drawing six or seven years ago,” a “very old technique” dating back to before graphite was invented, she said. Many artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, used silverpoint to make their foundation drawings prior to oil painting.

A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer, and the medium produces “very finely-made drawings,” she said. “You can be very detailed with it.”

While some of her silverpoint pieces are, indeed, realistic and representational, she also uses silverpoint for abstraction, and this range — realistic and abstract — is a hallmark of her work, she said. “I want to push any medium I use to the limit.”

Just as the pebbles on England’s shingle beaches sparked a series of colored pencil drawings, Formo’s annual trip with her husband to Oceanside, California, inspired several pastel drawings, she said. While in Oceanside, “I collected sea debris,” from seaweed and pebbles to sand dollars and seashells, drew them, and then made “acrylic and pastels out of them when we got home.”

Formo also has a handful of her “one-of-a-kind artist books” on display in this exhibition, but “I don’t want to make a book that looks like a book,” so, for example, one of the artist books in this show is a sculpture comprised of triangular modules, she said. Her artist books do share one commonality, however, calligraphy, though some of the calligraphy is abstract, while other editions are readable.

“I like the action of drawing more than painting, and drawings seems to come naturally not me, which is why I had a fairly-productive calligraphy (career),” she said. A quality calligrapher “uses eye and hand, and (then) marries the two together.”

In addition to producing art, Formo has been sharing her knowledge with students for decades as a teacher, she said. In fact, she’s taught basically every medium in which she works at one time or another, with the exception of acrylic.

“Teaching art has been a very-satisfying part of my career,” she said. For three decades, Formo traveled throughout the United States and Canada instructing in calligraphy and artist books.

She even taught at 17 annual international calligraphy conferences, she said. In order to be invited to teach at those symposiums, one must submit work to demonstrate mastery, and only 35 artists are selected each year from around the world.

Anyone with questions or comments on Formo’s exhibition, “Draw, Paint, and Writer (A Calligrapher’s Mark),” can speak with the artist herself during a reception this Sunday at the OAC from 1-5 p.m. Formo’s art, as well as Sundeen’s, will be on display through Oct. 28, and gallery hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Art by Formo—or any artist—is subject to taste, and “you won’t love everything, but that’s OK,” she said. “Spend more time on (the pieces you’re attracted to), and then ask, ‘why do I like it? What do I see in it?”

Formo has no plans to wind down her art anytime soon, or to stop experimenting with different media.

“If I find something new I want to do, I do it,” she said. “An artist never stops the art.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.