VISUAL ARTS | He comes from Iowa with a banjo on his knee

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The banjo has a place of honor in Dan Mackerman’s art. Not that the award-winning Lauderdale-based painter and sculptor features banjos in his canvasses. Music rarely figures as a subject of his art. But without the banjo, Mackerman probably wouldn’t be the artist he is today.

By 35, Mackerman had been “producing art for income,” as he puts it, for nearly half his life, ever since he won a full scholarship at 17 to study art back in his native Iowa. By nature unsympathetic to the self-conscious trends of the contemporary art scene, he was also convinced that landscapes and other naturalistic subject matter were “too conventional.” Although he was commercially successful, an observer might have described him as suffering from a case of burnout. Mackerman knew only that he was losing the joy that had connected him to art in the first place.

“The idea was you work from a great idea,” he says now. But if Mackerman had any great ideas, he lacked the confidence to recognize them. What he did have was a banjo, left over from the bluegrass music he’d played in high school.

“I’d let the banjo drop when I went to grad school,” he explains, “but at 35, I revived it.”

He also made a discovery. “Playing the banjo was completely pointless. It was just fun, and that was the joy of it. Then it hit me. Inspiration is all about the discovery of passion. Having fun and being inspired are two steps on the same track.”

The inspiration that he had been seeking so grimly in his art welled up unbidden in his music. Hoping to recapture the element of fun in painting, Mackerman tried painting outdoors in the art technique called plein-air. “It was so freeing,” he says. “You could just respond to experiences.”

Mackerman had found his subject at last in the soft pastel landscapes and the ordinary scenes of life of his native Midwest.

The rest might someday be Minnesota art history, but in the meantime, visitors will be able to see Mackerman’s work on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20 and 21, when his studio is open to the public as part of Art at 2402 Open Studio, the annual art show and sale put on by the 25 or so artists and craftsmen who work in the C & E Building at 2402 University Ave. From noon to 9 p.m. on Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, the public is invited to visit the studios and buy glass, pottery, painting, sculpture and crafts.

Now 51, Mackerman proudly calls himself a “regionalist” whose work is dedicated to “affirming the overlooked.” He cites a canvas hanging on the wall of his studio that depicts a familiar scene at a local farmer’s market.

A physically unremarkable, heavy-set woman is buying flowers from a vendor while holding the hand of a little girl in a pink dress. The color of the child’s dress is balanced by massed baskets of pink impatiens in the foreground.

The woman in the painting had no idea that she had been the model for Mackerman’s art until a relative recognized her painted image from a newspaper article about an upcoming exhibit that included Mackerman’s work. The family was definitely not the type that haunts art galleries, but “she turned up at the opening and she was beaming,” Mackerman says.

The woman was so proud of her place in art that she had invited a friend to accompany her. When the friend commented rudely, “Who would paint a picture of you?” the woman got her revenge. She told Mackerman, “I was so pissed that I left her at the museum!”

Mackerman calls that story “one of the great experiences of my art.” He explains, “I hate stereotypes; I want to capture real people.” Painting ordinary people, instead of air-brushed, idealized models, is “life-affirming,” he says.

A rarity among artists, Mackerman is able to support himself through his work. He estimates that he spends about 40 percent of his time on commission work, such as his long-term assignment of sculpting the mannequins for the annual downtown  Dayton’s/Macy’s Christmas shows. More recently, he’s been at work on a tree-filled landscape destined to become the signature artwork for HealthPartners.

Although Mackerman is secure in his style now, it wasn’t always that way. He grew up in a small town in Iowa where Norman Rockwell defined the aesthetic standards, and a combination of childhood asthma and a natural love of drawing kept young Dan indoors at his sketchpad for hours at a time.

Thanks to the encouragement of his a parents and “a high school art teacher who was instrumental in getting me where I am today,” young Mackerman eventually reached the art department at the University of Northern Iowa. And that’s when he encountered such astonishing new forms as “found object” art and abstract painting for the first time.

“It was a big cultural shock,” he says. “I had no idea before college about any of this.”

But soon Mackerman was vigorously, if somewhat uneasily, diving into this new world. For his student art show, he says, “I got 30 big acrylic panels and I was throwing paint on them, stomping it, using house paint.”

Once the show was over, he had no place to store 30 decorated panels, so without telling anyone, he took them home and stored them in the garage at the family farm. Mackerman was back at college when his father needed some scrap lumber to build chicken pens, and, well . . . you know the rest.

If Mackerman ever felt any rancor about finding the family poultry housed in pens constructed from his scholarship art display, he long ago turned the episode into comedy. He jokes, “A friend said that next year I should have exhibited the chicken pens.”

But that’s all behind him now. He now thinks of himself, in the words of Monet, an artist whose work seems to resonant with his own, as “an eye” on the Midwestern landscape.

“There’s beauty all around us,” says Mackerman. “You don’t have to get on a plane. It’s right next to you, right in your backyard.”

To see examples of Mackerman’s art, visit www.mackermanstudio.com.  For more on Art at 2402 Open Studio, go to www.artat2402.blogspot.com.