Painting for the Joy of It

For Edward Marecak, the artist's function is to see old scenes with new eyes and put a fresh light on them

BURIED treasure lies in the oddest places. At an upscale gallery in downtown Denver, the proprietor "X-ed" the spot for viewers. A few early works on paper by Edward Marecak hang on the wall. These gems have lain in virtual obscurity for many years, and their presence at the Rule Gallery points to yet more hidden treasure somewhere in the city's environs.

The four ink, casine, and crayon drawings resonate with meaning both secret and universal. My favorite of the four, "Dark Rainbow" (1946), reminds me of some of Paul Klee's or possibly Joan Mirs drawings. It is mysterious and elegant and deliberate. It bears the grace and enchantment of rock art found throughout the Southwest. Clearly the artist was highly trained and very skilled; clearly he was influenced by ancient petroglyphs in the creation of this imagery. Still, the piece jumps with spontaneity an d the joy of life.

And the joy of life is what permeates most of Marecak's work. Even among many of those paintings that take up the darker facts of human experience, there is humor and the broad affirmation of life, and compassion for the individual.

I am on a hunt now; the gallery director leads the way to Mr. Marecak's house. In the basement near his studio are works of art dating from the 1940s up to the 1990s. Each succeeding period of the artist's life is quite as interesting as the last. I can see the continuity of his aesthetic evolution, though the highly stylized figures of his latest work bear no resemblance to the stylized images of his early work. He has been influenced by great artists like Pablo Picasso and Klee; even Pierre Bonnard has

touched him. He has also been influenced by Australian Aboriginal art ("What they can do with a dot and a line," he says admiringly).

Yet, though influences are evident, he is his own man. The late work is quite distinctive in its brilliant colors, its wild energy, its persuasive joy, and its refined forms. The style he works in now, setting the paint down in small squares like pieces in a mosaic, links him to the Byzantine art he loves, but takes him in quite his own direction.

This farm boy from Ohio had the advantage of a fine education. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. Inducted into the service during World War II, he was badly wounded and discharged in 1946. Moving to Colorado, Marecak attended the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center school as he recovered, and there he met a number of important American artists.

But his education really began with his parents, both of whom grew up in Europe and neither of whom were educated beyond the third grade. They were intelligent people who saw the value of education and managed to put their children through college.

"They taught us to love music and to be tolerant of all kinds of people," Marecak says. "When you come from a limited background but something is going on up here [taps his forehead], you aren't satisfied with limited vistas...."

HE taught for many, many years in the Denver public school system, a strict teacher who believed in the talent of his students. All the time he worked on his own paintings, an incredibly prolific artist who was steadily collected by loyal and well-educated collectors. But apart from a few shows, he never really pursued the market place, much less publicity. He has been free to paint for the very joy of it, giving away a great many paintings to friends and students over the years.

"I've been very lucky. I've never had a dry period in creativity," he says. "I sit in the back yard and draw ideas in the sky - this will be a female, this a male, this a winter scene, whatever.... When I go to do a painting, I see it 90 percent finished in my mind - not in color, but where the figures will be and the general color tone.... Then I work out the ground - black, dark blue, brown, etc. I keep it very, very vague because I want to be able to change my mind. But when you paint over the top of a good dark [ground] like that and you paint these little squares, enough imprimatura comes through ... to give [the painting] a special sparkle.... When you want to get that dry brush sort of effect, it helps to have that black peeking through the light. It gives it vitality."

He has done his share of experimentation. I tell him how much I liked "Dark Rainbow" and the other ink, casine, and crayon drawings on paper in the gallery.

"I took it out on a real hot day and shot the hose at it for a long time. And then that effect you can get by taking really good watercolor paper and wrinkling it up and with a sponge getting it as flat as you can [produced] those wonderful little gray-white cracks all over. I think `Dark Rainbow' was one of my most successful...."

Many of his later paintings are evidently influenced by folk art and folk tales. "A big part, I think, came from my grandmother who told me the most marvelous Slovak fairy tales....

"She would get us all around her about a princess who got lost in the woods and found red mushrooms and because she was a good little girl, the mushrooms turned to gold. [Grandmother] was a big influence on me, and so was my mother when she told me about growing up in Europe."

In many of the latest works, human figures lie upside-down or on their sides. It isn't always easy to tell which end is "up." Marecak explains: "I got sort of upset with the world and when I get upset, I don't sulk, I go at it with humor. So I'm playing with the idea of an upside down world - people at a conference floating upside down - or some sideways. Another idea I'm playing with are patterns that interfere.... It's a good way of saying I think the world is needing to get a recharge. But it is also a fun way of dealing with the human figure, with people on their heads."

I ask him what it means to be an artist and what the function of the artist is in society now.

"I think the artist's place is to take old scenes with new eyes and put a fresh light on them for people. Artists like Ben Shahn and those people had a way of saying some important human things and still never losing the quality of a fine painter." The "important human things" that still need to be addressed in art, he says, are compassion and love on the one hand, and the problems of brutality, the coldness of cities, etc., on the other.

Marecak speaks of wanting "meat and potatoes" in his work. Asked what he means, he replies, "One of the potatoes would be when you are busy painting away on a big one, and suddenly an idea comes, and you have to take a palette knife and scrape off all your work and redo it. Whenever you are in doubt about your meat and potatoes, it's good to just start again, get rid of it, no ghosts underneath - nothing so precious you hang on to it, but start again."

What nurtures his art is still waking up and seeing the sun. "I live, I'd say, two-thirds of the time outside. Watching a flower and seeing vegetables growing are positive things.... My aim is to take all that I know and make it the very best I can and present it in the best light. But you can't run away from the basic things of life."

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