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Editorial: Charles Beck, the artist who was a folksy modernist

Charles Beck was an interesting contradiction, the folksy modernist. The subjects of his art were decidedly rural and rustic: willow trees, farmsteads, shelterbelts. But his style was bold, with a sharp eye for the graphic patterns of nature. One of his visual signatures was a thicket of leafless trees, a silhouetted lattice of dark branches, sometimes standing out in stark relief against a snow-dappled stubble field, sometimes reflected by a glassy lake. He captured vibrancy in dormancy. Late fall, with its subtle hues and its nakedness, was his favorite season. His favorite medium was a bit unusual, the woodcut print, an artistic predilection he ascribed to his cabinetmaker father.

After a lifetime of portraying the prairies and lakes around him, becoming one of Minnesota's most celebrated artists, Beck died last week at the age of 94. He kept working even after surviving a stroke a few years ago. A graduate of Concordia College, Beck served as a Navy pilot in World War II. After the war, he returned to Fergus Falls, Minn., where he would remain. He worked first as a sign painter and then, for almost three decades, taught art at what now is Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Many of his works appeared in the Kaddatz Galleries of downtown Fergus Falls. Locally, his art decorated a room at the Hotel Donaldson. His style was so distinctive that one of his works was instantly recognizable as "a Beck."

He eschewed the grandiose. "He knew how to get maximum expression from minimal detail," said Mark Strand, a local photographer who worked with Beck on projects over the years. Strand once described Beck as a "modernist in regionalist camouflage." Those interesting contradictions helped to define Beck as an artist. So did patience. He learned to leave a piece alone and let it percolate until he solved some troublesome problem.

Beck's devotion to his art continued until the end of his long and productive life. He continued to work on his art in a retirement home, where he had a view of a pond. One of his last gallery shows, on display when he was 93, was called "Charles Beck: At 92 and Beyond." His artistic legacy will live on for a very long time, through his art, teaching and the influence of his example. We join Charles Beck's friends and family in celebrating a life that enriched the lives of so many others.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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