Inspired by a love of story-telling and a fascination with animals and art history, Frank Sampson has built a career that has reached a pinnacle in the art community.
Sampson, 91, a native of rural Edmore who lives in Boulder, Colo., has earned a reputation as one of the most esteemed artists in that state. His work has been shown in numerous art galleries around the country, including the U.S. Library of Congress and in Belgium, Brazil and Tokyo.
In an exhibit of his work, the “Frank Sampson Retrospective,” opening Thursday at the North Dakota Museum of Art, about 50 of his paintings will be displayed through Oct. 7. An artist reception is set for 5 p.m. Thursday.
Sampson taught painting, printmaking and drawing at the University of Colorado for 29 years, until his retirement as a professor in 1990. His artwork is whimsical and often involves a story or relationship.
“In general, I like a sense of mystery, almost a little surreal,” he said.
Animals figure prominently in his paintings — sometimes appearing as fantastical human-like figures — which he attributes to his early experience on his family’s farm.
“I was very attracted to animals from the beginning, more than some people perhaps,” he said. “I enjoyed them, and I participated with them in the sense of taking care of the pigs now and then, milking the cows and gathering eggs from the chickens.
“I found them beautiful in a strange way, and, when I went off to college, I took art and before too long I realized that animals appealed to me a lot, and, in my subconscious, they came forward and influenced quite a bit of the subject matter," he said.
Product of his past
Born and raised on a farm near Edmore, Sampson was the fourth of five sons.
For his first eight grades of school, he attended a two-room country school, where he had no art instruction. But that didn’t fetter his urge to create.
“I would copy art on calendars — usually they were paintings — and Christmas cards,” he recalled.
His imagination was also fueled by the vivid adventure stories his mother told.
“Her wonderful tales were full of fantasy, and frequently animals played major roles,” he said.
She would make up stories that “included wild animals like foxes, bears and wolves, but a lot of them were pigs and chickens, too,” he said. “More than some people, I responded to that.”
Sampson remembered that, after he fell and cracked a shoulder bone, his father bought him a watercolor paint set, an unexpected luxury for a farm family struggling to make ends meet in the ‘30s.
“I think he felt sorry for me,” said Sampson, who was so intrigued by the paints he "didn't really feel pain" from the injury.
After graduating from Edmore High School, Sampson attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where art teacher Cyrus Running became an important mentor.
Running “was so sympathetic,” Sampson said. “He was working in a different artistic direction but he didn’t try to make me go in that direction.”
As a college student, Sampson saw an exhibit of Dutch painters at a Minneapolis art gallery. Running used the still-life paintings and landscapes to explain the technique of building up layers of paint to depict transparency.
“The light seemed to come from underneath,” Sampson said. “I’ve done it ever since to some degree.”
Sampson blends the “immediate or careful description” with the “out-of-focus or unusual” in the same painting, he said. “It creates more mystery.”
The technique has been dubbed “magic realism” by a Denver art critic, Michael Paglia.
Sampson went on to enroll in the Master of Fine Art program at the University of Iowa and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the paintings of Flemish artists for 18 months in Belgium.
Drawing from intellect, intuition
Coming up with an idea for a new painting — a product of the intellect, Sampson said — is the most difficult aspect.
“The important part is the idea — what to paint. Once you’ve clarified the idea, you’re halfway there,” he said.
Then intuition comes into play.
“I leave the door open to letting Mother Nature take a part,” he said.
In the creative process, intuition may prompt changes from the original concept, but he doesn’t offer further explanation.
“You lose the magic if you try to put it into words,” he said. “You let some of the life out.”
Sampson “is well schooled in the practice of art and he has looked at a lot of art,” said Laurel Reuter, NDMOA director. “He is deeply knowledgeable about art history. He taught in the academe but his art is never academic.
“He is out of step with today’s art movements and that interests me greatly,” Reuter said. “His paintings are personal, strange and thoughtful. And they grew out of our own place and culture.”
Sampson doesn’t expect viewers of his art to have a specific reaction, but he does hope “they’ll figure out some kind of story, because of the way the animals are placed” or some other aspect, he said.
“It’s like you pull the curtain on a stage and you figure out what’s happening here.”
He hopes they will “respond to the feeling of the animals,” he said. “They’re not photographic. They have expression.”
Ultimately, he is all about the story.
“I definitely like narrative,” he said. “Most of the time, I’m hoping the person will sense some kind of situation that suggests a story or narrative, something taking place between the different animals and the people, or poses a relationship that’s threatening or playful or fun or whatever.”
His paintings “tell stories, ambiguous stories that the viewer can finish,” Reuter said. “They hark back to the history of art. They hark back to the long traditions of painting.
“These are works of art that people can love,” she said. “They rate in today’s cluttered visual world.”
The NDMOA is acquiring a collection of Sampson’s paintings and prints, all gifts from the artist, and will publish a book on his art and life “to assure his place in the history of art on the Northern Plains,” Reuter said.
Trends in art
Sampson has observed that art these days seems to be more politically directed, he said.
“You have to be careful, if you put this on a character or that,” because images could be construed as political comment.
“I have feelings and opinions about (the political realm),” he said, “but it doesn’t inspire me.”
Rather, his experiences and personal preferences play a larger role.
“I’m a little more into the tradition of art -- it’s ingratiating, there’s harmony and beauty,” he said.
“I realize I’m a product of age and a period of time and background. I’m not going to try and fight it too much.”
Sampson returns to Edmore for a month in the summer and winter each year. The farm where he grew up remains in the family, but now is devoted to growing grain.
Sampson understands the reason for the changes, he said, but “the times I loved were when we had cows, pigs, chickens and horses.”