on’t let thirty-one-year-old Luke Hillestad‘s boyish looks and easy manner fool you. The classically-trained guitarist who holds a music degree in composing yet walked away from it all to study a very different type of composition with one of the most respected painters alive today, Odd Nerdrum, is nothing if not courageous. “I saw a life for myself in painting,” he shared in his interview with me this week, “and it seemed to be more akin to what I was hoping for as a child.” Indeed, as Hillestad’s already impressive body of work shows, for an artist to be guided by his deepest desire, that which makes his heart sing as nothing else does, and to make the commitment to pursue that love, not settling for anything less than his very best effort, and delighting in the journey along the way ~ well, is there any deeper definition of beauty than that?
INTERVIEW WITH LUKE HILLESTAD, CLASSICAL FIGURATIVE PAINTER
Minneapolis, Minnesota ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You are crazy talented, Luke.
Of course it’s your storytelling that gets me. You’ve said your preference is not for photo-realism but for that something “extra.” You’ve also talked about wanting there to be a sense of timelessness in your work. That the stories you are creating can be set down in any time or place.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: For me though, what I see is something much more specific: A sense that the subjects you are painting are survivors. That regardless of the obstacles, within them are all the resources they need.
Luke Hillestad: That is good to read.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Which perhaps is what you were saying then, yes? That it doesn’t matter so much our circumstances. It’s what’s inside.
Luke Hillestad: I like the primal human themes. And I think there are aspects to the human condition that are unchanging.
Luke Hillestad: Yet for each life it is new.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes that room to express one’s individuality.
Luke Hillestad: Like falling in love: It is completely unoriginal, yet it feels utterly unique.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You just returned from TRAC (The Representational Art Conference, held last week in Ventura, California). What did you bring home from your experience? Highlights?
Luke Hillestad: Well, there was talk of markets, and tools and technique, but the most beneficial conversations were about mentality. Jan-Ove Tuv‘s lecture sat especially well with me. The idea that one who focuses on the sentimental expression has almost no place in the Art markets.
And yet that is what I yearn for.
So while the idea is completely unoriginal: I am pursuing my love.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: And yet at first look, I don’t think that’s what people see in your paintings: Sentimental expression. You make your viewers work, Luke.
Luke Hillestad: Well that’s interesting.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Sentimental traditionally has carried the connotation of simplistic. Easy. Unwillingness to see and address what’s right in front of us, real.
Luke Hillestad: I think to have empathy for someone, we can’t assume we know right away what they are thinking. We have to learn, to be involved – but that isn’t a lack of sentimentality.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes, I myself struggle with much of what I am seeing around me. Painters who want us to see the ugly. What’s not working. But there is no hope offered, and you go away with the sense that the subject was exploited rather than cared about.
Luke Hillestad: I think the connotation of sentimentality has been taken over by examples that weren’t empathetic enough. Truth. Reality. This is our situation. How we meet our situation: that is interesting. It seems to me that if we meet our truth with goodness and bravery, the result is beauty.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. For what is the point, otherwise?
Luke Hillestad: Modernism seems to equate truth with coldness – or irony. I think that is because of the mentality – not because they know the truth better. I have made some cold paintings – but I always try to show a sparkle – a glimmer of life.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Cynicism, I believe, comes from having one’s idealism disappointed. But it begins with idealism. And once smashed, the impulse is to make sure no one else ever has any of those dreams. And to protect oneself from any future disappointment.
Luke Hillestad: Wonderfully put. Comfort, protection, consolation. We long for these. Irony ~ at least as a philosophical groundwork ~ seems a shortcut – with no real satisfaction.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I just viewed the video of you painting the portrait of fellow artist, Caitlin Karolczak. First of all, you couldn’t have picked a more intriguing model. Caitlin is infinitely fascinating, isn’t she?
Luke Hillestad: I had a great time painting Caitlin. She has a wonderful curiosity. We’ve known each other for more than a decade.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What I love about watching you in this process, is that when you were painting Caitlin, you talked about how something had “gone wrong.” That she was coming out looking much more worried than she actually appeared, posing there right in front of you. And yet, when we look at the painting, it truly was a perfect likeness of Caitlin, just a deeper delving into her psyche. Even as she herself might not have been aware of showing that. Even as a less observant eye might not have captured this.
Luke Hillestad: Interesting, and some of that worry continued through the rest of the painting. I ended up calling it Cyclone ~ as if a storm was approaching.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Was she an influence in you taking yourself seriously as a painter? Or did you meet after that?
Luke Hillestad: We have a growing community of figurative painters in Minneapolis. Watching her growth has been influential on my work. Caitlin is bold. She will say things many people would be afraid to say. I like her tenacity.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: But wasn’t that a bit nerve-wracking to have your painting process unfolding in front of a fellow-painter?
Luke Hillestad: I love to have my friends in the studio while I work. My best workday is one where I have multiple visitors. I treasure the time when my painting peers are in the studio with me. And I love when they bring their work. Just yesterday my friends Luke Tromiczak and Jamie Cook were here. We drew my cousin, who was in town from Texas.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You like that element of danger and authenticity? The realness of it?
Luke Hillestad: Sure, I also like the striving for excellence that is heightened by comparison and critique. I think this was prevalent in the last Renaissance. Perhaps Botticelli, DaVinci, and Michelangelo weren’t as good friends as Caitlin, Jamie, Luke and I are, but they certainly learned from each other.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: And yet the stereotype is that painting is a solo activity. That the best, most authentic work occurs when an individual steps away from society, at least temporarily. We don’t often hear about artists working in collaboration.
Luke Hillestad: Every painting I make is a collaboration ~ with the models, my fellow painters, teachers, books ~ yet, in the end, I alone have to make the marks.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is there someone you have yet to collaborate with whom you are dying to?
Luke Hillestad: I think I would have liked to meet Andrew Wyeth.
Luke Hillestad: And I have wanted to paint portraits of the musicians David Bazan and Joanna Newsom. But I am very lucky to have worked with extremely talented people. I believe the greatest living painters.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. You’ve apprenticed with Odd Nerdrum.
Luke Hillestad: Yes, since 2008. Three trips. Twelve months over four years.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: When I was teasing you the other day, warning you that I would be a tough interviewer, you said that you enjoyed finding yourself in challenging situations. You’ve said the same about why you like to work in oils.
Luke Hillestad: I love tough questions! And yes, oil is a very complicated medium. But these complexities allow for versatility.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you find that you tend to be more productive, reap more powerful results during times of heightened stress?
Luke Hillestad: Sometimes I wish it weren’t so, but yes, creativity seems to come from yearning,
Luke Hillestad: It was when Rembrandt had lost his second wife and his son that he made his best pictures. He loved them so much and he wanted them back.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So earlier today, I opened up this interview for questions from my readers. And one, herself a painter, posed this dilemma to you:
If you had to choose between painting that quintessential brilliant work that would be sure to leave a profound and lasting effect on humanity… But after that, you’d hang up your brushes and easel for good. Or... You continue to paint work that speaks to you. You continue on your journey. But with no guarantee where your efforts will take you. (Now admittedly it’s an unfair question to pose to you because already you are no longer on the starting block. But you see where the question is going.)
Luke Hillestad: So like a deal with the devil at the crossroads?
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes, it’s that age old question: Why paint? It is the craft itself that calls? Or is painting a means to bring about an end?
Luke Hillestad: Well I have this idea, the standing goal of my career… I imagine a room, a wonderfully lit gallery. And in this room are Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, DaVinci’s St Anne, Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas…
Luke Hillestad: Ten to twenty paintings that are my very favorites. And if I could make a piece that would hang in that room. And for anyone walking in: Mine would not stand out as deficient.
Luke Hillestad: My favorite changes day to day, along with my mood, but I am developing a canon that have staying power. That feel timeless.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. And I like how you put it in that video, in referring to you tutelage with Odd: “There’s a lot of his that I hope to emulate, as well as to go deeper into my own psyche, and find out what I’m supposed to be painting.”
Luke Hillestad: I do have a bit of an unbridled ego. And I am jealous when someone else has painted a work I wish I made. But I don’t believe in magical abilities. Or the “perfect painting.” So I think I would choose that later option. And keep working towards the masterpiece.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are you “supposed” to be painting, Luke? Can you give it a flavor yet?
Luke Hillestad: That phrase “supposed” tasted strange coming out of my lips. I am feeling freedom grow within me, and it feels very good. To maintain freedom. And still have a sense for quality. This sounds like the top of it all.
Luke Hillestad: But, yes… It’s when characters in a picture are overflowing with Dignity, when I feel empathy for them, and I can sense they feel that for each other. All of my favorite work seems to have an abundance of dignity, empathy, and fantasy. For me, Courage and Goodness are synonymous.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Gorgeous.
Luke Hillestad: As far as style… My preferences change year to year. Five years ago I was obsessed with the dramatic light of Caravaggio. I still am, but I am discovering the gentle glow, the subtlety of cloudy light. I am looking a lot at ancient Roman frescoes and what there is left of the Greeks. For Christmas, my wife gave me a wonderful book of ancient Greek painting, and I am obsessed with that now.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Does the lighting of where you are living there in Minnesota influence your aesthetic?
Luke Hillestad: Probably, I love dusk here. I think photographers call it the “blue hour.” As Nerdrum says (paraphrasing): “The day is best for work and the night is best for thinking, and dusk is where they meet.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I appreciate how you portray women, Luke.
Luke Hillestad: I like the maturity that comes from seeing each other as individuals. The painting of me and my wife, Michelle, with the light bulb between us was dealing with that. It was the first painting I made after seeing a Nerdrum in 2006. It feels very rough to me – I don’t show it much. We were just married the year before…
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So in that initial stage of negotiation? Trying to figure out the dance?
Luke Hillestad: I was thinking a lot about expectations, what I was yearning for, and learning to treat her with respect.
Even though it is one of my oldest paintings, I really like the primal feelings I get from it.
I also really like a smaller piece I recently did of my wife, Intermission. And she was my model for Grotto.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How did the two of you meet?
Luke Hillestad: Collaborating on a dance/guitar project. She was a ballet dancer, for over fifteen years. We married in 2005.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Did she ever dance to your guitar playing?
Luke Hillestad: We did a little of that when we first met.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you discuss your process with her as you go? Your pieces and your progress with each?
Luke Hillestad: Most of them yes. She has a great critical eye, and has a quicker gut instinct that I do.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So last question: If you had to choose one favorite?
Luke Hillestad: Well, today from my favorites…I will choose the most recent version of the Messenger by Odd Nerdrum – an absolute masterwork. I look at that piece weekly. The figures are grounded, yet still ethereal.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: No, I meant of yours.
Luke Hillestad: Oh, well I am working on one of a family escaping a island that was destroyed. They are halfway in the water…
Luke Hillestad: I haven’t shown it yet, but I am loving it.
You know, at the end of a concert, if we say “bravo,” I think we are saying, “That was brave. Good work.”
Luke Hillestad was born in 1982 in Minneapolis. In 2006, he left his work as a land surveyor and began painting full time, with Rembrandt and Odd Nerdrum books open next to an empty canvas. He immersed himself in apprenticeship, later studying with Nerdrum, and traveled to museums and studios around the world to learn from the paintings of the old Masters whose tradition he seeks to follow.
Using the palette of the Ancient Greek painter Apelles, Luke paints friends and a collection of taxidermied animals, illustrating the primal beauty of humans at their most noble with narratives that center on themes of death, kinship, ritual, and wilderness.
Hillestad joins friends and fellow artists, Caitlin Karolczak, Maria Kreyn, Stefan Boulter, Stephan Cefalo, Caleb Knodell and others for a group show, “Holdfast III: Effigies and Exile,” June 28, 2014 at the Co Exhibitions Gallery, Minneapolis.
To view more of Hillestad’s work or to contact the artist, visit his website.