You can lose yourself in art

Published 9:07 am Saturday, September 20, 2008

Original paintings., good coffee, lively conversation, surrounded by art — it just doesn’t get much better than this.

I recently spent a morning with Harlan and Ardis Bang, and while the purpose of the visit was an interview for this column, I couldn’t help but think how much fun artists are and how easy they are to talk to. Our topics wandered from Harlan’s days in the Army to children to country churches, and all of the while his interest in art kept weaving itself in and out of the conversation.

I first met Harlan Bang when he was principal of Hawthorne School and later knew him as a watercolor artist. His story goes back much further than that.

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He had attended a country school near Joice, Iowa, and while there his art training consisted of Friday afternoon sessions with paper and crayons or watercolor paints, although he sometimes would be reprimanded by his teachers for drawing on the margins of his papers and books. Occasionally the boys had manual training where they learned to build bird houses with coping saws and orange crates. He had no art classes while at the high school in Joice. At Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, he registered for a drawing class, which was to be his first formal art training. Within a few days after starting the class, his instructor asked him to be one of three students who were drawing the stained glass windows in the nearby Immanuel Lutheran Church. The congregation was having a book published called “Sermons in Glass,” and his art work would appear along with his name. He would not have to attend any more drawing classes, he would receive credit for the classes, and he would be given two books as a thank you.

Thus his formal art training ended almost as soon as it started. He continued to paint occasionally. He was drafted into the Army in 1952 and during the Korean War he served in Counter Intelligence. Later at Luther College, he studied art history and took a painting class where he tried abstract art, but decided it wasn’t his style.

After coming to Albert Lea, he taught sixth grade, then at various times served as a principal at Halverson, Abbott, and Hawthorne Elementary Schools. He was at Abbott School when one evening in 1966 shortly before Easter, he received the call that Abbott was burning. He remembers smoke pouring from the upper windows and concerned neighbors, parents, and faculty standing by. Then he described the teachers, following the fire, carrying boxes into the building, and emptying into them the contents of the desks and library shelves. The boxes had been collected from local liquor stores, and they brought many stares from passersby when they were stacked on the sidewalk outside First Lutheran Church where the students were to attend classes until the end of the school year.

Then for two years he took watercolor and acrylics classes from Jim Wegner at Austin Community College. That was the real beginning of his new career as an artist. Now his home is decorated with still lifes, florals, architectural pieces, and landscapes. He loves working with watercolor and colored pencils, and while he doesn’t do portraits, he often places people in his scenes. His work is now shown at the Lakeside Cafe, Addie’s Floral & Gifts, Fisher’s Jewelry, the Pizza Ranch, American Insurance and Art on Broadway.

As our conversation moved from the “how and where” side of his life to the more subjective, I asked Harlan, “Why do you do what you do?” His response was, “You can lose yourself in art. Time means nothing. When I am painting, and my wife calls me for lunch, I always think it is still mid-morning.”

As our conversation wound to a close, I asked Harlan if he had anything profound to add to his interview. He looked as me a little strangely, smiled and then and said, “Life is good. … Life is good.”

Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where Barb Butler is displaying her art throughout September. Art Center hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.