Leaving a mark: Iconic rural Minnesota artist Charles Beck dies at 94
FERGUS FALLS, Minn.—Charles Beck didn't leave his mark on the landscape. Rather, he made his imprint by capturing the rolling hills, plowed fields and the birds of Otter Tail County in prints, paintings and sculptures appreciated around the country.
The 94-year-old artist died Tuesday night, Sept. 12, in Fergus Falls, a town that benefited from his work and presence.
"Charles has been very influential in this community," said Amanda Cross, curator and educational coordinator at Kaddatz Galleries in downtown Fergus Falls.
"He's one of the most recognized artists in Minnesota. People will see this beautiful landscape and say, 'That's a Beck. Charlie nailed it,'" Cross says, adding that people around the country frequently call or email about the availability of certain woodcut prints.
He was born on Jan. 23, 1923, in Fergus Falls to Herman and Nellie Beck. His father was a cabinet maker and gave his son an appreciation for working with his hands.
After high school, Beck attended Concordia College in Moorhead, where his work ethic would be further shaped by painter Cyrus Running in the art studios and coach Jake Christiansen on the football field.
His art studies were interrupted by World War II and Beck enlisted in the Naval Air Corps to train as a pilot. On home for leave, he marked V-J Day with his first date with Joyce Hagge. They would marry three years later and remain together for 69 years until his death. The couple had two sons and a daughter.
The family settled in Fergus Falls, where Charles worked as a sign painter and in 1960 he started teaching art at what is now Minnesota State Community and Technical College, where he would remain for 28 years.
Beck's style started emerging at that time, an abstracted vision using lines and shapes to reflect rural landscape around him. In his woodcut prints, he carved tree branches deep into the block and nicked away to get the textures of field stubble.
While he painted large earlier in his career, later he would bring small boards as he drove around the countryside, pulling over to paint with palette knives.
He worked wood in a different way, carving the forms of sleek, graceful birds like field geese ducks, shorebirds and of course, loons.
"He knew how to get maximum expression from minimal detail," said Mark Strand of Fargo, who had worked with the artist on a number of publications and projects since the early 1970s.
His workmanlike approach won over legions of fans who collected his work or were influenced by it. Fergus Falls painter Scott Gunvaldson painted a portrait of his friend, while poet Thom Tammaro wrote verses about looking at Beck's works. When Fargo's Hotel Donaldson opened in 2003, a room was dedicated to displaying Beck's art. Other pieces are displayed in the West Acres food court.
Beck set up a studio in the house he built for his family 54 years ago and sold his work from a gallery there until shifting sales to Kaddatz in 2009.
A stroke in 2013 forced the artist to move into Broen Home in Fergus Falls, where, at the age of 90, he set up a new studio to focus on a new line of work painting trees. A show of his recent art at Kaddatz this summer was a huge success, with people lined up to get in. Most of the 50-some pieces of work sold right away, Cross said.
Beck exhibited regularly at the Rourke Art Museum and, in 2012, was the subject of a small solo show, "A Creative Life," at the Plains Art Museum.
"He had the uncanny ability to convey his love of nature and to distill things down to their essence," said Andy Maus, director and CEO of the Plains. "He's left a profound impact on the art of the upper Plains."
Maus says the current art renaissance in Fergus Falls wouldn't be happening without Beck.
Known best for his regional landscapes, the artist dismissed those who referred to what he depicted as "Beck country."
"I don't have a patent on the landscape," he told Strand when the phrase was suggested for a book.
"I like to think my stuff has some universal quality," he told The Forum in 2013. "Most people like my stuff because it tells them something about looking at nature, not just the superficial things."
"Art is a lot like life," Beck said then. "It's a lot of little things that happen that you never planned on that can be nice, but you can't sit back and wait for luck to take hold. You get lucky in the process."