Erling Sjovold, painter and associate professor of art at the University of Richmond, was an artist-in-residence at Bowdoin during the month of October. Sjovold set up a contemporary studio in the Edwards Center for Arts and Dance, and worked on some paintings that he started during another artist residency in Iceland this summer.
Though Sjovold was passionate about drawing and painting from a young age, he was also interested in the natural sciences. He remembers seeing the wolverines at the San Diego Zoo, and was captivated by their ferocity and the larger complexity of the animal world.
Although he sees himself as a curious naturalist, he is also interested in exploring the relationship between the wonder and curiosity in art.
“Curiosity ultimately seeks to know, while wonder suspends the desire to know. These things play out in my work—curiosity and wonder,” said Sjovold. “Sometimes you want to get a handle on things, other times you are doing things and don’t know why and don’t care why.”
Sjovold recalls his undergraduate commencement at University of California, Berkeley, where the speaker told the graduates only a small percentage of them would go on to make art their sole career.
“The point of the speaker’s sober introduction was to remind artists of the many other contributions that they may bring to other sectors of the economy and culture beyond exhibiting paintings in a gallery, that their effect outside the gallery might have greater impact,” Sjovold explained.
However, Sjovold’s career as a visual artist has thrived over the years. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts from Berkeley in 1984 and earning an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1990, he taught at Savannah College of Art and Design and Indiana the University before establishing himself as an Associate Professor at University of Richmond. Sjovold’s work has been shown in exhibitions across the country, and has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships.
For Sjovold, part of being an artist is joining seemingly disjointed things, as well as “fracturing the mundane so it can be seen anew.” For Sjovold, artists are the ones “taking things apart and putting them back together in new ways. The new generations will need a lot of people to do that in all other fields.”
Sjovold believes artists are leaders, but that they have to cultivate themselves before others.
Sjovold believes in the importance of thinking about how the notion of beauty is constructed, and the importance of taking responsibility for one’s creative life. He used poet John Ashbery as an example of “an integrated artist who models creative self-hood.
“Ashbery puts his impressive range of knowledge and analysis into the service of the full experience as a sensory, intuitive being,” he said.
Sjovold thinks the process of creating is an art form in itself.
“Painting is incredibly complex and a field of experience with multiple entry points and many stories,” said Sjovold.
Sjovold often works in different mediums and takes up varied subjects in his work. He spoke positively of plein air painting, where he situates himself in a specific way outdoors at a certain time of day to paint.
For Sjovold, this “relies on every color working together, communication with the moment, the day, and where you are and being present. It’s incredibly satisfying and I like to return to it frequently.”
He also paints from photographs, borrowing from their line and movement. In his more abstract pieces, he tries to break down the volume of plein air paintings into lines which don’t exist in nature by making decisions between subjective and descriptive color.
Sjovold also observes the competing languages of climate change in science, which he references in some of his smaller plein air paintings.
“Sometimes I paint the river I see, and other times the river I hear or feel,” he said. “These become two very different sensibilities—both vital—and not necessarily improved upon by being folded together.”