New painting has love, libraries

MARY ABBE | Updated 9/4/2013

Painting at Central Library is a swirl of entwined lives and loves.

The Minneapolis Central Library has commissioned a big painting from Duluth photorealist Jerry Ott, which opens Sept. 12.
Photo by Richard Sennott

A vision of wind-filled sails on the open sea will entice visitors up the main stairway at Minneapolis Central Library next week, when a new gift to the library goes public.

The ship is the centerpiece of a three-part, 11-foot-wide painting that’s a $40,000 gift to the library. When the donor, Eric Fermstad, died of cancer two years ago, his family and friends were surprised and delighted by the generosity of his unknown plans.

“The fact he gave this money to the library for art was incredible,” said his brother, Thom Fermstad of Seattle. Growing up in Robbinsdale, Thom noted, his brother often hopped the bus to various branch libraries “just to check out books.”

“That wasn’t really cool at that time, but he was kind of a rebel and didn’t care what people thought,” Thom said. “He was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who used the library throughout his life for research on different projects.”

A computer consultant and tinkerer, Fermstad invested in the stock market and in houses and apartments around Minneapolis. He kept an old houseboat on the Minnesota River and fell in love with an elementary schoolteacher, Lynn Townsend.

“On my first date with him I told him I was married once, to an artist, Jerry Ott,” Townsend recalled recently over lunch with her former husband. “He said, ‘Omigod! I love his work.’ I think that’s why he gave money to the library for art.”

Ott was the high school sweetheart whom Townsend married in 1972. By then, Ott’s painting career was about to supernova. Intent on reanimating realism, Ott found inspiration in photography, producing lush nudes-in-nature paintings that were sensual yet chaste and startlingly modern. Walker Art Center bought one of his 1972 nudes and showcased it in a traveling exhibition that launched Ott’s career.

By the end of the decade, Ott was basically burned out. After five years, the marriage was over, too. It had been, as Ott put it, a “miserable relationship.” Or, as Townsend put it, “We should never have gotten married.”

Time and maturity heal many a youthful wound, though. Following a “friendly divorce,” they resumed a deep friendship that now has them talking several times a week. Ott and his partner, Ann Pellant, now live in Duluth, where he continues to paint.

About a year ago Friends of the Hennepin County Library invited him to propose ideas for the project. Ott was touched and came up with several proposals. “Everyone was totally impressed and so excited by his presentation” that it was approved unanimously, said Tonya DePriest, manager of the Central Library.

Called “Pillars/The Last Monarch Butterfly,” the 8-foot-tall painting is filled with personal details from the entwined lives and interests of Fermstad, Townsend and their extended family. Eric and two brothers listen intently at left as their father reads them “Paddle to the Sea,” a favorite Minnesota children’s tale. Lynn Townsend is the lithe beauty on roller skates at right. Eric is the young man gazing into the sun at the painting’s top, his image breaking up into pixels — a subliminal metaphor of his death and more concretely a reference to new technologies sweeping through libraries.

The boy at upper left clutching “The Last Monarch Butterfly” book is Ann Pellant’s nephew. The handprint at bottom is that of Dana, a beloved Fermstad brother, but also alludes to the smoky cave-handprints that are the first human signatures in art. Next to it Ott, who collects prehistoric tools, has drawn his own hand holding an ancient stone ax head.

Graffiti-ed maxims, and pillars of books on art, history, science and the environment represent the civilization that libraries hold. In little vignettes around them are animals threatened by human exploitation, and at the bottom lick the flames of ignorance, bigotry and violence that endanger the whole edifice. Still, the ship sails onward, lightly overlaid with the words “There is no ship like a book to take us lands away.”

Pillars/The Last Monarch Butterfly

When: Permanent installation opening Sept. 12.

Where: Atrium of the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.