by Dennis Dalman
Randy Asseln’s friends don’t know whether to call him a photographer or a painter.
But that’s OK. Because Asseln is equally adept as a keen taker of photos and as an artist with a digital palette.
Asseln, a St. Stephen resident, is the subject of a one-man art show entitled “Minnesota On Canvas,” which will be on display until March 1 at the Great River Arts Center in downtown Little Falls.
The exhibit features 55 of Asseln’s photos and photo-paintings. What’s unusual about his art is he prints his photographs on artist canvas, including some that are very large. The result lends a “painterly” look to the stunning images: many views of the Split Rock Lighthouse near Duluth, a series of hockey arena photos, a series of pelicans, and several eye-popping sunsets and sunrises.
Then there are Asseln’s photo-paintings. What he does is put the photo into his computer. Then, using the photo as a kind of outline of what effects he wants to achieve, he uses his computer “paintbrush” and palette of colors to alter (or perhaps emphasize is a better word) the reality of the photographic image. He changes colors, adds light and dark areas, enhances the depth of field. What results is a stunning transformation of what Asseln first saw through the lens of his camera. An example is “Old Willie,” a photo-painting of an old jeep he photographed on a patch of grass near Anton’s restaurant in Waite Park. Using his “paintbrush,” Asseln added bright, almost feverish colors so the image has been morphed almost into a cherished memory of the jeep and its surroundings. The bright pastel colors add a twinge of other-worldly nostalgia the original photo lacked.
Two of Asseln’s “showstoppers” are two huge photos of the twisted, gnarled tree at Gooseberry Falls on the Lake Superior North Shore. The photos are veritable symphonies of shapes and autumnal colors that look so painterly many museum-goers have asked Asseln, “Is that a painting or a photo?” They seem surprised when he tells them, “No, that’s not one of my photo-paintings. It’s a photo.” The texture of the canvas on which the photo is printed is what gives the work – and most of Asseln’s other works – the look of an oil-or-acrylic painting.
Another showstopper that causes some museum visitors to gasp audibly is a photo of a sunset at the mouth of the Broule River at Lake Superior. The entire large canvas almost hurts the eyes with its vast expanse of radiant orange-yellow-pink colors. There is the sky, the river water and a spit of land jutting into the picture horizontally. On the spit of land is the sillohuette of teepee-like poles sticking up, put there by teenagers. The work, which is also a photo not a painting, resembles – almost – a purely abstract painting.
Two of Asseln’s other large-scale standouts are a crowded fleet of boats clustered at a sailboat dock at early sunrise on Lake Pepin and the photo of a ship ghostly gliding under the lift-bridge at Duluth harbor.
An entire wall of the Little Falls art gallery is reserved for Asseln’s series of hockey photo-paintings. The images were taken of the five final Minnesota college teams in the Western Hockey Association, which dissolved last year. All of the photos were taken of the players in arenas when the National Anthem was playing. Again, Asseln’s added colors lend to the images a nostalgic twinge or two.
It takes him anywhere from 20 to 30 hours to do one digital photo-painting.
Asseln lists the advantages of his unique kind of photography-painting.
First of all, the canvases are so light and portable. Even the largest can be mounted on the wall using a single ordinary nail. Second, there is not glare from glass covering the photos. Third, it gives the “painterly” look to images. Fourth, the canvas and ink on it will last at least 200 years. And fifth, Asseln loves the printing process itself.
He has a printer 44 inches wide, which uses an inkjet printing process.
Asseln came by his technique in an indirect, roundabout, interesting way. When his kids were grown and left the house 10 years ago, he decided to enlarge a photo of son’s Jeff’s Sartell hockey team after it won a tournament in Little Falls. He was not happy with the enlargement and tried several other attempts. No go. He almost gave up. That is, until he discovered via Internet a group of engineers in the Netherlands who had developed a way to massively enlarge tiny little photos taken on cell phones. Asseln decided to email the engineers, asking them how he could enlarge a photo to a crystal-clear image at a dimension of 2 x 3 feet. They replied, saying they thought they could help him. They sent Asseln more information, and he was impressed by the “fantastic” results. It didn’t take him long to buy the software from the Dutch engineers. And he’s been happily printing ever since for his own collection and for those who want to buy canvas prints and or photo-paintings from him.
“I work at it a few hours every night,” Asseln said. “It’s very relaxing, and I have the time; I don’t watch TV.”
A knack for art
It’s no surprise Asseln would be so drawn to art works involving a printer. After all, he’s been an electronic trouble-shooter for the printing equipment for the “USA Today” newspaper at its Maple Grove plant for many years.
Born in Lincoln, Neb., he moved with his family to Osakis when his parents bought the “Head of the Lakes” resort on the north shore of Lake Osakis. He graduated from Osakis High School in 1971.
“I always had an artistic ability as a kid,” he said. “I remember I drew all the U.S. presidents with pencil. I did a lot of cartoon characters too. I also fished every day on Lake Osakis. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
After high school, Asseln earned a degree in electronics at the Willmar Technical Institute. Then he took a job at Fred’s TV Warehouse in St. Cloud. Later, he met his wife-to-be, Peggy Schuneman of St. Stephen. They dated for 18 years before finally getting married. They’ve lived in St. Stephen for 33 years and have two sons: Jason, 34, and Jeff, 30.
Asseln and his wife love to go on trips that almost always involve Asseln’s love of photography.
“We love going to the North Shore and also love it here, right on the Mississippi River,” he said.
Asseln, like any nature photographer, well knows the value of quietude and patience.
“There are only about eight minutes in a day when there is ideal light for outdoor photography,” Asseln said. “Four minutes in the morning, four minutes at night. Those are the most opportune times, as a general rule, I mean.”
At a photo scene, Asseln waits breathlessly for just those right moments. He takes hundreds of photos, snapping the shutter (usually with a remote-control device) over and over as the light rises or the light dies. And voila, one of the hundreds of photos usually turns out to be the one that’s “just right.”
The newly remodeled and expanded Great River Arts Gallery is located at 122 1st St. SE just a block south of Little Falls’ main street, Broadway. It is open from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; and from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. It is closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.
Also at the gallery, now on display, are the paintings of three artists – Kathy Brand, Sandra Driscoll and Shelly Leitheiser. The dozens of canvases include mainly watercolors and acrylics of flowers, landscapes, exotic locales and surrealistic dreamscapes.