Dan Buettner sat down with Duane Ditty in his Northrup King studio to discuss the relationship between art and survival, and what it takes for Duane to NOT sell you a painting.
Dan: Tell me how it all started.
Duane: The first time I painted was in second grade. They gave me some paints and let me paint for a while. Then they took them away. I still remember how upset I was when it was somebody else’s turn. I always took art classes in junior high and high school. I grew up in North Minneapolis. In the summer of (I think) 1970, they had a program at Augsburg called The Institute For Talented Youth, and one of the programs was for art. I spent the summer going there. I made some paintings, movies, tried ceramics; different things.
Dan: Is this high school?
Duane: It was right after junior high.
Dan: So by this point you were identified as someone who was interested in the arts.
Duane: Yeah. In high school I took art classes, and also got into running. I ran quite a bit around the city. I think the city has been an influence on my art. I started off at a small junior college in Golden Valley, where I took art classes and continued to run.
Dan: Did you know that you would pursue a career in art?
Duane: Yes, it was my main interest. It was a really small college. They had just one professor who taught drawing and art history. Then I went to St. Cloud. They opened a BFA program while I was there. I took drawing, some printmaking, and painting. I became really close to one of my professors there, Dave Brown. He had a big influence on me, all the way up until when he died.
Dan: What was his influence?
Duane: He was a good instructor. And it became not just about painting, but all through my life. Whenever I had an issue, he always had good advice for me. He gave me a hard time when I wasn't painting. He would never critique me or anything. When I was at St. Cloud, I had some injuries. I wasn't running as much, so I put a lot more effort into art. He encouraged me to get more painterly and work larger. They had studios for graduate students, but at the time they didn’t have any graduate students, so they let undergrad students use them. When a big space opened up, he gave it to me. I started working very large. He went out and bought a tub of Rhoplex, which is basically an acrylic medium that was really cheap. So it was pretty inexpensive to do big paintings back then. I graduated in 1978. I got a studio in downtown Minneapolis. That was before all the galleries started opening up, so I was a little isolated. I was one of the only artists in the place where I had my studio. The person who owned the building was an artist and there were some design people in there.
Dan: At that time what did your art look like?
Duane: It's been pretty abstract ever since I was at St. Cloud, besides the figure drawing and what you have to do for different classes. I still have one painting from that time. In a sense it hasn't changed that greatly. I tried a few different things in graduate school. I had a couple shows. I did one in Robbinsdale, in a space that’s still open. I was in a show in Minnetonka that Martha Tucker juried.
Dan: So, you leave college and you start painting. Were you looking at it as a full-time career at that point?
Duane: After I left the small community college a friend of mine and I got jobs working at a camp not far from Chicago, for kids with disabilities. In Minneapolis, for my working career, I got a job working in someone's home taking care of them at night, so I had all day in the studio. When I went to graduate school in Madison I worked at a shop where they made devices for people with severe developmental problems. When I graduated I got hired with a full time job. I worked there until 1990. Then I tried to move to New York. I spent about six months there, and moved back to Minneapolis and got a job at the Courage Center.
Dan: Do you see any relationship between your career in disability care and how you make art?
Duane: I never saw it as an influence. That was a job and it didn't really have an influence on my art. In 2000, I was working as a personal care attendant and at The Courage Center, and I was trying to come to the studio. My alcohol use and marijuana smoking got a little excessive, and I went into a really bad depression. I was not able to work at all. I went through some different programs over at Fairview. After six months, I still hadn't really come out of the depression. I decided to stop drinking and the other stuff, and just worked as a personal care attendant. I already had the studio for about four years, so I decided that I would just focus on work, and during the day come into the studio. As a PCA I lived with a couple of people up until about 2007. Then the person I was working for decided to live in a different type of situation, so I lost that job. So yeah, the depression had a really big effect on me; having to change my behavior and start focusing on getting up here to my studio.
Dan: How do you work yourself out of something like that?
Duane: I went to a dual diagnosis program for mental issues and alcohol, and started seeing a therapist. I went to AA meetings, which were really good for me at the time. I was going to meetings almost every night. It was good to get out of the house. I wasn't great to be around then, and the person I was working for didn't need to spend evenings with me (laughter.) I think the therapy, and getting the right medications helped. I started painting again after about seven months, and made some pretty nice paintings right away. It seems like whenever I come out of a depression I do some pretty nice work. I had the same experience after my bone marrow cancer. It took me four years to recover. Initially it wasn't that bad. I was in the hospital a couple times during the chemo, and then when I got the transplant, I was in the hospital eleven times over the course of about a year. Sometimes for like three weeks at a time. I was constantly in the hospital. I would try to draw, but the medications made my hands shake.
Dan: I assume thoughts about your own mortality were front and center. Did that influence your wanting to keep painting, or was it more “I'm going to put the painting aside and just focus on my health for a while?”
Duane: I thought I would get the bone marrow transplant and be back in my studio right away. I bought a bunch of big stretchers and paints. I was all prepared for getting back to work. It was four years before I got back. I was very weak and needed help standing. I needed a walker. I lost a lot of weight. It was really hard to get up stairs. I’d slowly get my strength back, then be back in the hospital with something, and then I’d go downhill. I was trying to come to the studio but I just didn't like it. I didn't want the studio anymore. I went into a depression and had constant anxiety. That took a long time to get through. I finally started working in the studio a little less than a year ago, and I think I've done eighteen paintings since then. I’ve been pretty prolific and getting back here a lot. I had another complication, where I started getting this area that was changing color on my hip. It turned out to be Graft vs Host Disease, which is basically when your immune system starts to attack some part of your body. I had to start taking a bunch of steroids, which at first gave me a lot of energy. I did a lot of work when I was on those. I was sleeping about three hours a night and I couldn't sleep during the day.
Dan: When you look back, do you think when you were younger you understood what life as a painter was going to be like?
Duane: Right after graduate school, I got a studio in a warehouse in Madison. I wasn't painting nearly as much. I had a full time job working for the state. I’d usually just get up there and work on weekends. I never thought about preserving the work, or selling. I was too isolated. When I tried to move to New York and then came back to Minneapolis, I had all my work stored in a warehouse. There was a fire, so I lost all the work that I had. It didn’t really bother me. But when I look back, it's really the connection to the world that you get through making art. My interactions with people were based on the fact that I was an artist. Losing all my paintings made me see how important it was to get the work out there and sell it, so it wasn't all in one place. When I ended up getting a studio here, the Northrup King building wasn't like it is now. There were just a few studios. But as it grew, and because of Art-A-Whirl, a lot of people started seeing and buying my art. It became a different thing. Now, as an artist, you aren’t so isolated. I became part of a bigger community and then joined Rosalux, which is how Nordstrom found me. I made a lot of paintings for them the year before I got sick. It ended after that. They’d call me but I was in hospital. I couldn't do any work for a long time.
Dan: Ugh. I know you had bigger things to worry about, but still, it’s tough to have to let something like that go.
Duane: Yeah, yeah. They were really good for me. They must have ordered close to fifty paintings in one year. Now I’m trying to get things going again.
Dan: A couple of minutes ago you touched on something that oftentimes I don't think about. As an artist, beyond just making the work, the community you develop surrounding being an artist kind of leaks into other areas of your life. To remove the making of the art, you're also removing all these other things that are part of your life.
Duane: Yeah, I really found that out when I stopped painting. I wasn't involved in something that I was focusing on everyday, and my behavior went downhill. I was overworking. Once I got back into painting, I knew I could never drink again. I don't know if it would be as bad as it was, but I don't want to put this much time into something and run the risk of going into a depression again.
Dan: What are some times in your life that being an artist didn’t live up to your expectations, or has disappointed you?
Duane: When I came back from New York I decided to not paint anymore.
Dan: What led to that decision?
Duane: I’m not sure. It’s not like I was disappointed after leaving New York. I was working full-time. I guess I didn’t think it mattered that much. When I started painting again I was listening to a lot of Coltrane, buying art books, and drawing at home. People in my life were not happy when I stopped painting. I started to realize it really did mean something, and that I had to do it to stay healthy.
Dan: Walk me through how a painting is made.
Duane: I always start out putting down at least one coat of paint. I try to work fairly loosely, and try to get things happening. After a while I can see something I want to focus in on. I’ll fill in some areas with one color so other areas come out more. I’m influenced by looking at a lot of the bridges along the Mississippi river. I used to focus mostly on the geometric structures, but lately I’m more interested in aspects that go against that.
Dan: How do you know when something is done?
Duane: When it excites me. I’ll sit and look at it for a long time. Sometimes I’ll come back and look at it the next day. Sometimes I’ll try to finish something up and it just doesn’t work, and I have to keep working on it.
Dan: Do you see it more as, over time the painting starts to reveal itself to you and you are looking for clues for which direction to take it, or more as you are in complete control?
Duane: I see myself in control, even though I’m working loosely. Before I do it, I’m not sure what to do. For me, it’s always a new experience.
Dan: What is your relationship with a painting once it’s done?
Duane: They are all pretty meaningful to me. I have as many paintings at home as I can fit in the house. They aren’t just inventory. I’m happy to sell them, but they are all important.
Dan: There is a story about a time a woman wanted to buy one of your larger paintings and mentioned to you once she buys it, she could add some color to it to match her decor, and you decided to not sell it to her.
Duane: I think it was a group of people from Edina Realty. There were three of them. They came in and dropped their checkbook right on my table.
Dan: Power move.
Duane: Yeah. She asked me about changing it. I said I wouldn’t. She said something about how she could just do it after she got it. The conversation deteriorated pretty quickly, and they left. She came back looking for it at some point, but I had already sold it. I kind of felt like telling her, but I ended up saying nothing.
Dan: What are some things you still want to accomplish as an artist?
Duane: I always think about being more well-known, and having more shows. I’m trying different ways to get my work seen. Overall, I’m pretty content with how things are going.
Dan: Your work is going to outlive you by hundreds of years. Have you thought about how it will impact your legacy?
Duane: Right now it’s important for me to keep working. I have paintings in Europe, Canada, and all across the United States. It feels good to know the work is out there.