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Little Falls man named ‘Master Artist’

The Five Wings Arts Council, one of 11 regional arts councils in Minnesota, recently selected Little Falls artist Charles Kapsner as its Master Artist for 2013-2014. The Master Artist Program, made possible with funding from the McKnight Foundation, honors artists who live in the five-county area (Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena) and have shown dedication to and skill in their artistic pursuits. Master Artists have also given back to their communities and have defined goals for their future.

The Master Artist is chosen from a list of candidates compiled by nomination. The selection is made by the Five Wings board (representatives from each of the counties) and the staff of the arts council after viewing nominees’ profiles, work samples and video presentations. Kapsner received three formal nominations, though only one is necessary in order to be considered.

Charles Kapsner is best known in this region for his frescoes, The Stewardship and Beginnings, both found in the Lindbergh Elementary School in Little Falls. His current long-term project of representing the five branches of the military in large-scale oil paintings to be installed in the committal hall of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery near Little Falls will acquaint him with many more residents. However, his reputation is international. His work has been displayed in solo and group exhibitions from Minnesota to California, North Carolina and New York, Italy and France.

Forty years ago, young Charles Gilbert Kapsner was faced with three choices. These choices were not offered by some golden genie who would assure success in life. They were options that emerged as the talents and passions of youth began to chart a life course: music, construction, art.

Kapsner credits the nuns at St. Mary’s School, art teacher Ren Holland, who was also a Boy Scout leader, and artist Warren Woodworth as directional forces.

His early interest in art was inspired by the nuns who, as Kapsner says, “Were very big into art. We had art day every Thursday afternoon. They used a nice sequence of holiday themes.”

Moving up to high school, Kapsner was dismayed to learn there was no art instruction in ninth-grade. That’s when Mr. Holland, who had noticed a developing talent, invited Kapsner to come into the art room and paint in oils whenever he had free time.

Kapsner was also into music and played in a band and worked in construction starting at the tender  age of 12.

In the fall of 1970, Kapsner tucked his high school: diploma in a safe place and headed south; to St. Cloud State. “I was painting a lot at night and couldn’t do music and painting. I transferred to the St. Cloud College of Business after the first quarter.” There he was asked to paint a mural in the student lounge. His teachers pushed him to pursue an art career, so he headed back to St. Cloud State and studied art history and watercolor.

About that time, well-known artist Warren Woodworth moved to Little Falls. He offered evening classes. “I realized I needed what Warren offered,” said Kapsner.

It’s important to note that the art of the early 1970s leaned heavily toward abstract expressionism. Students were encouraged to find “themselves” with little direction in technique and proper use of materials. Kapsner wanted realism and a strong base in the traditional foundations of art. Woodworth suggested that he study in Europe.

“In 1972, I got a list of schools and wrote to them.” They all responded, in a mixture of English and Italian. He chose the Universita Internazionale dell’ Arte in Florence, Italy, since they offered simultaneous translations during instruction.

Kapsner headed off to Italy in September of 1973, the anniversary of which he is celebrating this year with a 40-year retrospective at the Great River Arts Association gallery in Little Falls, through Nov. 2. Arriving alone and without a letter of introduction by any affiliated American school, Kapsner felt a little lost. “No one met me at the station. I went to a nearby pensione (boarding house) for a few days, then moved to a room and later to an apartment.”

As his comfort level with the Italian culture and language increased, he made connections and experienced not only an excellent art education but also access to art restoration projects to which few people were admitted. He wheedled his way into the well-respected Simi Studio (where he discovered he really wanted to study) by boldly asking Signorina Nerina Simi, daughter of Italian painter and sculptor Filadelfo Simi and a significant artist and instructor in her own right, to critique his work. She agreed and provided valuable reviews just about every Saturday.

He stayed for 10 months, came back to Minnesota, and worked on road construction to save money for the next trip, and then headed back to Italy in October of 1974. This time he was accepted into the Simi Studio. There he concentrated on drawing for five years and simultaneously apprenticed with established fresco artist Ben Long, with whom he had become acquainted.

One opportunity has led to another, some with more fruitful results than others, from that point on. Though at times a struggle, art has been his livelihood since 1975. His work is found in countless collections, both public and private. He has served as an artist in residence, taught, has been a guest lecturer, and has received many awards and grants. He has inspired young artists by mentoring several students in the Five Wings Arts Council Student Art/Mentorship Program. He frequently returns to Italy and feels that being fluent in Italian is a great advantage. “Speaking another language gives me another perspective on life. I feel more alive in Italian.” He also values the art education he received. “Training in Florence, Italy, was really important. The Simi Studio was intimidating, and I realized over time how important her studio was.”

“I get up every morning wanting to get on with the day. There’s no line separating life and work. I live to work and work to live. I’ll retire when I die,” Kapsner said, adding that it takes a tremendous amount of discipline. His life is a satisfying combination of work, travel, presentations and exhibits.

The military project, which Kapsner says is his Sistine Chapel, will likely take another four years. He is also working on a “little pet project” of figure paintings representing the nine muses of ancient Greece. He has painted scenes with ballet connections in the past and would love to explore a collaborative multifigurative idea with a dance theme. He would also welcome portrait commissions of heads of state, military chiefs of staff…or kings.

“I could have stayed in Italy,” Kapsner said thoughtfully. “But I remember the speaker at my high school graduation. He said, ‘Travel the world, get educated, and bring it back to your community.’”

That’s what he wants to do during his tenure as FWAC Master Artist. “I want to highlight the great things happening in rural Minnesota. You don’t have to go to the Twin Cities to experience music, dance and art museums. Being an ambassador for Five Wings is a great thing.”

Visit Kapsner’s Salon 2013 retrospective exhibition through Nov. 2 at the Great River Arts Association Gallery in Little Falls. Learn more about the military painting project at Five Wings Arts Council will hold a public recognition and ceremony to recognize Charles as the Five Wings Arts Council Master Artist at the Celebration of the Arts, which will occur in late March 2014. For further information, contact Five Wings Arts Council, 877-654-2166.

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