Sharing experiences in an unconventional way

When browsing around a store at Valley West Shopping Center you’ll see a variety of paintings depicting scenes from Bloomington’s backyards, and from around the world.

You won’t see price tags attached to the paintings, however, and there’s a good reason for that. They’re not for sale.

Bloomington artists Laukkanen and Fretheim
Tom Laukkanen, left, and Gregg Fretheim discuss their paintings inside a Valley West Shopping Center store March 7. The artists aren’t selling anything, but they’re displaying their work at the shopping center through March 29. (Sun staff photo by Mike Hanks)

Artists Gregg Fretheim and Tom Laukkanen are travel painters. They set out to discover new places and return with sketches of their travels. By “sketches” they’re not talking about pencil drawings – they’re talking about color paintings sometimes completed in a race against the clock.

The paintings depict years of travel, particularly by Fretheim, and their in-store display is simply a way for the artists to exhibit their work under their terms, albeit negotiated terms with a landlord.

“The Experience II” follows a similar exhibit Fretheim, age 55, set up near the west Bloomington strip mall more than a decade ago. The vacant storefront inside Valley West provided Fretheim with ample space for the exhibition without the pressure to sell paintings from his collection. Many art galleries will host displays, but they expect art in the exhibit to be for sale, and for the gallery to receive a cut of that sale, Fretheim explained.

“We don’t paint this to sell,” Fretheim said. “We’re painting our life and our experiences.”

Those experiences are based upon the travels of both Fretheim and Laukkanen. The two come from different generations, but have a common bond that goes beyond the Bloomington neighborhood where they grew up. They both love visual depictions of their travels, but prefer those depictions in the form of paint on canvas.

Some people chronicle their travel experiences with pen and paper. Artists like Fretheim and Laukkanen are attempting to do the same thing, but with a different medium. Their sketches can take several hours to complete, depending upon the time of day they start painting. The lighting changes as the sun rises early in the day or sets at night, and completing a sketch under uniform lighting is the goal, Laukkanen explained.

“The word (sketch) is more related to the speed at which you’re working than the medium,” he said.

Fretheim has made global travel a regular part of his annual itinerary. Inspired by a trip to South Dakota and the scenes he painted in 1985, he soon set out for overseas destinations, seeking out people, places and cultures that might lead him to a memorable time and place that he will capture with a sketch.

“I keep the plans rough,” he said.

Rather than setting up an itinerary that includes historical places, scenic vistas, monuments or tourist attractions, Fretheim spends time learning about the people and culture of where he is visiting, allowing their influence to dictate his path of travel.

It takes a major commitment to travel yearly for months at a time, but Fretheim manages to do so year after year, returning to Minnesota for the remainder of the year to earn money for his next adventure.

Laukkanen, age 37, dabbled with painting but never dedicated himself to it, despite being the son of an art teacher. It was during Fretheim’s first show that he learned about the concept of travel painting. Fretheim encouraged him to give it a try, but it still took Laukkanen a couple of years to warm to the idea. During a 2004 trip to Vermont he painted six sketches, two of which he considers a success. Having never had the patience or motivation to complete paintings he’d start, Laukkanen found himself completing paintings with greater regularity when he’d set up his canvas while out and about rather than inside a studio, he explained.

Although painting is his life, literally – he owns a house painting business – Laukkanen doesn’t have the ability to spend months of the year travelin, but spent six weeks traveling through New Zealand in 2010.

“I’m saving my money to go out again,” he said. “I feel like I’m only at the tip of the iceberg.”

Fretheim has more than 100 paintings on display at Valley West, Laukkanen has 44. Neither has a painting for sale.

“A book with 50 pages torn out of it isn’t the same book,” Laukkanen said.

“It’s my life on the wall,” Fretheim said.

Fretheim is typically traveling during this time of year, but his father’s recent death prompted him to spend the winter in Minnesota and be of assistance to his mother. That has allowed him to spend time minding the store on a daily basis.

With nothing to sell, there’s no income to be had, which is why the work will be on display only through March 29. Fretheim was able to negotiate a one-month lease at Valley West for their display.

“For me, it’s not about the money.”

What: The Experience II

Where: Valley West Shopping Center, 10606 France Ave. S.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 29