Mysteries common to us all: The art of Lois Main Templeton

By David Hoppe

I first met Lois Main Templeton at the Faris Building in 1988. My wife and I had moved to Indianapolis with our pre-school son in March of that year. An ice storm descended on the city during our first night in the duplex we rented in Broad Ripple. When we awoke, morning sun shone through frozen crystal, coating tree branches and power lines. Nature, for a few hours at least, had asserted herself, stopping everyday existence in its tracks. The effect was eye-opening — and just dangerous enough underfoot to make you pay attention in a way that felt exhilarating.

Something similar happened upon entering Lois’ studio. First there was the space itself: high-ceilinged and high up, on the Faris’ seventh floor, northeast corner, with its big screen windows measured into a massive checkerboard of panes. If you wondered — as many of us did — whether Indianapolis was truly a city, or just a big prairie town, the view from Lois’ studio split the difference in an energizing way. Through Lois’ windows the aspirational tops of high-rise office buildings, with their big plans and big deals, looked close enough to touch. But if you took a step to the left or right, changed your view just so, you could see how quickly the avenues where these towers stood gave way to land as flat and nondescript as a tabletop, stretching all the way to the horizon. The juxtaposition of these views made you feel as if you were at the center of a new kind of frontier, figuring out what it meant to live in a middle-size American city as one century ended and another took shape.

The Faris Building itself was a decidedly urban experience. It was an industrial relic, a great block of brick and glass, built for rough use and heavy materials, the kind of setting where a film noir detective might find himself cornered by a tough bunch of thugs armed with grappling hooks. It was also, of course, a place where people worked hard and made things, and so its evolution into an artists’ hive felt like history being put to use.

Lois was reputedly the first artist to lease studio space from Bob Faris. This was in 1981. “I explored all sorts of abandoned buildings in downtown Indianapolis while I was at Herron,” she recalled of her mid-life enrolment in art school. “I set out and found that huge, old, decrepit warehouse while I was still a student. I knew what happened when you graduated; you fell into a deep long trench full of former Herron students, all of us trying to get out, trying to make it, wanting to keep on with what we had begun at Herron. I was older than they were. I did not have time for that.” She graduated magna cum laude at the age of fifty-one-years-old. Her age, she once told me, was a source of strength. “I had in me a big reservoir out of which to paint.” (1)

But she needed a studio to do it in. She found it on downtown’s southern rim, just up the street from Shapiro’s legendary deli. When Bob Faris told her she could have a studio in his building, she asked him if she could sign a lease. “He looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t bother with leases.’ I said, ‘I’ve been reading, and it says I should have a lease.’” Faris suggested a stationers where Lois could get the proper form. When she brought it back to him, he asked her if she could afford $200 a month. “I couldn’t,” recalled Lois, “but I was not about to have my husband pay for my studio.” (2)

That’s when she began teaching — another important part of Lois’ practice. Teaching not only helped pay those early bills, it would become a wellspring for Lois’ creativity: equal parts inspiration, energizer and accelerant. During those times when she felt dried up and in doubt about her painting, teaching, especially with children and adults with disabilities, brought her round. It reinforced the idea that, at its core, art is not only a dive into one’s unconscious, but social, too. Art is of, by and for people; something we’ve done since our beginnings. Primal.

Conversation played a part. Lois loves to talk, to think out loud. That’s what brought me to her studio in the Faris, thirty years ago. By that time, the building had been thoroughly colonized by visual artists and gallerists. A letter carrier, reading the names on the post boxes there, found what amounted to the city’s creative family tree — with Ard, Berkshire, Campbell and Domont, Funk and Kadlec, Mecklin, Sanders and Siskind, to name just a few.

The architect Jim Lingenfelter belonged to a firm with an office across the hall from Lois. Jim was a longtime Indianapolis guy, with a deeply ingrained sense of his city’s history and potential. He and Lois started having box lunches brought in to Lois’ studio by way of creating a kind of salon — meals, as I recall, made and delivered by a local chef who would soon be breaking her own trail for the city’s independent restaurant scene, Becky Hostetter.

One of Lois’ recurring motifs is the kitchen table. While her Faris studio was most certainly a space where she could close the door and engage in an often tempestuous inner back-and-forth with paintings as they found their way into light, it was also meant to be a gathering place for Indianapolis’ burgeoning creative household. This was important. The city, at that time, was not, on the surface, at least, a congenial place for artists. No one spoke of a “creative class.” Mayoral administrations did not trouble themselves with cultural policy. There was virtually no public funding for creative projects and, apart from the Civil War obelisk at the center of Monument Circle, little public art worth noting. If you wanted art, you went elsewhere — to Chicago or the coasts. Indianapolis, we were told, was about sports.

This obliviousness brought a charge to the conversations in Lois’ studio. It turned the periodic Faris open houses into tribal happenings, where an alternative version of Indianapolis expressed itself with grungy exuberance. The city might not have known it yet, but it needed this as much as we did. And while the cumulative impact of the Faris years can never be summed, those of us who were there felt we were part of something. Lois, presiding in long denim skirt and frayed turtleneck, may not have driven this action, but she was surely its ethical center. Her painting bore witness to the fact an artist who committed herself could find a voice and make ambitious work here, in this place.

Lois has spent significant parts of her life on both coasts — in northern California, where she and her husband Ken lived for twenty years before moving to Indianapolis, and in Maine, where they have kept a house and currently reside. Her experience of these places, with their distinctive landscapes, climates and cultures, have certainly had a profound impact on how she engages with the world, not least because both have provided her access to a restlessly oceanic sense of space and time. Proximity to the tidal pull of vast bodies of water seems necessary for an artist who calls the unconscious “my basic source.” (3)

But it is hard to spend time with Lois’ art and not find oneself in the presence of an abiding Midwestern sensibility. This is an admittedly tricky proposition. Where both coasts are imprinted with a host of images and stories evoking their respective cultural traditions, the Midwest’s cache remains elusive. Perhaps that’s because so many Midwestern artists have evoked the place from a distance, as exiles who flew the coop. As Kurt Vonnegut once joked about Indiana: “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.” (4)

Lois Main was born in Madison, Wisconsin, 1928 and grew up spending time in Sand County, Wisconsin — the riverine landscape made famous by naturalist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac. In fact, the Leopolds and Mains were neighbors; young Estella Leopold and Lois best childhood friends. “The land was pretty open,” Estella later wrote of her family’s homestead in Stories From the Leopold Shack, “you could see for a mile in two directions. The cornfield was full of weeds and burrs, and the soil was about pure sand. The little barn sat on a wide sweeping plain, which was actually a high, flat terrace that stood about twelve feet above the active floodplain, dotted with sandbars and willow bushes.” (5) Early explorers, she said, described the land as being “a mix of oak savanna, marshland, and forest, with excellent hunting grounds for deer, elk, moose, bear, beavers and ducks.”(6)

Though settlers had cleared the woods for farming, this was still deep country, with place names inherited from the Winnebago, Sauk and Fox tribes. People lived close to the land and the weather. “I got to go into the marshes with my father,” Lois told an interviewer at the Eiteljorg Museum in 1998, “looking for the wild, looking for the edge. This lack of fear of being lost is very western. We do not need to have a map first. Certainly this has a bearing on my painting. When halfway through, I often don’t know where I am, and certainly don’t know where I’ll end up.” (7)

Lois conjures those marshes, evoking their mystifying spaciousness and low-lying fog, bulrush verticality, and the aural calligraphy of birdsong, in numerous paintings. Her sense of place is infused with memory. The writing she incorporates into her canvases registers like songs overheard on a radio, playing in a distant room. Fragmentary words and phrases rise to the surface of awareness but their meaning is never certain or imposed. You fill that in yourself.

Lois has called the Midwestern part of her practice collaborative. She has seemingly resisted the stereotype of the artist as isolated, preferring, when she can, to make herself part of a community or neighborhood, as she did at the Faris and Murphy buildings, as well as in her shared studio with Phil O’Malley — and in her teaching. But this sense of collaboration also appears to describe a dynamic triangle, including herself, her painting, and whoever happens to encounter it. A kind of social imperative underlies her art, a need to break down barriers to feeling between her self and others. This, perhaps, is where jazz comes in. When she talks about “looking for the wild, looking for the edge,” she could easily be referring to another of her acknowledged inspirations, jazz improvisation.

Lois has written eloquently about experiencing jazz live, in clubs, during her years in the Bay Area. Then she arrived in Indianapolis and found another, historically rooted jazz scene, with musicians who shared her desire to connect. “What I want to have happen when people look at my work, is what happens in jazz when, after all the diverse voices going on in improv, the group comes together — and makes that turn.” (8) This coming together, a kind of climax, is also the moment when contrived boundaries between humans and nature break down. The work of art becomes as much a part of the natural world as any tree, rock or rainstorm. Human being is not apart, but part of.

In the end, though, Lois’ chosen artform demands she face the canvas alone. Much as she hankers after collaboration, she is finally on her own. She has described this as the “potato” part of herself. “When you dig the soil and pull it back, there they are. They’re not dirty, they’re dusty. It’s a treasure hunt. A potato grows beneath the surface. It’s not a party thing. It isn’t pretty. It is not sociable, unless it bumps into another potato. And it likes being in the dark.” (9)

Lois keeps a journal — there are now volumes of them, spanning decades, handwritten and thick with photos, sketches, clippings. They testify to an unstinting work ethic, but also to ongoing struggles with her midlife vocation. In May, 1991, she writes that she is working toward “a sense of competence and accomplishment,” but that when she finds herself in her studio, “I have no facts, objects, plans to ‘organize.’ I do not know what I’m doing, how, let alone why. This discrepancy between my worlds, my selves, causes me a big studio problem. I can and do assign myself a task — but there is no guarantee I will be successful and I HAVE SUCH A HARD TIME PLAYING.” (10)

Then in March, a year later: “What I need to remember and re-call is that painting is like truth. Once in awhile it is immediate and clearly seen. But more often it hides behind and is only gradually revealed.” (11)

And in 1998: “Wonder if part of the fear an artist — any — has of this early stage is the same fear of vulnerability that is scary between the sexes. Beauty is going to turn up and oh lord will you blow it? Or allow it. Also at least 50% of the action will come from the other. I put paint on, but the paint does as it pleases…” (12)

It must be noted here that when Lois graduated from Herron in 1981, her chosen medium, painting, was in the throes of one of those critical upheavals that roil the art world from time to time. Modernism, and the idea of art-historical progress it represented, was long gone. In its place (to read the critics) was an anything goes spirit, eschewing whatever principles — from institutional authority to the very idea of beauty as something worth achieving, or even thinking about — the art world had relied upon for order and coherence since the Renaissance.

Painting itself was suspect. The same year Lois left Herron, critic Thomas Lawson summed up the situation in an essay for Artforum magazine entitled, “Last Exit: Painting:” “It all boils down to a question of faith. Young artists concerned with pictures and picture-making, rather than sculpture and the lively arts, are faced now with a bewildering choice. They can continue to believe in the traditional institutions of culture, most conveniently identified with easel painting, and in effect register a blind contentment with the way things are. They can dabble in ‘pluralism,’ that last holdout of an exhausted modernism, choosing from an assortment of attractive labels…the style most suited to their self-referential purposes. Or, more frankly engaged in exploiting the last manneristic twitches of modernism, they can resuscitate the idea of abstract painting. Or, taking a more critical stance, they can invest their faith in the subversive potential of those radical manifestations of modernist art labeled Minimalism and Conceptualism. But what if these, too, appear hopelessly compromised, mired in the predictability of their conventions, subject to an academicism or a sentimentality every bit as regressive as that adhering to the idea of Fine Art?” (13)

Had Lois been younger, more subject to the rage for relevance besieging art school undergraduates, she might have been paralyzed by doubt about her calling. Fortunately for us, she had that “reservoir” of experience to draw upon. She was old enough to know, bone-deep, what art was for, and why she so singularly needed to paint.

“THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO,” she journaled in 1991, adding parenthetically: “(it is why I blew away my precious Happy Face)”. (14)

Which is not to suggest that Lois has shied away from thinking hard and long about what she does. Her multitudinous journals are ample testimony to the dues she’s paid in this regard. Finally, though, what draws us to her work is not theory, but her mastery of materials and utter commitment to the process of bringing her humanity into view.

How lucky for us — and, perhaps, for Lois — that, as the art world was embroiled in an epic argument with itself, she landed in Indianapolis, our deceptively sophisticated provincial capital. A place where she could be herself. Here Lois sounded her Midwestern roots, as well as all she’d learned from living out west. Brought forth the deep interweaving of places, time and self. Though the journals show she was never immune to doubt, and has been, at times, her own severest critic, there was nothing in her adopted city’s cultural environment to stop her. The mutual reward has been this abundant, ever-questing body of work, with its vivacious rigor and courage to tap into memories and dreams.

Spend time with Lois’s painting and you begin to grasp the wealth of experience she is able to summon. The layers of color she applies, scrapes away and reapplies act as metaphor for the way we experience the world. We see and then we see some more and then…we’re not sure whether what we’re seeing is truly in front of us, or inside our heads, filling in for what we know is out there, but can’t quite apprehend. Meanwhile, calligraphy skitters across her surfaces, or rises up from the depths, alternately acting like the self that won’t, even in meditation, shut up, and a séance — the visitation of ghosts. Shapes, no less strange for their air of familiarity, appear then reoccur. They are domestic yet wild, quick and stolid, comic then bereaved. In the end, these pictures attain what some Buddhists call “suchness.” They are as fully themselves as a many-ringed tree stump or a geode, cracked to reveal the crystals inside.

There is defiance in these paintings: Lois standing up for — and to — herself. The work is personal and exploratory. But it is not merely self-referential. It reaches out to the eyes of others, depicts mysteries that are common to us all.

This, at least, is what I saw in Lois’ studio some thirty years ago. It was the work of an artist committed to going wherever the process took her, and a woman who was determined not to be afraid of that. Lois has observed that one of her favorite things about the Midwest are its storms, the way they sometimes seem to gather off to the west and come rolling in, across the prairie. “It’s the most exciting experience,” she once said, recalling how high winds can blow down power lines, so that the live wires hiss and spark on the ground like dangerous serpents. That unleashed energy, frightening to most, attracts her. You can see it in her paintings: “I want my lines to be live.”

  1. 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award interview, “Lois Main Templeton,” by David Hoppe, NUVO. May 4. 2011.
  2. Templeton, Lois Main, Finding Your Way: The Studio Book, pg. 46. Guild Press, 2000.
  3. Vonnegut, Kurt, Confetti #8. Undated.
  4. Leopold, Estella B, Stories from the Leopold Shack, pg. 5. Oxford University Press, 2016.
  5. Templeton, Lois Main, Finding Your Way: The Studio Book, pg. 42.
  6. , pg. 2
  7. Hoppe, 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award interview.

10.Templeton, studio journal, 1991.

  1. Ibid.
  2. Templeton, studio journal, 1998.
  3. Lawson, Thomas, “Last Exit: Painting.” Art After Modernism, pg. 153. David R. Godine, 1984.
  4. Templeton, studio journal, 1991.

 

 

1. 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award interview, “Lois Main Templeton,” by David Hoppe, NUVO. May 4. 2011. 2. Templeton, Lois Main, Finding Your Way: The Studio Book, pg. 46. Guild Press, 2000.3.Vonnegut, Kurt, Confetti #8. Undated. 4. Leopold, Estella B, Stories from the Leopold Shack, pg. 5. Oxford University Press, 2016.5. Templeton, Lois Main, Finding Your Way: The Studio Book, pg. 42. 6. , pg. 2 7. Hoppe, 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award interview. 9.Templeton, studio journal, 1991. 10. Ibid. 11. Templeton, studio journal, 1998. 12. Lawson, Thomas, “Last Exit: Painting.” Art After Modernism, pg. 153. David R. Godine, 1984. 13. Templeton, studio journal, 1991.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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