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Friday, 24 June 2016 11:19

Slice of Life: Fontana man is an artist at heart

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Frank Breneisen works in the basement pottery studio in his Fontana home. A retired art professor, Breneisen creates up to 3,000 pieces per year for his studios in Iowa and Illinois and for art shows. Frank Breneisen works in the basement pottery studio in his Fontana home. A retired art professor, Breneisen creates up to 3,000 pieces per year for his studios in Iowa and Illinois and for art shows. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Frank Breneisen takes his art with him wherever he goes, and the retired art professor has made stops around the world, teaching in England on a Fulbright scholarship, building playgrounds in Kenya and exploring rural Romanian villages on foot.

Breneisen’s artistic talents are as varied as his travels: drawing, painting, print-making, photography and ceramics, but there isn’t a field he isn’t at least willing to try -- even architecture. After spending decades heading the art department at Morningside College in Iowa, Breneisen is back home in Fontana, where he spent his teenage years. He and his wife, Jennifer, remain involved in the community, living in a house he built himself, complete with a wide-ranging art collection and a basement studio, dubbed Frog Hollow Pottery.   

Admire a slice of life with Frank Breneisen:

Art his way

I always knew I was going to be a teacher and I was going to be teaching art. I’ve never separated those two through my whole life.

When I was probably around 9 or 10, a teacher I had told our class to draw pictures of a farm, and she hung this picture with a big red barn and a tractor up in front of the classroom. But I had an uncle who had a farm that had a white barn, and I decided I was going to draw a picture of his farm, not the one the teacher had hung up. She and I had a real argument about it, and I decided I should be able to draw the kind of farm I wanted to.

I very clearly remember saying to myself, “When I’m teaching art, I’m not going to teach like this.”

Army detour

I was drafted in 1963 and spent my two years in Germany. I was the court stenographer for a while because I spoke German. But almost immediately I got a special little office to paint company crests. I designed a little official crest of the company for that battalion. I ended up painting them on every door for officers and even on latrines and desk plates and all kinds of things. I became a field photographer in the Army. I did some work for the military newspapers in Europe.

Job negotiations

In the spring of 1970 I got a call from Morningside College, which was looking for someone to teach ceramics in their art department. I had just gotten married. The day I was leaving on a plane, I received a contract from another university. I didn’t know what to do -- I had this contract in my hand for $9,000 a year. I went to Sioux City and interviewed on what turned out to be a very beautiful campus --  brand-new art building, beautiful facilities.

The dean and the president said, “We’d like to know exactly what you want for a salary if we offer you a contract.”

I said, “To be very honest, I have an offer from a school right now. You make the best offer you possibly can and I’ll simply say yes or no. We won’t negotiate on it.”

They said, “You mean if we miss by a little bit, you’re just going to say no, thank you?”

I told them yes, and they asked to think about it for a few minutes. Then they said, “We can offer you $9,950.”

I said, “OK, I’ll take it.” I ended up there for 33 years.

Home equity

(While we were still living in Sioux City) I bought this corner lot in Fontana, just on a whim. I told my wife, “I’m going to build a little house there.”

She said, “You don’t know how to do that.”

So I went and bought two books on how to build a house. I read the books and started building. The first summer, I built half of the house. I came back the next summer and built the other half -- just a shell. And it took five years of working a few weeks in the summer, but every summer we built and added more and we ended up with this house.

Exploring Iowa

When I lived in Iowa, I got three Iowa Art Council grants. One was for a photography show on the vanishing small towns of northwest Iowa. I invited another photographer to work with me and we each went to different towns, looked at them, took pictures of them that would tell about small town life. Northwest Iowa is pretty remote, but there are some really beautiful little towns out there -- funny little towns with wonderful stories.

I went to Emmetsburg, Iowa, a pretty good-sized town of maybe 3,000 people. I pulled my van into a parking spot and I got out, and I’m standing there for about two or three minutes, looking up and down the one main street. And this farmer came up to me, wearing coveralls and a farm cap.

He says, “You need help?”

I said, “How did you know?”

He said, “Different colored dirt on your car. Not from here.”

African connections

I’m involved with Soar-Kenya Inc., a foundation based in Waunakee, Wisconsin. Their founder was a Peace Corps worker in Kenya in the 1960s. It’s a very small organization, and we work with just three or four schools and orphanages there. We build classroom equipment, playground equipment. We buy food for the schools. We try to help in whatever way we can. I teach art wherever I can.

The schools have no money and no supplies. In one school where I taught, they used this piece of old sign board that was covered in chalk paint as their blackboard. The teacher said they had one piece of chalk and she didn’t want me to use it all up. So I went into town and I bought a box of chalk. I came back and I gave each child a piece of chalk and I said, “Now we’re going to draw a garden.” The 5- and 6-year-olds started drawing on the bottom of the board. Then the older kids came in and drew above that. Pretty soon, the board was getting filled and the only spaces were up high, taller than the kids could reach. So for the next group of kids, I had to pick them up and hold them up to the board while they drew. They thought that was just hilarious. From then on, I had to pick everybody up -- even one of the teachers. 

We have a good time, but it’s really hard. Four years ago when I went, I was so emotionally drained halfway through the trip that I laid there one night and cried. It’s hard to even talk

about it.

Throwing pots

I make between 2,000 and 3,000 pieces of pottery a year. This time of year I’m not really quite as busy, but from September to December, I’m down here probably 40 hours a week. That’s when the big sales are and you’ve just got to keep up. I’ve got a gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, and a gallery in Forest Park, Illinois. They both need probably 25 to 50 pieces a month, minimum, and then when you get to Christmastime, they need probably 100 a month.

A starving artist?

I make a lot of different items -- bread bakers, casserole dishes, plates, ladles for soup tureens. I made our dinnerware. When my son was in first grade, his class had a show-and-tell to talk about their families. His teacher, a former student of mine, said my son stood up and said, “Our family is so poor that my daddy has to make our dishes.”

Everyday tools

I make a lot of my own tools because you get what you want-and they’re cheaper. Occasionally you find the best technical tools. The kids I teach in area high schools get a big kick when I tell them that I went out one night to eat at Culver’s and I found one of the best technical tools ever -- a Culver’s fork. And it really is because they make them so that the tines are smoothed off on the ends.

Glass art

Probably the hardest thing I did was I learned to blow glass. I always wanted to know more about glass and I took a class on glass blowing. You need a lot of expensive equipment for it. When I worked as a design consultant for the ceramics industry in Ireland, I went to Waterford Glass and they invited me to come down and blow glass. I got to do some interesting designs there and learned some techniques.

Down in Frog Hollow

I never had a name for my studio in Sioux City. When I was filling out my application for a show in Madison, I needed a name for my studio. I thought of Fontana Studio, Frank’s Studio, Fontana-by-the-Lake.

When I was in high school, I lived here with my grandmother. In Fontana, where the highway comes through, the other side of the highway (has) a low end, swampy end, nicknamed Frog Hollow. It was sort of like the wrong side of the tracks.

I came home from school one day and said, “I’m going to take Claudia Long to the dance.”

My grandmother said, “Claudia Long lives down in Frog Hollow! Why would you take somebody from over there to the dance? You don’t want to go out with somebody from Frog Hollow!”

So when I was thinking about names, I thought that sounded pretty cool. Nobody would ever know the story behind that. So I called it Frog Hollow, from the bad side of the tracks. Once when I was setting up my art in the park down here, I put my sign up. There was an old man passing by who looked at the sign and started to laugh. He thought I didn’t know what the name meant.

Walkabouts

I’ve always done a lot of walking, and I started taking art students with me to Europe. We went on walking tours because it didn’t require any transportation. We walked 20 miles in a day. Each year, I found it was more fun and less expensive to use public transportation rather than charter a bus or something. 

I did that for 15 years, and I really liked walking and meeting people and seeing things. When I retired I said I was going to go to a different country every year and walk 100 miles. I had a new knee put on the right side and I’ve got to get another one put on the left side, so I can’t quite do 100 miles a week anymore. But I did 50 miles in Kenya.

Artist at work

In the early ’80s, I was interested in seeing Eastern Europe. I decided I wanted to see Romania and Bulgaria. They were just coming out of the Communist bloc countries and from what I read they were like stepping out of the 1940s and ’50s in Europe.

Bucharest is a beautiful city -- rundown, but with very beautiful French-styled buildings. I draw a lot whenever I travel, and while I was at a restaurant in Bucharest, waiting for my food, I was sitting there drawing. A waitress came and said, “Oh, I like that. Can I show it?” She took it and showed it to the people I had drawn who were sitting outside the restaurant. Then she took it and showed the chef. The chef came out. He didn’t speak English, but the waitress translated, and he said if I drew the restaurant, he’d give me my food. So I drew for my supper. Good deal.

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