An artist's life in review

Exhibit: After 45 years as an artist, Jack Dillinger is ready to show his students and the public how his creative process works.

October 04, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Students in Jack Dillinger's art classes at the University of Maryland University College often ask him after final critiques if they can see some of his artwork.

There isn't enough time, he tells them. Besides, he doesn't want to show his painting and drawing students just a few of the pieces he has done throughout more than 45 years as an artist and have them think that's the kind of creativity he's looking for.

But now the longtime Columbia resident has invited his students and the public to see a collection of his life's artwork in a retrospective at Mill River Gallery in Ellicott City. With 138 pieces, the exhibit of drawings, prints, collages and paintings illustrates Dillinger's growth as an artist.

"This is the case where they see how an artist thinks, how they change, which I think is a very important thing in teaching - you teach people things they need to know," he said. "You teach them to think, you just don't teach them a craft."

The exhibit, which opened Sept. 11 and runs through Oct. 14, highlights Dillinger's work from three interests - the ocean and forces of nature, the spirit of the 1970s, and collages of topics that include movies and celebrities.

"I like the idea of having different sides to myself, as opposed to some artists who have no place to go and run dry," he said.

Dillinger draws on personal experiences for inspiration in all of his artwork. When asked to pick out a piece to which he has a strong connection, Dillinger immediately walks over to a 1977 painting, Jason's Harrah.

The painting was inspired by his son Jason having to undergo surgery at age 6 to fix an aorta valve. It shows a heart as well as an ocean, where the family traveled to celebrate the successful recovery of Jason, now 31.

The ocean paintings at the gallery stem from Dillinger's fascination with the sea. Growing up in Missouri, he first saw the Atlantic Ocean during a trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del., while attending the Navy School of Music in 1955 as a percussion major.

"It just floored me," he said. "The ocean was everything I was expecting and more."

The photo collages of celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand, were created by Dillinger putting together photocopied images on a background he designed. One Hollywood collage features a picture of Star Wars creator George Lucas, a tribute to his son, Erik, 27, who works as a Web master for Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Lucas Digital Ltd.

The retrospective also illustrates Dillinger's creative thought process. It was four years before he was satisfied with the painting Breaking Point.

From 1995 to 1999, he had it in his bedroom and would wake up every morning and try to paint, approaching it like a puzzle and asking himself, "Do I still agree with what I was thinking?"

"You can probably never solve any painting," he said. "If you keep looking at it, there's always something you can change."

Fall gallery tour

The show opened in conjunction with the Howard County Arts Council's Road to the Arts, a fall gallery tour. Joan Bevelaqua, Mill River Gallery's resident curator, said it was an ideal situation because the spacious gallery can hold an artist's retrospective and because Dillinger has a strong presence in the Columbia community - he has judged a number of art shows and been featured in many exhibits.

"Not everybody gets this opportunity," Bevelaqua said.

Dillinger has been teaching art classes since 1966 at schools that include the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington and the University of Maryland. He now primarily teaches painting and drawing classes on nights and weekends at the University of Maryland University College.

He said he "comes alive" when he's teaching and hopes that like the composer Chopin - an inspiration to Dillinger and the subject of one of his collages - he leaves a lasting impression with students.

"It seemed like all of his [Chopin's] students thought he was unique," he said. "And I would love to aspire, as a teacher, to leave some kind of legacy."

Patricia Barr, a student of Dillinger's for the past two years, attended the retrospective's reception last month along with a number of students and said she was "overwhelmed."

A patient teacher

Barr, of Edgewater, described Dillinger as a patient teacher who tries to help students develop and nurture their styles. He doesn't tell them to paint a certain way, but instead focuses on their strong points.

"You look at your page a different way when he teaches," she said.

But what really impresses her about Dillinger is his ability to remember students by their artwork.

"If he meets you in a grocery store, he'll say, `You're the one that did those paintings in all red,'" she said. "He'll never forget what you've done."

Bevelaqua said Dillinger's artwork clearly reflects the fact that he is a teacher because his pieces illustrate the design techniques in which he instructs his students. His photo montages could be used in a two-dimensional design class, she said.

"The principles of art, the language of art, the elements of art, you see all of that in the different phases of his art career," she said. "You can't talk about his art career without talking about his teaching career."

Mill River Gallery, 840 Oella Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: 410-465-6434.

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