Portraits of the world

Jul 31, 2002 at 12:00 am

Nancy Ulvang’s studio is in the little dining ell of her home in northwest Detroit, but her whole house is a time machine of paintings from the 40 or so years that she’s been an artist. There’s a humbling modesty as well as a residual patina of work ethic about her neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses, which were once the goal of hardworking, post-World War II tradesmen, lower-level automobile engineers and salesmen. The neighborhood is now rife with broken fences, collapsing aluminum awnings, burned-out garages and abandoned cars. Lately there’s been a little effort to clean up around the neighborhood, but it’ll never be what it once was. Ulvang lives alone, doesn’t go out often and has never been much of a social person.

“I’ve always been too busy. I had two kids to raise and had to make a living after my divorce from Jack. And I had my painting.”

The world outside her studio-home has changed radically, but she keeps painting in her secret space, remaining loyal to her passion.

Stacked against walls and on easels and in the basement on storage shelves are the fruits of all those years of labor. It’s the usual work of an artist who made a living doing portraits. Until the early ’80s, she had a studio in downtown Birmingham over a shoe store on Maple Road. And as portrait artists specialize, so Ulvang painted children, or children and moms, or young attractive women — “they often want themselves painted” — and the occasional wedding.

“If you want to do executives or young men, you can go to Washington and paint congressmen. [Like young attractive women] they always want themselves painted.”

And because of her son, Martin “Tino” Gross, the lead singer-songwriter for the Detroit band the Howling Diablos, she has always had associations with musicians and other local celebrities, and sometimes painted them. There’s a great portrait of Muddy Waters on her son’s living room wall.

But there’s something “different” about her portraits, a painful but celebratory honesty. At her “old age” (as she puts it), she’s still very beautiful, with a smart twinkle in her eye. Like her portraits, she has the look of a woman who hasn’t escaped but rather has been touched by the world. There’s a Bohemian grace and almost philosophical reserve about her that you might imagine seeing in a woman walking down the street in Paris’ Latin Quarter. She speaks with a vigorous interest about everything from economics to the Chinese calendar. As we talk, she slowly, carefully emerges, letting herself be seen, and with her a world she has selectively constructed and cared for.

On a table in the living room, I find a photograph of her in which she is painting an “attractive young woman,” but it is Ulvang who, in her graceful form, is the center of the shot. I realize that she isn’t simply a portrait painter but kind of a philosopher-artist.

Around the room, the presence of unknown people is felt as if they somehow live in Ulvang’s home. “These are paintings I did because I wanted to and because I needed a portfolio to show people.”

Ulvang’s honesty is disarming and comes through in the portraits. The pictures are about the whole project of painting, not just getting the likeness down. Ulvang reflects on the process:

“Nancy Mitchnick [the renowned Cass Corridor artist] once said that she paints portraits as if the subject had just walked into a painting on which she was working. I think I work similarly, insofar as I concern myself with the abstract issues of line, plane, mass and color. When I paint a portrait, I’m making a painting that happens to be a portrait.”

All of her portraits seem to have elements of landscape in them, even the figures themselves.

“But I do search out character and soul, as they call it, and try to represent the depth of the person, and it’s achieved through the quality of the painting.”

This landscape of portraits, Ulvang’s house itself, is filled with terribly human beings. There’s a portrait of a man with a bleak angularity, gorgeous in his almost-transparent presence. There’s a pubescent girl, not idealized but filled with life, full sensuous lips and wide global eyes, yet not willing to give up her innocence. There are also genre paintings and studies, abstractions, Picasso-esque paintings (like the circus painting with the acrobat in an orange dress flying through the air holding onto the neck of a spotted horse). It’s a simple but marvelous picture. There are surrealistic works and even an early self-portrait of Ulvang that depicts a vulnerable, sexy, even forlorn — yet ultimately objective — woman.

On a rack in the basement, there’s a small portrait of a sturdy gentleman in an old-fashioned suit and a V-neck sweater. I pull it out to see it better in the light. He looks kindly but stern. Again with a certain clearly voiced, philosophical detachment she says, “That’s my father, Oscar.”

Ulvang grew up in Duluth, Minn., the daughter of Norwegian-Americans. She went to the University of Minnesota before meeting her husband and coming to Detroit to live. She eventually entered the master’s of fine arts program at Wayne State University and studied with Zubel Kachadoorian and Robert Wilbert; in spite of her northwest Detroit residence she was sort of an early Cass Corridor artist.

Over the years she’s had some modest success as an artist, has won some “First Place” and “Best of Show” awards and has been selected to be in some first-rate group exhibitions, but it hardly seems the point. Her whole life seems dedicated to the creative process and exploring and refining her vision.

Her son Tino says, “There were always the early Cass Corridor artist types around when I was a kid, and that was cool, but I actually dug the musicians.” There’s actually a song he wrote called “Go Gene Go” which captures the scene.

Among the people who visited Ulvang was a persistent suitor that she wasn’t really interested in. It was the mid-’70s. He asked her on a date and she told him forthrightly that she wasn’t interested, but that she would like to paint him. Pleased just to be in her life, he came for a sitting. At the time, Ulvang was interested in constructing appropriate scenarios to bring out the identity of the people she painted. The suitor’s portrait, “Man without Pants,” is a magnificently charming, yet hilariously nutty and beautiful work. It’s subtle and yet completely over-the-top surrealistic.

“First I had him put the wig on; then the umbrella seemed right; and finally I told him he had to take off his pants. There was more to it than that, but to make a good painting I had to edit.”

After all the serious discussions about art and life, she speaks with a wryness that makes me realize how marvelously devilish she can be.

On the easel is a very large, unfinished, iconic landscape of Red Rocks Crossing in Sedona, Ariz. In its preliminary stages, the painting provides a great backdrop for my visit. It represents future potential, dedication and consistency, a powerful set of antidotes to the eroding changes outside of Ulvang’s window.

“I actually love to paint from real life, but it’s hard to get people to sit, so sometimes I employ photographs. Red Rocks is a photograph from a friend. It’s OK. I’m painting and one of the virtues of painting is that I can create or destroy, and I can change things.”

As I’m leaving she says, “Remember that we talked about me painting neighborhood landscapes. Well, I want to talk to you about some ideas I have, just to see what you think.”

This is the second installment of a four-part series on Detroit artists. To view other installments, see below:

God's gift
In the first installment of a four-part Detroit artist series, painter Ronald Warunek reimagines the whole of creation.

Hyde & seek
Quiet painter Robert Quentin Hyde speaks - and not only through his work.

Heir craft
Elizabeth Youngblood builds on her mother's lessons.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]