Story published: February 2020
When Ronald Finwall died two years ago, his three adult children remembered him as a loving father, albeit eccentric and with a wicked sense of humor. Soon, the art world may know him as an emergent outsider artist, though a posthumous one.
“He was always driven to be creative, but, in the end kind, of misunderstood. He never really showed his art,” said his daughter, Shann Finwall.
After he returned from serving in the Korean War, Finwall attempted to get his artistic career back on track. He had one large outdoor art showing in 1960, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. With 40 large paintings (40 x 40) situated around Saint Paul’s Battle Creek Park, the collection was for sale – but Finwall wanted to sell them as a set, not individually. In the end, none of the paintings sold.
“I don’t know if my dad was disgruntled over that. He became reclusive and didn’t sell…. So he’d cut [the 40 paintings] up and used them in other pieces,” Shann Finwall said.
Her father always kept an art studio where he would often retreat to, in between shifts as a security guard or janitor and his daughters’ dance recitals. The works range from paintings to mixed media to writing. Finwall rarely showed his work to anyone, preferring instead to create in solitude and without judgment. He was preoccupied with human existence, evolution and science, and often included himself in the pieces or images of his family.
After Finwall died, his family was left wondering what to do with their father’s lifetime of work. So they contacted art management consultant Miles Fiterman.
“You always enter these situations with absolute skepticism. ‘Well it’s all unknown, can you come and take a look at all of this, dad says to burn it,'” Fiterman recalled when first contacted by family members.
Eventually, he paid a visit to Finwall’s Saint Paul studio and left feeling a bit moved. Fiterman said the work struck him as the legacy of someone who had to create as a compulsion. That genre has a category of its own, called “art brut.” Finwall also fit the definition of an outsider artist, someone who created outside of the mainstream art establishment and without any record of his development.
“Yes it was edgy, it is edgy. Is it for everyone? No. But those who understand outsider art, the concept of art brut, the compulsion to create and tell one’s life story, has a place that needs to be celebrated,” Fiterman says.
Amateur photographer David Tewes captured scenes in Minnesota and out west after World War II until 1955. About 800 Kodachrome slides were found by a distant relative, who uploaded the images to a website in Tewes’ honor. The images were found by Minnesota Marine Art Museum curators in Winona, Minn., and they decided to show the work.
“I think if David Tewes knew that we had this exhibition, he’d be completely shocked,” said Dave Casey, a curator at the museum. What struck the museum curators was Tewes’ skill level and and his nostalgic depictions of a buoyant, mid-century America.
“Clearly he had an eye. The shots were framed beautifully – he had a great eye for creating a scene, he didn’t pose people, and he was capturing images of daily life,” Casey said.
Tewes died in 1991. He never married or had children. The work was stashed away in an old barn in Hutchinson, Minn., where Tewes spent most of his life. Casey said the images also create intrigue for the viewer – why did he take photographs at certain locations? What were his thoughts of the subjects he captured?
“We kind of have to piece the story together, I find myself, to fill in the blanks. Why would he go to this place?” Casey said. “He was stationed in Pasadena for awhile, then later I saw images from Pasadena, so [I asked, ‘Why did he go back?'”
While both artists were undoubtedly affected by their war experiences, each took a different direction. Tewes’ images and scenes suggest a post-war optimism, while Finwall’s creations take on a darker, more complicated feel. But the experts agree: Both outsider artists’ work deserves to be seen and recognized.
“Everyone has a place to make art. You don’t have to have a master’s degree in art. There’s plenty of people with no training. For me, it’s important that art is important for everyone to experience,” Casey said.
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