The Fab Four: Veteran Valley artists exhibit vibrant new work

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

At first glance, the poster – which shows four gray-haired men hamming it up under the bold headline “BOB MEL JOHN ANDY” – could easily be mistaken for an ad for a musical reunion tour, perhaps portraying a ’60s-era quartet hitting the road again with their old tunes.
At first glance, the poster – which shows four gray-haired men hamming it up under the bold headline “BOB MEL JOHN ANDY” – could easily be mistaken for an ad for a musical reunion tour, perhaps portraying a ’60s-era quartet hitting the road again with their old tunes.

At first glance, the poster – which shows four gray-haired men hamming it up under the bold headline “BOB MEL JOHN ANDY” – could easily be mistaken for an ad for a musical reunion tour, perhaps portraying a ’60s-era quartet hitting the road again with their old tunes.

But the four men aren’t one-hit wonders, nor are they merely reliving long-lost glory days. They’re still active, vital, accomplished artists – visual artists, actually, not musicians – whose work will be on display at 200 Main Gallery in downtown Eau Claire from July 13 to Aug. 30.

“There’s always someone up and coming, but these guys have never stopped.” – Jody Balow, co-owner of 200 Main Gallery, on the four veteran artists whose work will be showcased there

Drawing the four men – Bob Gehrke, Mel Sundby, John Lawler, and Andy Shafer – together for one exhibit was only natural, says Jo Ellen Burke, the gallery’s co-owner. “It sounds corny, but it’s the status of their work,” Burke says when asked why she and co-owner Jody Balow decided to curate the group show.

“We’re long of tooth, and all of us have been lifelong artists,” says Sundby, who began as a printmaker but has spent most of his career as a sculptor. All of the men have been creating artwork for at least 50 years – collectively, that’s more than 200 years in the studio.

As if two centuries of experience wasn’t enough, three of them were longtime educators (Lawler and Shafer at UW-Eau Claire, Sundby at Century College in the Twin Cities), putting them in a position to inspire generations of younger artists. And their work has been exhibited coast to coast – Shafer notes that, when he visited a gallery in New York a few years ago, the first piece he saw was by Gehrke.

Despite their diverse styles and preferred mediums, the artists are connected by more than geography, Burke says. “What these four have in common is obvious humility,” she says. “It’s been a challenge to get acknowledgment of the quality of the art.”

In fact, it was hard to get acknowledgment for art in the Chippewa Valley at all when Shafer and Lawler joined the UWEC faculty in the late 1960s. There was no stand-alone art gallery on campus, and the serious art-buying public consisted of a single bank president, Lawler says. Even when Sundby moved to town in the early 1990s, artistic endeavors faced plenty of naysayers.

The arts scene have progressed, however. Lawler credits businesses such as Mayo Clinic Health System for financially supporting artists by creating corporate art collections. “The fact there are more and more artists here creates a community feel,” he explained. “It is a growing phenomenon.” And, as the arts scene has grown, so has the general public’s comfort in looking at art, he said, recalling a not-too-distant time when people not affiliated with the university were afraid to visit UWEC’s Foster Gallery because they didn’t know how to dress for an art show.

The artwork created by these veterans has evolved as well. Shafer, perhaps best known for expansive canvases that tell multi-paneled stories, is represented in the new show mainly by smaller paintings – some landscapes painted en plein air, some abstracts – created with a mixture of oil paint and wax that practically vibrates. Sundby brings new bronze and clay sculpture, replete with whimsy and historical references (try to guess who “John B.” represents). Lawler’s work consists of found-object assemblages of wood and metal that combine the industrial and the wildly imaginative. Gehrke contributes both oil paintings and sculptures to the exhibit, including a towering abstraction, “River Allure,” whose name just might be a bit of a pun. In fact, aquatic ideas appear in the works of several of the artists. “I’m inspired by the river,” Gehrke notes.

Considering their long careers, these men know better than most artists that the inspiration sometimes requires perspiration. Sundby says that before he begins a new work he sometimes has to spend a day in the studio, perhaps simply cleaning his workbench. “Don’t lose heart,” he advises younger artists. “Keep doing it. It’s cyclical.”

Balow, the gallery’s co-owner and an artist herself, said she studied under several of the artists, who remain inspirations. “There’s always someone up and coming, but these guys have never stopped,” she says.

Four Accomplished Gents: Bob Gehrke, Mel Sundby, John Lawler, and Andy Shafer • opening reception: 5-8pm Thursday, July 13 • exhibit runs July 13-Aug. 30 • 200 Main Gallery, 200 Main St., Eau Claire • (715) 379-9493 • facebook.com/200Maineauclaire/


The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 30, includes diverse artwork from four longtime Chippewa Valley artists: Mel Sundby, John Lawler, Andy Shafer, and Bob Gehrke.

Mel Sundby
Mel Sundby
John Lawler
John Lawler
Anders Schafer
Anders Shafer
Bob Gehrke
Bob Gehrke

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