This month, the K.K. Berge Gallery in Granite Falls is hosting an exhibit featuring the artwork of local resident and art teacher John Sterner. The exhibit will run through the end of the month and is free and open to the public.
Sterner, who teaches art at the Lakeview School District, says that he has been doing art “for as long as I can remember.” Sterner’s Lakota heritage is very important to him, and features prominently throughout his artwork.
Growing up, Sterner says that he drew inspiration from his family, particularly from his grandmother. When he was younger, Sterner would practice drawing animals with art supplies that his grandmother bought him. Those around him quickly saw that he had natural talent, and encouraged him to pursue his passion further. His grandmother even told him that he was “destined to be an artist.”
After graduating from the Southwest Minnesota State University with a degree in art education, Sterner began teaching art education to other prospective teachers at SMSU. More recently, Sterner began teaching art for grades 1 through 12 at Lakeview, a job he thoroughly enjoys. In addition to his teaching duties, Sterner has also been the head coach for the Lakeview football team since 2009 (he even lead the team to a Section 3AA championship in 2016 - the first state tournament appearance in school history).
For most of his early artistic career, Sterner focused primarily on sculpting. “Not only do I paint,” Sterner explained, “but I’m a sculptor by trade.”
Sterner started out sculpting in bronze (creating mainly smaller, easier to work with pieces) before experimenting with other metals. Since then, Sterner has created several public art displays featuring his sculptures, including a giant bronze Mustang herd near the entrance of the SMSU campus. The name of the piece, “Sunkawakan Wicunhduhapi” means ‘Our Horse’ in Dakota.
Recently, Sterner underwent back surgery which has since limited his ability to work on large metal sculptures. Although he was previously hesitant to dive into painting, Sterner has since dedicated more and more time to the medium. Although Sterner paints in many different styles and mediums, the French style known as ‘en plein air’ (French for ‘outdoors’) has become his favorite.
The plein air style emphasize outdoor painting of natural scenes and was popularized in the United States by the Hudson River group in the mid-19th century. Sterner uses oil paints, and typically completes a piece all in one sitting (something that artists refer to as painting “alla prima,” or ‘at first attempt’). This means that Sterner needs to blend wet paint on top of wet paint, which can be challenging for novice artists.
Sterner says that many famous painters in history have used this style, including Van Gogh, Monet, and even Winston Churchill. Sterner enjoys it because it allows him to connect with the surrounding natural world. “A lot of my work entails me searching out who I am as a person and as a Lakota,” Sterner explains. “My other work is me trying to replicate the blessings that God has given me by trying to copy what I see in front of me.”
Sterner recently seized the opportunity to dramatically change his artistic scenery. In late 2015, he traveled with a friend to Italy where he participated in a series of painting workshops. Sterner would spend his days outdoors in the Italian countryside working to improve his own skills. At each location, Sterner would set up his easel and paints, and then hunker down for several hours working on his small canvas. Often, the single Sterner would add panels as he expanded the scene.
Sterner says that his own artistic projects influence his own role as a teacher. He enjoys learning new things, and hopes that his students imbibe that same passion in their own work. Sterner explains that “each of us has gone on a journey,” and that his job is to help students express those experiences for themselves.
The ongoing Berge exhibit is the first solo public exhibition of Sterner’s painting. He said that it’s been very rewarding having the opportunity to showcase his artwork for the community (including some of his own students). He also thanked YME art teacher Tamara Isfeld (“an outstanding artist herself”) and the Granite Area Arts Council for their work opportunity local artists.
Sterner looks forward to continuing his painting journey. “I enjoy it, it fulfills me,” he said, adding that “every moment I’m painting or sculpting, I feel that I’m one with the creator.” For him, painting has become a lifelong passion allowing him to discover and explore the world around him. “Every painting that you complete,” Sterner concluded thoughtfully, “leads you to another painting.”