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Column: Hometown artists deserve more attention

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THERE’s an understandable perception that much of Columbus’ art is imported.

That’s not a bad thing.

The city’s public art can be credited for drawing a lot of tourists. More importantly however, it provides considerable enjoyment for those of us who live here.

Let’s face it, there just aren’t too many towns with a population in the 50,000 range that are permanent home to works by such internationally acclaimed artists as Henry Moore, Dale Chihuly, Robert Indiana or Jean Tinguely.

There also aren’t many towns with numbers like ours that can attract a spectacle such as the Sculpture Invitational in which outstanding artists from around the country have put some of their best works on display. Columbus’ staying power as a host was demonstrated in recent news stories that detailed plans for the installation of seven more sculptures at locations around town.

While these works certainly help make for a pretty good quality of life, they do tend to overshadow something else that is even more important: the creative talent that is already in our midst.

That aspect of life in Columbus came to mind in a recent conversation with former Columbus resident Chuck Watson, a retired executive with Arvin Industries.

Chuck and his wife Rosanne, who now live in Westfield, north of Indianapolis, were taking in the works of art at the Hoosier Salon’s 90th Annual Exhibition at the Indiana History Center when they came across a painting that riveted their attention, an ephemeral rendition of Indianapolis’ Monument Circle.

They weren’t the only ones drawn in by the art. It was declared “Best of Show” at the prestigious exhibition.

They were so struck by the work that they contacted the artist to see if she could paint a similar but smaller version for their home.

They didn’t have to look very far for the artist. She is Mary Gretsinger and she lives in Columbus.

“It really struck me that we were drawn to her work and she lived in our former hometown,” Chuck said.

The Best of Show honor was no fluke for the Columbus artist who is also the mother of two teenagers. In fact, she was the Best of Show winner the year before — the first repeat achievement in the history of the renowned institution.

“There have been people who won it more than once but never in successive years,” Mary said last week from her home. “It was so unusual that the executive director of the Art Salon had to go back into the bylaws to make sure it was allowed.”

Further validity of the achievement came when her prize-winning piece this year was the first to be sold to a patron. The Best of Show designation carried with it a $5,000 award. The painting sold for an additional $3,600.

Mary is fairly new to Columbus, having moved here seven years ago from the Syracuse, Indiana, area. Her pursuit of art is much longer.

“I’ve been painting all my life,” she said. “I just want to express myself through my paintings. I’ve never painted to sell.”

She admits that attitude might be changing. Recognition such as that from the Salon — and an upcoming six-week exhibit beginning Aug. 14 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art along with other past Best-of-Show winners — add even more credibility to her résumé.

“The Salon represents a vetting process for promising artists,” said Randy Tucker, a retired Cummins Inc. executive and a major patron of Hoosier artists. “These Best of Show awards give her a credibility that can translate into commissions and sales.”

“To win this twice in a row is simply amazing,” said Mary’s fellow Columbus artist Chris Newlund. “It’s a coveted award made even more special by the fact that it’s through the Salon, which has been an institution for artists for almost a century.”

It is also special for Mary because of circumstances in her life. Her early childhood was dictated in large part by her father’s career in the U.S. Navy. The family made several moves that exposed her to a variety of cultures. Ironically, her education was in the sciences, which included a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.

Art, however, remained her true love, and she continued painting, placing an emphasis on watercolors. Eventually she morphed into oils.

A major part of her adult life was dictated by a medical condition that affected her ability to speak.

“Actually, it was something which drew me more to my painting,” she said. “For much of that time I simply stayed home and painted instead of going out in public.”

That issue was resolved after she and her family moved to Columbus seven years ago through a medical procedure that restored her natural speaking abilities.

Her artwork continued to draw notice throughout the Midwest. In 2006 she won first place in the Kentucky Watercolor Society Aqueous USA exhibition, a competition which she also won in 2008.

Recognitions such as those accorded Mary and a number of other local artists not only augment their resumes, but also reflect on the community she and her husband have adopted as their home over the past seven years. It would seem that a city that lists works by Henry Moore, Robert Indiana or Dale Chihuly would be a natural market for aspiring artists.

Columbus does have its share of homegrown creative talents, such as sculptor Robert Pulley, sculptor and watercolorist Linda Peterson and painters such as Laurie Wright, Chris Newlund, Gretchen Sigmund Marks and David Williams.

However, when promoting its art, greater attention seems to be paid to the works that come here from somewhere else.

There certainly should be civic pride in these out-of-town art forms, but it just seems proper that we pay more attention to the achievements of those artists who call Columbus home.

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