Gazing at the series of sketches lining a wall of Upper Iowa University’s Edgar Fine Arts Hall guest studio, it was not unusual for an observer to recognize a familiar landmark or country setting surrounding the Fayette campus. Untrained eyes may have thought the pencil drawings were only awaiting a proper framing, but the artist stood nearby continuing to visualize how he would transfer each piece of work to canvas.
For approximately 10 days, the UIU Art Department recently hosted artist-in-residence Mark Haltof ‘71. Shortly after arriving in Fayette, the UIU alumnus drove the highways and byways surrounding the community for most of the next week. With a camera serving as his silent passenger, he frequently stopped to admire the scenery of northeast Iowa, snapped countless photos of his subjects, returned to the guest studio, and downloaded the pictures to his computer. From the hundreds of photos, he then meticulously scanned his favorites before deciding which subjects were most worthy of eventually being recreated on canvas.
For this current project, the Maine artist intends to finish eight to 10 paintings. In the process there will be an indeterminable number of preliminary sketches and studies.
“About five years ago I started to teach. One thing I have discovered in my teaching is that a lot of students want to paint, but first you have to know how to draw,” noted Haltof. “Drawing is a way of exploring a subject. There are a lot of compositional aspects that can be worked out in the drawing stage. You don’t want to be halfway through a painting when you realize you would like to have another 12 inches on one end or the other. I think I have gained more knowledge teaching then I have imparted. Trying to teach someone else how to paint has made me a better artist. Simplification, scale, the difference between hue and value, perspective, consistent light effect…having to put it into words made me understand it better.
“I also wish more students in the beginning would paint from life.” he added. “Photography is a very useful tool but in the beginning should be avoided. When you are a beginning artist the tendency is to copy photographs instead of using them as a reference.”
It was his return to the Fayette Campus in 2014 for an alumni reunion of “The Foxes,” a former non-Greek fraternity at UIU that Haltof explained first rekindled fond memories of the University and his interest in capturing the scenic beauty of northeast Iowa through his painting.
“There is a real similarity between the Iowa landscape and the coastal seascape. There is a minimal aspect to the Iowa landscapes similar to the seascape. Iowa has islands of trees amongst the fields of corn and soybeans. They give everything scale and a balance,” he explained, while continuing to review his sketches. “I was captivated by how quickly the landscape can change depending on whichever direction you choose to drive from the Upper Iowa campus. Highway 150 seems to serve as a dividing line between the bluffs and valleys, and the rolling hills and prairies.”
While reminiscing with today’s UIU students, faculty and staff, the New Jersey native admitted to suffering from a case of culture shock when initially arriving in Fayette in the late ‘60s.
“But I quickly discovered how much fun and great the people were,” he grinned. “I even shared a bit of the culture shock experience with my friends by occasionally taking them back to New York City.”
After graduating from UIU, Haltof wanted to enter the world of fine arts, but he also understood he had to figure out a way to make a living. Due to the fact that many of the skills he had acquired as a fine arts major were essential in the creative side of the advertising field, he chose to initially pursue a career in advertising.
Returning to the east coast, the aspiring artist began assembling a portfolio. After serving as a paste up artist in New Jersey for approximately nine months, he accepted a position as an in-house art director for Minolta Corporation in New York City. Having learned a lot of the technical aspects of the advertising field during his first three years at Minolta, Mark decided to leave the corporate side of the advertising world for the agency side.
With a growing portfolio in hand, he knocked on countless doors across New York City before finding a position as a studio artist with the legendary ad agency, Wells, Rich, Greene. In less than a year he was promoted to art director at the age of 27. As an art director, he served on ad campaigns for TWA, Alka-Seltzer, National Geographic, IBM and I Love New York. Despite the commercial success, Mark continued his pursuit of a fine arts career and painted in his lower Manhattan studio.
“In advertising, it’s a creative group effort. Things get diluted along the way. I always experienced more satisfaction from my painting,” he explained. “While I could receive a creative blast from painting on a weekly basis, I would only get that same feeling in advertising on an occasional basis.”
So at the age of 32, Haltof left the advertising world and turned his full attention to his downtown New York art studio. Eight months later a Paris artist agreed to swapping studios, allowing the former UIU student to fulfill a longtime dream. Haltof remained in the “City of Art” for a year before returning to New York.
Encouraged by friends, Mark continued in advertising as a freelance art director. During this time he worked on and off as needed to supplement his income until he was finally able to devote all his creative energies to his painting. In 1986, after an additional year abroad, Mark and his wife Susan moved to Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Haltof now paints and teaches out of his studio in Portland, Maine. He has shown his work in galleries from Maine to California. Currently, his paintings our inspired by locations in and around Cape Elizabeth.
“After I left UIU, I broadened my art education studying in Europe. As an artist you never stopped learning. I am constantly evolving,” said Haltof, while encouraging current UIU art students to continue exploring their own individual creativity. “In the commercial art world it is difficult to feel in creative control. It is always a group effort. As an artist in the fine arts field you are in control. But there are still outside pressures. Galleries are not shy with their opinion about what will sell. Even as a fine artist you have to remember, it’s a business if you want to make a living at it.”
The ultimate goal of this UIU alumnus is to put the final brush strokes to his most recent visit by returning to his alma mater again next fall; framed landscapes in hand, fond memories to behold.
Additional photos can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/upperiowauniversity/albums/72157657253755184.