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CEDAR RAPIDS — It's not often you hear a preference for Iowa's landscape to Colorado's rocky mountains. But if you're looking through local artist Fred Easker's eyes, or at least at one of his paintings, you might see where he's coming from.
Easker, whose 44-year-old son lives in Denver, said Colorado has an 'interesting landscape' but not as interesting as 'what we have here.'
'It takes a while to get to know a place,' he said. He's been getting to know Eastern Iowa for the past 70 years. He was born and raised in Cedar Rapids and has remained ever since.
The subjects of his paintings are what he thinks many Iowans take for granted — gentle, rolling prairie, acres of farmland and rural roads, flowing creeks and rivers winding throughout.
Iowa's landscape 'has a music to it. It's very rhythmical and it has it's own energy, even though it may not be apparent,' he said. 'But I think that's kind of my job, to bring some of that out because that's how I feel about it.'
Easker is a full-time artist and is far from starving: His paintings, which are priced at $8 per square inch, can be found all over the country and internationally. Closer to home, he currently has work in galleries here in Cedar Rapids as well as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Tulsa and Des Moines.
His long list of commissioned work includes a piece for the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids and one for the civic building in Ottumwa, which houses his largest painting to date, at 36 by 150 inches.
'I've been really fortunate that what I'm interested in doing, there are people interested in buying it ...
It's very gratifying to do work that people find interesting enough to pay for,' he said.
The key to being a successful artist, he said, is putting your heart into it because otherwise 'it's not going to be much fun.'
Before committing all his time to painting, though, Easker held a variety of other positions including teaching at Linn-Mar Community Schools for seven years, working at the Cedar Rapids Art Center (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art) for three years and serving as a volunteer with the Granger House in Marion for 15 years, the last five of which he served as the paid director.
He's dabbled in a number of different kinds of art, as well — such as stained glass and a brief stint with woodworking — but ultimately stuck with oil painting, mostly because of the 'rich colors' the oil paint provides.
He was first inspired by Iowa's landscape while commuting from Cedar Rapids to the University of Iowa for art history classes in 1990.
He made a goal to paint 10 paintings of the landscape, and hasn't stopped since.
'I've been doing them for 20 years and I've done well over 300 paintings,' he said, adding that ideas for more paintings have yet to cease. 'I'm a very visual person, and in your environment there's all kinds of wonderful things to see if you just look.'
When it's time to start a new painting, Easker hops in his car, camera in hand, and drives through country roads in search of picturesque spots — usually a place where the light hits just right. Some days, he comes home without snapping a single photograph. Other times, he returns with a plethora of new ideas.
Once bunkered in his basement studio, which smells strongly of — you guessed it — paint, Easker browses his photos on his computer. An earlier method of spreading 4-by-6 prints across the floor, piecing them together to find a perfect composition, is obsolete.
After finding a photo he likes, he sketches it — or part of it — on a canvas and paints a rough outline. From there, he'll refine it until it's finished. As for how long exactly, Easker doesn't know.
'Tweaking can take a long time, but that's the big pay off,' he said.
The painting he's currently working on — a striking scene of rolling hills in fall colors behind a marsh in the foreground — already has clocked in at 40 hours and still it isn't quite done.
'Every artist has some insecurity about what they do,' he said, explaining that the end result is seldom 'completely satisfying.' But it can be helpful to walk away for a little while, and then to see it with fresh eyes.
Eventually, he ends with something he's proud of.
'Even if I'm not totally happy with it, if I don't know what else to do with it, it's done,' he said.
His paintings are almost always real places. In fact, at the suggestion of his daughter-in-law, he's considering a book with paintings paired with GPS coordinates. But for now, that's just an idea.
'People say to me, 'Oh, I saw this place and it looks just like one of your paintings,' and that's nice because it really means that my vision is framing someone else's vision,' he said, adding that he once received a letter from a woman saying she could almost smell the dirt while viewing one of his paintings.
'I do hear from people that they react to it in a spiritual way, which is something I never thought would happen,' he said. 'Those kinds of things are really cool to hear.'
Easker's latest interest is in Northeast Iowa, where he said the hills are a little more 'exaggerated' and 'extreme.'
'What I'm really interested in is the bluffs,' he said. 'The way they trap light at certain times of the day they create certain kinds of visual mysteries ...
There's a lot of wide areas of water, but then these little islands that at dusk are just these mysterious places.'
He used to get up as early as 3 a.m. to make the drive north in time for dawn, but now he and his wife own a home and rent a studio in Lansing.
Even at 70, Easker has no plans to stop.
'I've been doing this for so long, I can't imagine not painting at this point ...
If I weren't doing this, I don't know what else I would do,' he said. 'It's a great way to spend your day and your life.'