If Van Gogh Had a Van
Paintings of naked women sell better than landscapes. Patrick Ginter knows this principle of commerce firsthand. But lately he has been spending most of his time working on landscapes, mainly of Lake Calhoun. He favors big, bold brush strokes and bright colors--a variation on the expressionist style he's been experimenting with for about three decades.
"I've always loved doing nudes of women," he says with a shrug and a smile. "But it's hard to find a good model."
With that thought, Ginter rummages through the stack of canvases stored in the back of his battered Econoline van, which is bursting with the majority of his worldly possessions. Eventually, he digs out a favorite. It's a portrait of a dancer he once knew. Her eyes are closed, a cigarette protrudes from between her lips, and one perfectly round breast peeks out from a ruffled blouse. She was a little crazy, Ginter says, but he was grateful for her cooperation. After all, there are only so many women willing to pose in the raw--especially when your studio happens to be wherever you park the van.
So these days, Ginter concentrates on the landscapes. In good weather, he usually spends his afternoons on the southern shore of Lake Calhoun, where he and a few other painters take advantage of the panoramic view of the downtown skyline. Ginter typically reserves his mornings for his other art--playing guitar. If you happen to walk by his van, which he parks in out-of-the-way spots that he prefers to keep secret, you might hear him tearing off bluesy riffs through a little, battery-powered amp.
"There's one homeless transvestite who comes down here a lot when I'm playing," Ginter says. "Interesting character. Seems to really enjoy the music. Usually, he's with this Mexican fellow, hauling cans to the salvage yards."
Sometimes, when Ginter is stuck in the musical frame of mind, he paints portraits of famous musicians. People like celebrity paintings almost as much as naked-lady paintings. So, nestled in the stack of cityscapes and strippers, he's got portraits of Jim Morrison ("It's amazing--everybody's still fascinated by that guy"), Keith Richards ("I'm kind of hoping I can get him to autograph my guitar at the Xcel"), and, naturally, the great Minnesota maestro, Bob Dylan.
Ginter is Minnesotan through and through. He grew up in Owatonna and, over the years, has bounced between mid-sized southern Minnesota communities, where he usually winters, and the Twin Cities, where he summers. He has never been much for settling down or straight labor or the regular life. "Yeah, I've worked in factories, odd jobs here and there," he explains. "But I'm really not very good at working for people. I guess I can't take orders."
For the past several years, Ginter says, he has been working harder on his art. He always wanted to paint--at least, since his days as a college student at Mankato State in the early '80s. "My art degree was finished 10 times over but I never finished my general ed classes," he chuckles, then comes to a dead pause. "I really shouldn't laugh. But I just could never get through that shit. That was back in the wild days and it was pretty much nonstop partying."
When Ginter first moved to Minneapolis in the early '90s, he figured he would pursue twin careers in art and music. But as he and countless others before him have learned, it's not enough to want to be an artist. So, looking to make some cash, he got into the flower business and began selling roses from a cart in downtown Minneapolis. It didn't take long for grander ambitions to fall by the wayside.
Over time, Ginter painted less, played guitar less, thought about the future less. Scraping by on meager earnings, he also saw "a lot of that rough side of life"--street people, gangsters, junkies, bums. For a long time, it didn't bother him; he wasn't much for judging others. "I can understand that outsider life, because, to a certain extent, that's the way I've always lived. At 47, I'm still a rebellious son of a bitch," he says. "And you know, there were some good people in gangs that used to buy flowers from me all the time. It wasn't like they were all bad."
His perspective dimmed considerably one Sunday about five years ago. After a night of selling roses downtown, Ginter had cut through an alley at Fifth and Hennepin when a stranger approached him: "He asked me, 'Hey, you got any change?' And then all of a sudden someone else blindsided me. I don't know what he hit me with. Maybe a pipe. I don't know. But I do know I must have had a concussion because I was foggy for a couple of days. They took $800 off me."
A few weeks later, Ginter had a frustrating run-in with a counterfeiter and a hassle with the cops; then his stepfather died. He recalls, "After all that heavy shit went down, I thought, 'This is stupid. I just don't want to be on the streets anymore.' Once you've been robbed, you get a whole other outlook. It made me think about the rest of my life, whether I wanted to be selling roses on the corner."
And so Ginter settled into the life of the vagabond artist. Hanging around the fringe as much as he does, Ginter has noticed the subtle and not so subtle changes in the fabric of the city. There are more homeless people than ever, more panhandlers, more tough guys. Squatting by his van--his paintings neatly displayed, customers nowhere to be found--he figures there has to be a better place. As he absently picks at a chunk of blue acrylic stuck to his forearm, he muses about a move to California.
"I think pretty much everything is obscene in this city," he finally says. "I know L.A. is probably even worse. But I just need to get a change."
Not long after, a gust of wind from the north blows the Dylan portrait to the grass, which is dappled with goose shit. Ginter springs to his feet to inspect the painting. It appears undamaged. He gathers up the rest of his canvases and climbs into the driver's seat, and the studio rolls down the road.
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