Donald L. Esse’s ‘George’

George by Donald L. Esse, Pencil, 30 x 40

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded an honorable mention: Donald L. Esse and his drawing George.

George captured my attention by its perceived simplicity: an older man in a chair with a newspaper folded on his lap, looking back at me with sad, intelligent eyes. Donald captures the light falling across his subject in a way that makes the viewer wonder what lies below the surface of the man who has one arm posed to pull himself out of his chair and his other arm seeming to hold himself back, his hand covering his mouth. I wanted to know more about this drawing and asked Donald to share the backstory:

George is a dear friend I got to know about 10 years ago. At that time, he was a very active, vital person with a quick wit and sharp memory. He’s a very insightful, generous and compassionate man who cares deeply about people in need. He is also a voracious reader who loves his daily StarTribune. He is twice a widower, never had children and has no immediate family. I have sort of become the son he never had.

George is keenly aware of his declining physical and mental health, I wanted to portray the reality that each of us must face our own mortality. Over the past two years, dementia has taken a toll on his memory and my role has shifted from friend to part-time caregiver. As our friendship developed, I was struck by George’s uncanny ability to sum up a complex thought in just a few quick words. Despite his declining cognitive abilities, he still has periods where that ability shines through. He still loves to engage in a lively political discussion or speak out about social injustice, especially after the murder of George Floyd and the covid 19 pandemic. In my humble opinion, the world would be a better place if there were more people like my friend George. In a nutshell, I wanted to try to capture some of these qualities about George in a portrait and make a statement about honoring and respecting our older generations.

A big factor in my doing his portrait was George’s encouragement. In 2005, I was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer that had spread to my liver. I was given only a 5% chance of survival beyond the end of that year. Somehow, I survived and have been cancer-free since 2009. But the emotional and physical toll the battle took was crushing. I went through a very dark period over the past 5 years, trying to figure out why I’m still here. I pretty much gave up on myself and my art. But George kept after me to get back to the easel. He lost his first wife to cancer so he knew exactly what I had been through. With his encouragement, I got back to my drawing board and easel, he truly inspired and challenged me to get back to what I love. For that, I wanted to immortalize this man!

I have been an artist my entire life (67yrs old), spent my working career as a commercial artist with MN ad agencies for 33 years. My first accepted entry in the MN State Fair Competition was a pencil drawing I created in 1994. Over the years, I have had several oil paintings accepted in the exhibit as well. Although I thoroughly enjoy oil painting, I believe my strong suit is in my pencil work. My last accepted entry was in 2012, so I am absolutely thrilled and honored that my portrait of George was accepted and given an honorable mention in this year’s exhibit!

The portrait of George expresses an inner struggle of facing one’s own mortality, something all of us contend with sooner or later. Donald’s photo-realistic pencil marks create a meditation that recognizes and honors that struggle.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog.

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