The Painter Teaches

Winter in Paris (c) John Salminen

                                                            INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SALMINEN


Hello, John. Kiitos for doing this interview. I first encountered you as an art teacher at Duluth Denfeld High School.

JS: .  

My interest in teaching dates back to the 1960’s. When I declared myself as an Art Major, I realized that, in the name of practicality, I would need to consider earning a living, and teaching seemed a good insurance policy. I was hired after graduation and discovered I really enjoyed working with kids. I retired after 33 years, and I can honestly say I enjoyed my job right up to my last day. I spent, roughly a decade at each of Duluth’s 3 public high schools, and while each school had superficial differences, the constant factor was the relationship I maintained with the art students. In the twenty-plus years since I last taught, I still derive great pleasure from emails and Facebook contacts with former students and it’s gratifying to know their time in the art room meant a great deal to them, as it did to me.


How did you come to specialize and become known primarily as a watercolorist?


In the early 1980’s I was introduced to Cheng Khee Chee. Fellow East art teacher, Mel Kumsha and I took a series of Continuing Education watercolor classes from Chee, and I realized I’d found my medium. Chee is an excellent teacher and I soon found myself focused on learning as much as I could from him and from the larger realm of contemporary watermedia. I had no idea at the time that I would become a significant contributor to modern watercolor medium.


With a surname of “Salminen”, you obviously have Finnish heritage.


I’m Finn on my Father’s  side and Dutch on my Mother’s. My dad grew up on a subsistence farm in Florenton MN. His upbringing was difficult and he spoke no English until entering the Virginia, Minnesota public schools. Like many first-generation Americans, he wanted to put his immigrant upbringing behind him and become “American”. He left Northern Minnesota and never looked back.

As a result, my brother and I were not very aware of our cultural ties to Finland. As I began to wonder about my Dad’s growing up and our Finnish heritage, his recollections had begun to fade. Given Finland’s global contributions, its high standard of living and top education system, I’m proud to have a Finnish surname, but my contact is primarily vicarious. 


I’ve seen your paintings in galleries and online and it seems you love depicting the hustle and bustle of cities.


As an artist, I’m best known for my urban landscapes. John Salminen, Master of the Urban Landscape (published by Penguin Random House) is an excellent overview of my work. I think my fascination with city scenes comes from the fact that my wife Kathy and I live in a log home situated on one hundred and ten acres of Northern  Minnesota real estate: in the deep woods. To me,  big cities, the vibrant hustle and bustle and visual chaos is exotic and very exciting.

Once I decided I wanted to make my mark as a professional painter, I realized I needed to hone my skills ( practice, practice, practice) and establish credibility within the profession. This occurred in a couple of ways.

First, attaining signature membership in national professional organizations, which is accomplished through acceptance in competitive exhibitions. After my signature on my paintings, I display the initials of two top organizations: AWS ( American Watercolor Society) and NWS ( National Watercolor Society). These are hard-won distinctions and I display them proudly.

Additionally, publication in national magazines enhances one’s artistic credibility. The route to publication includes having work displayed in national exhibitions. These exhibitions are competitive. Over the years the acceptances began to outweigh the rejections, and eventually, publishers noticed. It’s through involvement in highly competitive shows and achieving high-profile awards that my work came to the  attention of the international art community. As a result, I’ve been invited to represent the United States in numerous international forums. This is something I never dared to imagine from the perspective of a public-school teacher.


You’ve exhibited your work and painted all over the world.


International travel has been a wonderful perc of being part of the global art community. I’ve just returned from a trip to Scotland. I was invited to teach for a week and also spent several weeks visiting Edinburgh and the remote Northwest coast. I work primarily from photos I take on location, and I’ll be devoting my studio time to painting Scottish scenes for a while.


You remain active as a mentor to aspiring artists and as a judge in international competitions.


My career as a teacher has continued uninterrupted since I left the Duluth Public Schools. I now teach week-long workshops throughout the country. My students are adults and are highly motivated to expand their skills and understanding of painting. I find I still love teaching. After twenty years of traveling for workshops, I’m about to slow down and spend more time devoted to my first love … painting! I also judge competitive exhibitions and I find this is a good way to keep in touch with my painting peers. Folks always wonder how you judge artwork, and the answer is simple: pick your favorites. Of course, my definition of “favorites” has been honed over the years and results from the willingness of generations of students to generously share their work with me. Thanks to each and every artist, from high school students to International Masters who have shaped my vision and enabled me to continue to contribute.

Kiitos, John! See more of John’s amazing work at . (This interview first appeared in the Finnish American Reporter.)
















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