Street smarts

John Salminen

Artist John Salminen speaks with Margaret VanDyken about his painting “Grant Lanterns,” which she purchased.

Artist John Salminen speaks with Margaret VanDyken about his painting “Grant Lanterns,” which she purchased.

Photo by AMY BECK

John Salminen’s exhibit “In Urban Light” is on view at Stremmel Gallery, 1400 S. Virginia St., through July 31. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information, call 786-0558 or visit

Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And what sharpens the senses, amplifies your capacity for wonder, and makes the ol’ ocular system feel new again like traveling?

Painter John Salminen, who visited Reno last week for his exhibit at Stremmel Gallery, makes what are technically travel pictures. But you won’t see a Golden Gate Bridge or a Statue of Liberty in his New York and San Francisco street scenes.

“We live in northern Minnesota, 40 acres of woods, so when I go to New York everything I see is exotic,” he says. “I have artist friends in New York City who’ve seen these scenes, and they tell me they would never think to photograph them.”

Instead, he finds the magic in the mundane. Salminen once noticed a dozen shades of liquid-eye-candy brown on a rusted security gate at a Manhattan dry cleaner’s shop. He mapped them out attentively as if they were one of those famous landmarks he “studiously avoids.” In a dreamy picture of San Francisco at rush hour, the frame is completely filled with buildings and steep streets crowded with late-model vehicles, with not even a peek at the sky. Somehow, it feels like a breath of fresh air.

He photographs on location, then translates the picture into a watercolor painting.

“The camera gives you too much information,” he says.

Salminen, who exudes a level of patience quite possibly honed during the 32 years he taught high school, likens his process to that of a playwright or a composer, who pores over details, making hundreds of decisions about what stays in the work, what gets edited out.

“The trick is not to show it,” he says. It doesn’t show. Though the process can be laborious—each painting takes maybe 40 to 60 hours—the paintings come off with definite spontaneity.

Salminen says the thing that most draws him to a scene is the light quality. Whether he’s depicting San Francisco Bay fog, colorless but eminently present, or Central Park sunshine filtered through the leaves of towering elms (a technical challenge for a painter, tricky to the point of intimidating, he confesses), he uses the transparence of watercolors to its fullest effect. Once the paint is dry, light passes right through it and bounces off the paper, which helps him achieve that pitch-perfect sky.

“If you really get value, you can get a painting that’s not just an afternoon painting—it’s 3:15 p.m. in the northern latitude,” says Salminen. He understands value. He taught darkroom photography for many of those 32 years.

His speech is constructed a lot like his paintings, thoughtful and complete, with the range of details you could use on a given subject condensed down to a few choice morsels. He likes the way that works in his paintings, how it can leave a viewer’s reading of his artwork open to their own experiences or interpretations.

“If I can keep it a little detached, I can make a more general statement,” he says. Viewers have related strongly to one New York scene, for example, as sadly lonely or wonderfully exuberant.

Strolling through the mostly empty Stremmel Gallery on a quiet Friday morning, the calmly engaging Salminen, with neatly cropped gray-to-white hair, a sweatshirt, and hiking shoes, looks like his next appointment might be on a hiking trail. Actually, he and his wife were planning a bike ride at Lake Tahoe the following day. He might not even pull out his camera. A glorious, royal-blue, watery foreground with snowy peaks in the distance might be too iconic for his taste, and Salminen’s job isn’t to record what’s iconic. It’s to create it.