By Patrick Winderl
The skeletons of two pigs hang suspended in the corner of the room, each adorned with a cheerful striped necktie. A half-clothed mannequin stares blankly from its position near a wall of west-facing windows that bathe the room in light. Two hastily arranged circles of desks are surrounded by empty wine bottles, lanterns, plants, two radios and a stringless guitar.
No, it's not something out of a Stanley Kubrick movie. It is where Joel Soiseth teaches art.
An associate professor of arts and graphic design at Montana State University-Northern, Soiseth said he has been passionate about art his entire life.
"I have done drawing and painting ever since I was a little kid," he said. "So it was natural for me to become an art teacher."
Well, maybe the transition wasn't quite that smooth. Soiseth graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology before he returned to the University of North Dakota to earn a master of fine arts degree.
"Initially I was interested in being a psychologist, but then I decided that was just not what I wanted to do," he said.
Soiseth obtained the master's degree in 1983, and has taught at MSU-Northern since 1988. He teaches courses in painting, drawing, illustration and photography.
The mid-17th century Dutch painter Vermeer is Soiseth's favorite painter, though he said he is also inspired by artists from the Photo-Realism Movement and the Baroque Era.
"I find Vermeer to be especially interesting because he represents a group of Dutch painters from the mid-1600s who were the first to cater to middle-class clients," Soiseth said. "The content of the art really changed during that period."
One of Soiseth's paintings was recently awarded first place at an art show in Miles City. An untitled oil painting on hardwood received the honor from among a field of about 160 entries, Soiseth said.
The 24th annual Southeastern Art Show in the Custer County Art Gallery displayed artwork from more than 70 artists, Soiseth said. The show is a juried exhibition, which means that a juror selected the works to be displayed from a field of entrants. The juror then gives awards to particularly outstanding work.
"Juried shows are important because it's a way for artists to get their work shown," Soiseth said. "The competition is pretty intense within the shows, so just being accepted is pretty exciting. For some reason, they gave the first-place award to me. To receive an award is a great affirmation to what you're doing."
The juror for the art show in Miles City was Walter Piehl, the director of the arts department for Minot State University.
Soiseth said he prefers painting on hardwood rather than canvas because hardwood provides a smooth painting surface.
"Canvas is a little more difficult because it has texture and give," he said.
Typically, Soiseth will draw a sketch of the future painting in pencil on the hardwood, and then use three to four layers of paint to create the final image. Each layer adds texture and depth to the image. Soiseth said he might use a photograph as a reference to paint from, but he also employs a variety of models for inspiration.
"It's a combination of a lot of different things," he said. "I use several layers of imagination. Some things are real, tangible objects, and other things are invented."
A painting on a piece of hardwood might take between 50 and 100 hours to complete, Soiseth said.
The associate professor said he tries to paint at least three days a week in addition to teaching classes.
"Occasionally I paint with the class to demonstrate technique," he said. "But for the most part, my work is for myself. I paint because I enjoy it."