GVSU professor to lecture on local artist’s life, legacy

GVL / Courtesy - gvsu.edu

GVL / Courtesy – gvsu.edu

Jenny Adkins

The art of German immigrant Mathias J. Alten fills the homes of Michiganders, decorates historic furniture and dominates the walls of Grand Valley State University’s George and Barbara Gordon Gallery. Alten’s life will be explored Wednesday, Feb. 21, as professor Ellen Adams delivers a lecture titled “Mathias J. Alten: The Artist As Worker.”

Adams, a professor in art history at GVSU, will discuss the legacy of the Grand Rapids artist. Her lecture and the paired reception are part of the gallery’s efforts to provide a seasonal event on Alten.

“We’ve been doing a lot more research into the life of Mathias J. Alten,” said program coordinator Stacey Burn. “The event is an opportunity to, at the end of the day, have a cup of coffee, meet up with people, and then professor Adams will then provide the lecture. So, it will be a short event, but a good opportunity to learn about Alten, the life of an artist during a time of modernization, meet some people and have a snack.”

The lecture will be held in the gallery, where guests will be surrounded by Alten’s art. The gallery holds the largest public collection of Alten’s work in the world.

“If people haven’t been to the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery before, it’s a great, great space,” Burns said. “People will sit right in the gallery space for the lecture. It’s a very intimate, traditional, beautiful kind of space.”

For Joel Zwart, curator of exhibitions at GVSU, the setting of the exhibit and lecture on the Pew Campus is important becauset of the close ties Alten had to the city of Grand Rapids. Zwart said Alten’s prowess as an American Regionalist painter earned him the common title as the “Dean of Michigan painters.”

“He is the most significant artist who lived in and worked out of … this area,” Zwart said via email. “His work has ties to both the physical landscape of Michigan, as well as the cultural and socioeconomic history of Grand Rapids. … From an aesthetic point of view, his work is well-composed and of a high quality.”

Alten’s pieces not only capture his world travels but the changing landscapes within the U.S. Burns said the lecture is both an opportunity to learn about a distinguished local artist and a lifetime of U.S. history.

“It’s interesting to hear about the life and work and how this working artist survived, but also I think his life (was) very interesting in the context of his time,” Burns said. “It was (during) the Industrial Revolution and modernization, and (Alten was) capturing a changing world.”

The reasoning behind giving lectures like Adams’ is to share and foster an appreciation of Alten’s story, Zwart said. 

“It’s not only important, but—as holders of such a fine collection with links to Michigan art, culture and history—it is our duty to share his story,” Zwart said. “(It is) the story of an immigrant who established himself in a community and contributed mightily to the economy and artistic history of West Michigan, the story of an artist who traveled extensively to improve his craft, achieved a high level of success among American painters and always returned to Grand Rapids.”

With all the varying aspects of study that Alten’s life covers, Burns said the lecture will expand students’ knowledge and provide them with new insight, regardless of their focus or interests in school. 

“Everyone has their own perceptions,” Burns said. “Whatever piece they learn about, I hope there’s one piece of information (guests) take away that really adds to their (perception) about the life of an artist or taps into something else they’re studying here at Grand Valley.”