The Unkept Property of the Mind -- An Interview with Calvin Edward Ramsburg
By Matt Lee
Fred Aesthetic, The Frederick Arts Council's Arts Magazine
Down a creaking set of wooden stairs, Calvin “Ed” Ramsburg leads me into the subterranean studio at his home in downtown Frederick. The dim light of a single bare bulb casts shadows across the walls, lined on one side with an impressive array of books on every subject, and with heaps of paint, brushes, and canvases on the other. Ed shows me some of his latest work, an ambitious series of 50 pieces he calls “Street Harvest,” which harkens back to a painting he did around the time his artwork was first featured in a professional gallery show, nearly thirty years ago. “I thought it’d be really good to visit what I consider the movement in my own work that was me settling into my own style,” Ed explains, as he rummages through his archive until he finds what he’s looking for.
On a massive easel, Ed lines up part of the “Street Harvest.” As I gaze at the set of three paintings, I become immersed in the detail, vivid layers of color bleeding into each other, every inch covered by strange textures and intricate design. For a moment I become lost, transported to another world. The spell is broken when Ed’s cat, Ginger, darts between my legs and disappears behind one of the many bookshelves.
Ed tells me that he’s been making art since the moment he could sit up. As a child, the fields and forests around Gambrill State Park became his playground, embedding those wooded landscapes deep into his psyche. After seeing a student art show, Ed decided he wanted nothing more than to have a painting of his own hanging on display. Throughout high school, Ed drew obsessively, “mostly birds and spaceships,” he tells me. He quickly established himself as a rising talent, but if you had asked him what he thought about abstract expressionism, he would have scoffed. “I couldn’t understand why you’d paint something that didn’t look like what it was supposed to. I was a slow learner.” It would take a challenge from renowned Vietnamese artist, Mai Vo-Dinh, to push Ed out of his comfort zone.
This new medium had provided Ed with a new artistic language. While painting every day at a feverish pace, he started to realize that there was an internal conflict ripping him in two. It wasn’t until he was able to marry his newfound passion for abstract painting with his initial love of illustration. It took years of non-stop experimentation, but at last Ed had truly found his voice. “I was almost two different people. There was this drawing and there was this pure painting. I was really good at pure painting, but I was not whole. So when I finally decided to work that drawing back into the painting, that’s when it hit, and that was the ‘Street Harvest.’”
Much has changed for Ed since then, both in terms of his style and his achievements. Ed’s work has been featured in hundreds of shows throughout the continent. He has become a mainstay at the Delaplaine Arts Center, teaching abstract painting in a way very much akin to his mentor, Vo-Dinh. His students, though Ed doesn’t like to use that word, never cease to surprise him with how quickly they find the language of abstraction that so eluded him. “They take one idea and just go in so many different ways. It’s like seeing all the infinite possibilities from one particular start.” For Ed, collaboration is essential.
When he’s not drawing inspiration from his students, Ed turns to literature and films to stimulate his imagination. As a result, even the most abstract of Ed’s paintings has a tendency towards the narrative. He is as much a storyteller as he is an artist, intent on taking the viewer into his world. To engage with audiences in this way is a privilege, but also a responsibility for the artist, who must deliver on the initial hook. “When you’ve invited them into your world, you better have something there for them to look at.”
Even a master can have failed experiments from time to time. This is no concern for Ed, simply because “every bad painting can be a good under-painting. It makes these odd relationships from the first to last layer.” Through a combination of intuition and editing, as well as advice from his wife, Mary Jo, Ed traverses the multiple paths every painting can take, organically following towards an inevitable conclusion. How he gets these is all part of the fun. In essence, this is why Ed paints, to make a mess and play. A grin on his face, he declares, “It’s a celebration. Why the hell are you doing it if it’s not fun?”