It was the end of an era as Don Rowe, professor emeritus, retired and passed the baton to his successor, Donald VanAuken. Rowe taught fine arts at Olivet College for more than 47 years, and in May of 2015, retired after teaching his final painting class here at Olivet.
VanAuken, or “Don 2.0” as some students jokingly called him, studied at the Kendall College of Art and Design before completing his masters of fine arts in painting at Ohio University in 2007. He was born and raised in Bellevue, a town merely 15 minutes west of Olivet. In a way, he has come full circle.
He paints with a bright, frenetic style that draws the viewer in through little details that often go unseen at first glance. Inspired by the world around him, VanAuken often inserts everyday objects that he encounters in surprising ways. In one of his most recent paintings, VanAuken included a rabbit, and a local historical figure, Paul Mulvany.
“During the summer, I was out exploring our new property – my wife and I had just bought a house with a bit of land in Marshall – and a rabbit jumped out from behind a shed and scared the living daylights out of me,” VanAuken said. “As for historical figure, he was one of the largest landowners in the early days of Marshall, and this painting was my way of inventing a story for him.”
In contrast to the bright colors and cartoonish drips, which are common factors in all of his paintings, there is a macabre undercurrent in his works, a sense of disconnect that isn’t felt until the viewer has truly looked at the paintings. It is evident that he is influenced by the pop surrealism movement, and VanAuken states that he was enraptured with cartoons and comic books as a child, which has found its way into his work, where some parts of his paintings are less rendered, less realistic. According to VanAuken, he also has a “real affinity” for the Old Masters, evident in the way some of his images are almost hyper-realistic, and authentic.
As for how VanAuken is settling in at Olivet, professor of art Gary Wertheimer and Cynthia Eller, assistant professor of art had some insights on VanAuken’s first semester. “We’re incredibly lucky to have found him. He’s really diverse – he has experience in pretty much everything from painting, to print making, to art history. He stepped up and filled in gaps where we’d been left high and dry in the eleventh hour,” Wertheimer said.
“He’s truly an engaging artist and professor, pushing students to submit their work to juried exhibitions – which is extremely hard for students to get in to – and is always volunteering to help out, even on weekends,” said Eller.
VanAuken describes Olivet College as his “dream school”, and that its academic approach to the fine arts is “the best [he’s] seen.” It’s always uneasy when first starting a new job, and he felt like he had a lot of catching up to – so over the summer he spent his days figuring out the nuances of each individual printing press, and constantly looking to improve himself and his art.
Before coming to Olivet, VanAuken taught at Battle Creek Public Schools, and worked at several art museums. Eventually, he realized he wanted to teach at the collegiate level, so he returned to graduate school at Ohio University, where he and his wife lived for three years. Following his graduation, they moved to Minneapolis for a two-year stint in the city before returning to Michigan, where he would teach at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Kellogg Community College and Jackson College. He taught large classes at each of the three schools, often traveling to all three throughout the week, so when VanAuken came to Olivet, the small, family-feel and one-on-one student interaction was like a dream come true. He said it was a series of weird occurrences that led to him coming to Olivet, and both Wertheimer and Eller said they hope he stays for quite some time.
Artwork by Donald VanAuken/Courtesy photo