Wojtkiewicz serves up large-scale fruits and flowers

No one spends more time pondering the produce at his local grocery store than Dennis Wojtkiewicz.

It’s not because he’s a picky eater. The lemons, melons and other fruit that Wojtkiewicz eyes become the models for his large-scale realistic paintings.

Those fruit and flower works can be seen in “A Separate Reality,” an exhibition on display at the Butler Institute of American Art Trumbull Branch in Howland, and Wojtkiewicz will attend a meet-the-artist reception from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Wojtkiewicz, a professor of art at Bowling Green State University, said his style evolved over the years. He started out primarily as a figure painter, but he didn’t like that the subjects of his work were so identifiable. He started playing around with still-life paintings, setting up objects on a table the way still life painters have for centuries.

“They were nice paintings, but maybe a little too commonplace,” Wojtkiewicz said during a telephone interview. “If you’d seen one of my paintings then, it would have been hard to distinguish from a number of other real-life painters.”

That changed when he cut open one of the lemons he was going to paint.

“I was setting things up on a window sill,” Wojtkiewicz said. ” It was the right time of day, and the light came through the slice of lemon and it was prismatic, really beautiful. I guess you could say I was smart enough to take advantage of it.”

In the press release announcing the exhibition, Butler Executive Director Louis Zona says, “Dennis Wojtkiewicz is a colorist of the first order. Emphasizing light and transparency, the works explode with color. They are at once explorations of the delicate visual network within natural forms and pure abstraction. This is an exhibition that will inspire and entertain — a treat for the eye and the mind.”

His work has been shown at international art fairs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Santa Fe and Toronto, as well as in galleries and exhibitions throughout the United States. He also is a past recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Individual Fellowships.

The precision and detail of the works is extraordinary, particularly when a slice of citrus or a single flower bloom fills a canvas that is 4-foot-by-4-foot and larger. But he doesn’t describe his work as photorealism.

“I don’t consider my work to be photorealistic,” he said. “I want people to have a deeper experience, a richer kind of experience than, ‘Does it look like a photograph?’ I would term it, ‘Do you feel the light?’ It’s more of a sensory thing.”

He sees both his fruit and floral paintings as an exploration of light, how it illuminates the translucent flesh of a lemon or orange or how it plays across the surfaces of the flowers. And the size of the canvas is an important part of the experience.

“I’ve always liked the idea of these being a bit more cinematic,” he said. “If you paint smaller, it’s a more intimate kind of experience. You have to walk up to the picture … You can experience these paintings from a distance, but I also want people to come up and look closely at what I do.”

Wojtkiewicz prefers to walk through gardens with his camera rather than visit florists when picking flowers to paint. However, the fruits usually come from the Kroger and Meijer stores near his home in Bowling Green. Except for the melons, he can find subject-worthy fruits year round, but not without some effort.

“I can’t imagine what I look like in the produce section really examining a lemon,” he said. “I don’t want it to be misshapen.”

And even if the exterior shape is right, the interior might not be.

“Sometimes I’ll open the first one and something magical is there. Sometimes I have to go through 20 or 30 so, yeah, I could be cutting and cutting and cutting until I see the patterns.”

The works in “A Separate Reality” recently were shown at the Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham, Mich., which is why Wojtkiewicz had a show available to hang when he was contacted about a last-minute opening on the Butler’s schedule.

“I usually don’t have this kind of body of work available,” he said. “It was serendipitous in a way.”

It will be his first time showing at the Butler, which has a special significance to him. Wojtkiewicz studied at the Atelier Neo-Medici in France with artist Patrick Betaudier in 1978 and 1983, and Betaudier had a solo exhibition at the Butler in Youngstown.

“He’s the fellow who really taught me how to paint as a graduate student,” he said. “On a personal level, having my own solo show there makes me think of him, how he’s no longer with us and how he’s connected to the Butler.”