Lyle Salmi's paintings seem to hum and shimmer with a life and light all their own. Their verticality brings to mind a cascade of water or fabric, and layers of color and texture reveal the impressionist, abstract and minimalist styles that inspire him. One won't find realism in Salmi's work: he enjoys pulling the unseen from the seen and wants the viewer to do the same.
"My ideas of reality coincide with the work that I do," he said. "I'm interested in ideas about physics. Physicists explore reality and see that there's more to it than what's easily seen, like gravity and molecules, and for me it's interesting that those underlying forces are what I identify with when I do a painting.
"My ideas of color and form and light melt together and create a vibration."
For 15 years, Salmi has been Associate Professor of Art at Millikin University. Once his students can reproduce a subject realistically, he teaches them to not only look at it, but to see it.
"My goal is to get them to look beyond the obvious and look into something deeply, and pull back out of it what could be really interesting," he said. "It's a real source of empowerment to them and they start to find their own voice. The next level of any artistry comes into interpretation, rather than in just repeating it."
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Salmi entered the world of art just as most of his students do: as a kid in grade school, he drew what interested him.
"I don't know if I thought of it as doing art," he said. "I just knew that I liked doing it. I always liked to draw. They weren't good drawings, just things boys liked to draw, like army men battling one another."
In the mean time, he pursued hockey and other sports throughout his school career in Eveleth, Minnesota, never focusing on art seriously until he entered college. His parents were concerned that he would be able to make a living doing what he loved, and he chose to study Commercial Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. But that didn't last long.
"I walked into the painting studio and loved everything, the smells of the turpentine and brushes and the paints," he said. "I started taking painting classes and realized studio art was more where I should focus."
Salmi completed his undergrad degree at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, worked some odd jobs rustproofing cars and in car dealerships, and was soon compelled to pursue his Master of Fine Arts. While staying with a friend in Arizona, he applied to the graduate program at Arizona State University and completed his MFA in 1988. He taught as a graduate student and for a time at Mesa Community College, and he knew then that he wanted to teach on a more permanent basis.
"Seeing the growth and knowing that a light bulb goes off with our students is what keeps all of us teachers in the game," he said.
It was at an annual conference in New York City that Salmi was made aware of a teaching position at Illinois State University. Still not yet settled in life and not afraid of change, Salmi made a major move once again and soon began teaching at Illinois State. While there, he heard about a position available at Millikin University-and he took it.
"I think when I was younger I was able to take more risks," he said. "I've never been afraid to say, let's see what happens."
Along the way, Salmi married (later divorced) and had a daughter, Alizarin, whom he named after one of his favorite red paint colors. Does she inspire his work? Not directly, he says. But all of his work is based upon the larger ideas of his life, and she certainly colors those ideas.
"I think all of our experiences that we live, mine come to me and sit there for a while and then are expressed," he said. "But my paintings are more about my larger ideas."
Salmi says that he is not nearly as meditative as his paintings are, but he sees his Scandinavian heritage reflected in his work.
"One of the hallmarks of Scandinavian design has been to combine the day-to-day and the universal and make some statement with design, to reflect the surroundings in a complex simplicity," he says. "I kind of feel like my paintings do that."
Salmi's paintings also intentionally reveal the creative process.
"Some things can take forever to finish, sometimes they fall right into place, and other times it just takes forever," he said. "I don't have complete control over that. I spend time in the studio working and have to have faith in the process that something good will happen. Sometimes it flows, and sometimes not. It's a lot of work then I hope that what I've done is somehow interesting.
"I just keep plugging away and hope that what I do has an influence on someone."