Seeing the Forest for the Trees

By Dale McEntire.

By Dale McEntire.

Polk County has a long and illustrious tradition as a creative hub. The artistic seed planted by Native American travelers bloomed with the arts and crafts brought by European settlers and matured with more recent arrivals in the early 20th century. Homer Ellertson, George Aid, Eleanor Vance, Lawrence Mazzanovich and a host of other Midwestern and northeastern transplants made Polk County’s, and especially Tryon’s, reputation as a center of the arts.

But it was all built on a sturdy local foundation, one that continues to nurture native-born creative instincts and artists like Dale McEntire, whose family heritage goes back several generations in Polk County and whose 30-year career as a painter and sculptor has been fostered by his deep Foothills roots. “Dale plumbs the depths of his talent more than most artists to achieve work that’s constantly fresh, brilliant, and thrilling,” says Nancy Holmes, the executive director of The Upstairs Artspace, which frequently shows Dale’s work.

An early connection with the Upstairs Gallery, as it was called in its early years, developed after Dale had returned to Tryon in 1979, after attending Mercer University and working in a corporate advertising and display department. “The gallery was very experimental in its early days,” Dale recalls. “My art training had been a little more traditional, so I didn’t always know how to interpret some of the work I saw there. But I’m grateful it was there. To get that kind of exposure in a small town was a gift.”

At Mercer in the 1970s, the curriculum was tilted toward the abstract and Pop Art movements of the time, with little room for more traditional figurative work. But along with his exposure to the Upstairs’ combination of experimental and performance art, Dale began studying with the German-born artist Karl Loshe, visiting Loshe’s home in Tryon’s Gillette Woods on Saturday mornings. (The house, coincidentally, had been built by Homer Ellertson.) “Karl taught me how to see things as they were and to try to render them accordingly, before I got too creative,” Dale says. “Early on my work was awkward, but that was how I needed to learn.”

Loshe’s influence began to turn Dale toward more representational painting, and especially toward landscape and the underlying patterns of the mountain terrain Dale had known since his childhood. It was a perception shared with earlier artists like Kandinsky and Burchfield, whose geometric forms showed Dale the way to a new dictionary of form. “I went through a period where geometry was transposed over the way I rendered objects and atmospheres in nature. I’ve tried to develop a library of symbolic forms that helps me express what I’m making, whether it’s painting or sculpture.” Among these forms are the curves, chevrons, cubes and spirals that recur in Dale’s two and three-dimensional pieces — shapes that refer to an older tradition even more basic to Dale’s heritage.

“I’ve always had a real passion for Native American culture and teachings,” Dale says. “The regalia and adornment of this culture has always been very attractive to me.” Drawn to the work of contemporary Native American artists like Kevin Red Star and Jerome Tiger, the bond to landscape became even stronger. “I wanted to connect closer to the land myself,” Dale explains, “so my work eventually developed me into a plein air painter.”

Soon, natural forms became mated with Native American motifs in collage-like, earth-toned arrangements of branches, leaves and grasses laid against the triangle bordered patterns of Native American textiles.

Tryon provided a third connection that would determine the direction of Dale’s future work. It came in the person of a young German visitor named Carsten Eggers, the son of the German Expressionist painter Richard Eggers. The two young men struck up a friendship and painted together during Carsten’s time in Tryon, bringing an invitation to visit the Eggers family in northern Germany. During the visit, the elder Eggers studied and commented on Dale’s work; and although Dale never adopted the more spare, Expressionist style of the artist, the experience proved useful. “I think to push yourself into making things you aren’t comfortable with or knowledgeable about is the best way to grow,” Dale notes. “I tell my friends that the experience was one of not opening any doors, but it did raise the windows for me.” Dale’s landscapes do, in fact, hint at the skeletal and angular bias of mid-20th century European expressionism, but use the softer palette and more gentle lines of the Impressionists.

After 20 years as a painter, Dale took up sculpture in the early 1990s, when his wife Wendy gave him a Christmas gift of a sculpture class at Penland. “For me, sculpture is a natural partner to my two-dimensional work, and I find the two influence one another,” Dale says.

Many of the same influences and forms that appear in his work on canvas do, in fact, make their way into stone, including animal shapes drawn from his Native American interests and other works that spring, Noguchi-like, from pure form. Many of the works begin as paintings, like Volute, a kind of inverted cone fashioned from marble, cement and steel. “I had been thinking about a form that I felt would be symbolic of a positive force reaching upward toward enlightenment,” Dale says. “I painted this form a couple of times before I ever carved it.”

It was one of Dale’s first outdoor installation pieces, and will travel this spring to Salisbury, North Carolina’s, annual juried art show. Asheville’s River Sculpture Festival featured Dale’s largest piece to date, Crossing, a 25-foot long, brightly painted whimsy fashioned from steel, wood, and found objects, combined to look like a mashup of a giant wheel barrow and a ladder. “I designed it to look as though it was for a utilitarian purpose but in reality would not really produce the desired result,” Dale explains. “I enjoy putting work outside where the public can interact with it at their own pace.”

This spring and summer, Dale’s outdoor pieces can be seen not only in Salisbury, but at a juried art show in Cary, and at Asheville’s Grovewood Gallery; and this month, a selection of Dale’s paintings and drawings will be on display at Heartwood Gallery in Saluda, where Dale now lives and has his studio.

“My main objective in my sculpture and painting is to render beauty and positive form,” Dale says. “It’s not that I don’t see the negative and the challenging issues that surround us, but I want to produce something that allows the viewer a chance to connect with their own sensitivity to beauty. It’s all around us, too.”

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