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A Working Artist
Editor’s Note: Celebrated South Dakota artist Marian Henjum died at her home in Sioux Falls on Sept. 24 at age 69. “She’s one of the state’s finest watercolorists,” Kara Dirkson, director of the Visual Arts Center at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “She just really embodied this sense of optimism and comfort in her work.” Henjum illustrated several South Dakota Magazine covers during her career and designed the state’s centennial postage stamp in 1989. We visited Henjum in her Sioux Falls studio in 1994, and this story appeared in our July/August 1994 issue.
Marian Henjum’s paintings depict the flowers, rocks, trees and plains she grew up with on a Garretson farm. Now she paints from a studio in Sioux Falls, where her designs are inspired from scenes outside the city limits.
|Marian Henjum in 1994.|
Life as an aspiring artist in South Dakota hasn't been easy. To support her watercolor habit, she has worked as a teacher, fashion illustrator, commercial artist and free-lance designer. Slowly, she won a reputation as one of South Dakota's most accomplished artists. Her works are in many private and public collections, including six permanent collections.
Upon graduation from Garretson High School, Henjum received a home economics scholarship to attend South Dakota State University in Brookings. She entered college with the goal of becoming a fashion illustrator. Eventually she dropped home economics as a major and went into art. After some time as an art major, Henjum decided she had to find a safety net because, as she said, "you don't often pick up the classified ads and see 'Help Wanted: Artist.' I took the education block of classes just to be safe."
After Henjum graduated from SDSU with high honors, she was offered an opportunity to teach. "When I was a senior in college, one of the professors took a sabbatical for a year so they asked me to take his place. It was like going to graduate school. I had to do a lot of research to get my stuff together. It was really good experience for me," she said.
Instead of just remaining for a year, she stayed for three before she moved to Sioux Falls to become a freelance artist. She covered all kinds of territory working as a fashion illustrator at Michael's and Burke's, art director at the Argus Leader and at an advertising agency. Henjum counts her time at these jobs as valuable in learning her trade as an artist. “I got to learn production and how to turn these things around fast,” she said. All during the time she worked on the commercial side of art, she continued to work with paint and went to art shows.
Today, Henjum works out of her home on the east side of Sioux Falls. Her studio in the basement looks like a small commercial artist's office. A drafting table sits under a window with a view of flowers in her back yard. A long shelf holds books of art and design above her desk. The wall opposite the window displays various pictures clipped from magazines for design ideas and drawings by nieces, nephews and the neighbor kids.
Henjum's paint of choice is watercolor. She was initially attracted to the medium while taking a course in college. “I just started working with it and I loved the spontaneity. I'm not one to sit and labor over anything, like you would with an oil painting. You put it down, it's dry, you've got to move ahead. It fits my personality I think.”
Another aspect of watercolor she enjoys is its unpredictability. “I like the way it happens. The nature of the medium is just so exciting and things happen that you just can't control. It's more exciting than other mediums,” she said.
Every characteristic of watercolor painting she lists suggests the need for speed and an almost athletic, concentrated effort. Henjum's paintings are large (she has a 4-by-8-foot table she uses to work on some paintings), and she takes little time in completing them. “I use big brushes, and it takes a lot out of me. Sometimes I do a painting in an hour. I put so much into it that I'm just pooped afterwards. That's the nature of the subject and the way I treat it,” she said.
Her most popular subjects are flowers, which Henjum likes because they lend themselves to working with elements of design and abstraction. “First of all I like all subject matter. I'm more interested in design, patterns and composition than I am in expressing an emotional statement about what is going on in the world today. I don't know if that is shallow or what. It's not as if I am not emotionally involved with politics. I like to stylize what I see around me. I've done a lot of floral paintings, but I don't feel that I am just a floral painter.”
Henjum plans to move into other subject areas and has entertained the idea of getting into figure painting. But subject matter has never been a limiting factor. “I like to do anything, mainly just designing what I see. I don't have to travel to China to paint something although that would be wonderful,” she said.
Her ability to quickly produce paintings has helped her keep up with the many commissions for her work. “I've always got at least two or three commission projects going. I just finished up some and I now I have a couple more. But before I get one done it seems a couple more come in.”
Commissioned work has been easier to come by in recent years. Henjum has noticed the attitude toward art in the area, and especially Sioux Falls, has improved.
“I think people's feelings toward art have changed a lot even in the last ten years or so. People want original art in their home more so than a print. This isn't Chicago or the West Coast, but it is going forward.”
About half of Henjum's commissioned works end up in private homes and the other half in businesses. “I sell a lot to the medical centers and to doctors and lawyers," Henjum said. "People in general want to save up money for an original piece of art."
With commissioned work, people often request specific colors and subject matter, but these limiting factors have never got in the way of Henjum's creative spirit. “It's more of a challenge than anything. Once someone wanted me to do posies, and they wanted them black with a black background. Well I don't think much of posies, and black posies just struck me as strange, but once I got down to it I really enjoyed the challenge," she said.
Henjum received critical praise for her work. In 1989 she was selected by the United States Post Office to design the South Dakota Centennial Stamp. The honor gave her attention and name recognition in the state. She was also awarded the Emerging Artist Grant from the South Dakota Arts Council.
Henjum succeeds in making a living, but she admits there are difficulties in her line of work that can't be overcome. "It's a profession that demands isolation to get the job done. When I talk at schools the kids ask what it’s like to be an artist, and that is one of the things that I like to stress the most because I never thought of that. It is the hardest thing for me to deal with, more so than making a living at it. Especially if you are a people person like I am."
As far as advice for those who would choose to go into art, Henjum suggested following the road she took: "Know more than just one subject and have something to fall back on, because it's not easy to make a living as an artist.
"I think it's important to have a double interest, and if it complements the other that's great. But let's get realistic about making a living in art. I think I am able to make a living because I have been here a long time and I've worked like you can't believe. I would suggest that people have a second profession to fall back on."
Henjum is busy with more things than ever. Recently she returned to work part-time with the art department at the Argus Leader. She also is part owner of Dakota Galleries in Sioux Falls. Through her recent divorce, she took over her husband's portion of the gallery, and she successfully found a new business partner. She is concentrating on advertising and revamping the image of the gallery and hopes to continue offering her services as a freelance designer.
Henjum says she works at many things so she is able to keep painting. There probably will come a day when her painting is all she will need to support herself, but for now she enjoys her sideline occupations as well as watercolors.
And when she is asked to define her painting, she answers the question as if there is only one answer she could give: “It's my work."
To Marian Henjum, it's that simple.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 1994 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.