Portrait of an Artist -September/October 2009

The fanciful world of John Lochtefeld

by: Joshua B. Gray

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

To John Lochtefeld, art has been a way of life for more than seven decades. As a young child, he would draw all the time on just about everything, and now 76, he continues that passion working from his Fair Street studio six days a week creating watercolors and acrylics, sculpture and woodcuts.

Educated as an artist at Notre Dame University and a former art professor at Merrimack College for more than 20 years, Lochtefeld first came to Nantucket in the late 1960s and remembers the day vividly.

“I took one look at the island after stepping off the boat and I knew,” he said. “Mind you it was December, but I thought this just might be the place.”

Lochtefeld had for a couple of years operated a studio gallery on the New Jersey shore, but didn’t consider it an ideal location for what he hoped to do. Always an artist, he said he never thought about selling his work until he decided his teacher’s salary was not enough to comfortably educate his five children. A walk around Nantucket’s Main Street and the historic downtown, with its assortment of galleries closed up tight for the winter, gave the artist an inkling of the possibilities.

“I think it was Congdon & Coleman who showed me a place and I said I’d take it,” he remembered. This declaration came as a great surprise to his wife Judith and their children, but they too fell in love with the island when they arrived for the summer the next year. “They’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.

For the next four years Lochtefeld showed his work at a spot near the base of Straight Wharf among what was at the time a colony of artists. Among the boats that filled the inner expanse of the harbor, such working galleries as his own were the norm. The work he showed encompassed the variety he has become known for over the years. An artist member, and current board member, of the Artists Association of Nantucket for more than 40 years, Lochtefeld said the work he may be best known for are his woodcuts. Made from impressions carved in blocks of wood and printed onto paper, the artist’s scenes are often dreamlike and depict many fanciful, almost mythological elements. Many of these aspects concern the lore of Nantucket itself.

“I find my inspiration wherever it pops up,” he said. “But I often find it in stories and tales of the sea, in folk songs about Nantucket and its whaling industry.”

“Very much a printmaker,” his woodcuts and etchings are produced in series, numbered and signed, often with repeating characters such as the sun, moon, mermaids and the ocean. “I’ve enjoyed some of the outrageous tales of men and the sea and Nantucket is haunted in a way by the memory of whales,” he said.

Lochtefeld and his wife eventually wanted to have a piece of real estate on Nantucket that was their own, and by an amazing stroke of luck, he said, they found their home and studio near the top of Main Street in the early 1970s. There they raised their children in the summers from their apartment on the second floor and he worked and showed his work from the first floor storefront. For many years they ran a framing business out of the back of the studio with the help of their children. In the years that have passed they have all grown and had their own families, visiting Lochtefeld and his wife often.

Near the front of the studio space is a small unassuming display marked with a handwritten sign, “Beth’s Book.” The book is called “tell me about your dreams …” and is filled with lyrical prose written by his late daughter, Elizabeth Lochtefeld. She tragically lost her life Oct. 25, 2004 when she was killed by an estranged boyfriend on Nantucket, but her memory remains strong with her father.

“She came into the studio one day, just bounced through the door and said ‘I am writing a book and want to use some of your illustrations’,” he said. “It was totally her project. All I said were two words, ‘help yourself.’ She came in and photographed 40 or 50 prints. When she lost her life the book was on a table ready to go the printers.” Since that time, he said, the book has been very well received and he is “very proud of her.”

Influenced by great masters such as Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and Paul Klee, much of the artist’s work is whimsical in nature.

“I have been daydreaming since the day I was born, or at least that is what my teachers always told me,” he said of the nuns who had charge of him in his parochial school growing up. “I think my work does have a dreamlike quality which I like very much.”

He also uses watercolors and acrylics on occasion to depict more realistic scenes such as a peaceful sailboat on the harbor or images from his travels.

On Nantucket year-round, Lochtefeld can be found six days a week in his studio working on new paintings or carving one of the wooden owls he has been working on the past couple of years. His door is open to visitors with regular hours throughout the summer season, but, he said, a gentle rap on a window or the door will gain you entrance to the world that he has created.

In this dreamlike world of John Lochtefeld’s art, rich with the images of the unconscious and the fanciful, the final words of his late daughter’s book are gently in sync with the tone of his work: “The black sky gives way to morning light and the sun rises warm and strong. Bring back with you those dreams from the night, those dreams from your sleep, those dreams from your soul. Bring them to the light of day where you can see them, and start to bring them to life. Good morning. Tell me about your dreams …”

Joshua B. Gray writes about the arts for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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