In the shadows of the night, Mike Lynch captured nocturnal vistas that few others would pause to reflect on, propelling him into the limelight as an outstanding regional artist.
Over a 70-year career, the work of the Minneapolis painter — who died Sept. 8 at the age of 85 — was showcased at major art museums and galleries across Minnesota and landed him numerous accolades, including the McKnight Foundation's prestigious McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2003.
"I believe Mike to be one of the finest artists Minnesota ever produced," said Sally Johnson, former director of the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, which has exhibited Lynch's work since 1979. "He was kind of a poet of a painter ... He painted all those quiet places that most of us ignore or don't notice — the backdrop of our lives."
His work was featured in museums and galleries, and always had a long wait list of buyers at Groveland Gallery, Johnson said. Lynch also published two books of his work, illustrated novels by Garrison Keillor and Jon Hassler and painted mural-sized commissions for state agencies, including the Transportation and Revenue departments.
"He painted a portrait of Minnesota," Johnson said. "Not the fancy places, but the places that we all pass by every day that really do make up the fabric of our lives."
Harry Michael Lynch was born in Hibbing and raised in the Iron Range city, the youngest of two sons of Grace and John Lynch, a mine patrolman. He won a local art competition by the age of 15 and had his work exhibited at Dayton's in Minneapolis.
Lynch studied at the Grand Marais Art Colony and what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He briefly lived in New York, Amsterdam and San Francisco before returning to Minnesota in 1969 to work at a gallery and frame shop.
He quickly became known for paintings and drawings that were as understated and subdued as the artist himself. He highlighted familiar scenes, usually nighttime vistas absent of people, exuding mystery and loneliness: Deserted rail yards, neon lights reflected in puddles outside a bar, city streets illuminated by streetlights.
"He was a quiet documentarian," said Nicole Soukup, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, whose collection includes some of Lynch's work. "They're solitary moments of everyday life, and yet he is finding beauty in that."
The realist painter sketched at dawn and dusk, often sitting in his car as he propped a pad of paper against the steering wheel and donned a headlamp. His methods drew police calls on occasion; one man even mistook his sketches for a subpoena, charging at Lynch as he sat in the dark outside. His wife, Ann, said the work got increasingly dangerous as he got older.
"Things simplify at night," said Lynch, explaining his methods when he won the McKnight award in 2003. "They are also transformed. Even the most banal scene is rendered mysterious by nightfall."
Lynch often used handmade pigments, some from the Iron Range where he had trekked into the mine pits with his father to gather different colored ores.
The quiet painter was made uncomfortable by attention. Besides the McKnight distinction, Lynch was a three-time McKnight fellow and Bush Foundation fellow. He also landed a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship in 1991, and won four State Fair first-place prizes.
Lynch's work is "a tremendous contribution to the visual arts in Minnesota," said Brian Szott, an art historian and former art curator for the Minnesota Historical Society. "They evoke a Midwest feeling of space and isolation. His work spoke on many different levels, and I think that's rare for an artist."
Besides painting, Lynch enjoyed creative writing, journaling and playing music. His wife said he took a break from painting for 10 years at the age of 65, turning his studio into a rehearsal spot for his band, singing and playing harmonica and piano with friends.
Instead of a memorial service, Ann Lynch said her husband preferred that people have a drink in his honor at one of his favorite places, the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis. Besides his wife, he is survived by daughters Bonney and Jenny, both of California, and sons Sven of Sweden and Thomas of Minnesota.