From the September 2009 edition of Tableaux.
Fontbonne University alums Mike Nichols and Leslie Reuther both understand the art of a captured moment. So when these two professional artists found themselves on a four-month adventure 3,000 miles away from home, they pulled out their paintbrushes, canvases, sketchbooks and cameras to record every step.
Nichols and Reuther spent the first few months of 2009 - and the beginning of their married life - at Harlaxton College in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. The experience was a teaching opportunity for Nichols, who is a faculty member at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
"Western Kentucky participates in a study abroad partnership with Harlaxton College. I was sent to teach there as a visiting faculty member," Nichols explained. "The location was breathtaking; in addition to being an object of awe and inspiration, it acted as a staging point for four months of travel in Europe."
With all of Europe at his fingertips, Nichols didn't just teach during the trip. Before he left the United States, he received a grant from his university to study buon fresco painting - an ancient, complex and very permanent method of large-scale mural painting - in Italy. And so he and Reuther spent their time away from home studying, learning, painting and exploring, with the old masters as their guides.
Foundations at Fontbonne
Several years before their trip overseas, the pair began their own personal journey. They met in 1998 at Meramec Community College in St. Louis where Reuther studied and Nichols worked as a slide-room technician and photographer for the art department. Meramec would eventually offer Nichols a position as an adjunct professor, but in the meantime, he was pursuing graduate degrees in art and fine arts at Fontbonne.
"Mike actually introduced me to Fontbonne," Reuther said. "I was considering my options when he insisted I look into the university's painting program. The technical foundations in drawing and painting impressed me. The teachers helped me develop my visual vocabulary and gave me the tools I needed to make a technically sound painting."
Nichols believes that Fontbonne provided him with a critical educational foundation, especially in his understanding of historic and fundamental image-making techniques.
By 2001, both Nichols and Reuther had completed their degrees - Reuther with a bachelor's in fine arts and Nichols with his master's degrees. And they got to know each other in the process.
Keeping a Connection
"Admiration would have been an accurate word to describe my earliest feelings about Leslie," Nichols mused. "Her drive and talent impressed me greatly. But she graduated from Fontbonne, I moved to Kentucky and we lost touch for several years."
But, somehow, a bond lingered between the two. After reconnecting and dating for two years, Nichols popped the question on July 4, 2008, beneath an explosion of fireworks on the grounds of a golf course near their home. "Just like the old television show, ‘Love, American Style,'" he grinned.
A month after their November 2008 wedding, Nichols and Reuther found themselves winging their way to Europe.
"We traveled extensively, visiting historic cities such as Bath, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome and Pompeii," Nichols said. Both artists are painters and - although their styles vary greatly - they found significant inspiration in the rich architecture, art and landscape found in the Old World.
Reuther typically paints with a technique in which she uses words in collaboration with imagery. While in England, she completed her "Stratum Series," a collection of atmospheric landscape paintings created using handwriting and color washes. Nichols, in contrast, uses both traditional and contemporary techniques and materials, including oils and pastels. According to Nichols, his art explores time, space and motion, and uses physical characteristics, such as texture, paint qualities and varied surfaces to help convey meaning.
It is this appreciation for what Nichols calls the "raw process of image making" that drew him to the age-old art of buon fresco painting. Few modern artists use it because of its demanding nature, he explained. He plans to produce a fresco of his own with the help of a team of student apprentices at Western Kentucky.
In May, Nichols and Reuther packed up their arts supplies and returned home to Kentucky.
"Our personal lives have moved so quickly in the past year that I hope to put our roots down for a little while and find time to process everything that has changed and everything we have experienced," Reuther said.
In the meantime, Nichols plans to throw himself into his fresco project and complete his tenure application. Reuther will showcase her art in a two-person exhibition and plans to continue work on commissioned portraits. Both have settled back comfortably into the routine of everyday life.
"A year ago, neither of us would have imagined having an opportunity to live in England for four months," Reuther said.
But through the photos, paintings and drawings they created along the way, it's an opportunity they'll never forget.
Learn more about Fine Arts at Fontbonne.
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