Bill Wichmann knows how to get up close and personal with a piece of art. Instead of searching through literature or surfing on the Internet to find out more facts on a particular painting in which he was interested, he decided to go right to the source.
As a volunteer docent at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minn., each guide was given the task of researching a particular artist and, in turn, teach the rest of the group some new facts about the piece.
Bill Wichmann was given Tim Thompson, an artist who was born in 1951 and to which two original paintings by Thompson belong in the Burrichter/Kierlin Marine Art Collection at the MMAM. He did a little digging on websites and found that the artist currently resides in England and many of Thompson’s paintings can be found at a local art gallery in the artist’s hometown. Wichmann decided to give the gallery a phone call, ended up chatting with Thompson’s wife for quite some time and received a call back from the artist himself, ready and willing to answer questions and give more information to the volunteer docent.
As Wichmann gazed at Thompson’s “Glorious Victory: Schooner Yacht America Passes the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert After the First America’s Cup Race, August 22, 1851,” the interest he has found in paintings that he may have passed by earlier in life resonates as he speaks about their intricacies.
“Back when I was a young man, I didn’t care for art or history, but now I find myself sitting at home reading history and art books all day long,” he said.
According to Wichmann, Thompson is a detail fanatic, creating complex shadows and objects like tiny strings on a sail that other artists would often forgo. Wichmann pointed at a sail line and noted that the artist wears three-power glasses to get close enough to his work. For the miniscule line, Wichmann said Thompson used the taper edge of a normal paint brush in order to draw the paint out evenly, but must hold it at a precise distance from the paper to achieve the perfect width.
“One-10,000th of an inch closer, and the line would be twice that size,” he said. “Any farther away, and the line wouldn’t exist.”
Wichmann has worked as a volunteer docent at the MMAM for two years and admits that he walks new exhibitions multiple times in order to soak in the many details. He said he enjoys watching the guests’ reactions to new pieces of context about the artwork and sharing information that patrons oftentimes pass by.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is about people,” he said. “People are not observant. People can’t see the details when something is right in front of them, so I like to point those details out.”
Wichmann volunteers multiple times throughout the week at the museum, welcoming guests and chiming in new information to interested museum-goers. When it comes to learning those tidbits, the 70-year-old will be the first to admit the newest technology has made being a docent a little easier on the homework.
“The Internet’s my preferred way,” he said. “The amount of information you can get is how much time you have in a day or even a week.”
And spending his time roaming the exhibit rooms and gallery spaces of the MMAM is where he prefers to be, even if it means sacrificing some of his tools of the trade. According to Wichmann, he will oftentimes volunteer multiple days in a row and will simply stop talking when his voice can no longer keep up.
“There are so many stories, you can see how I can easily lose my voice,” he said with a smile.
Not all of the information Wichmann shares is simply through research. He said the most important part of working as a docent is drawing from his own experiences. A former engineer, Wichmann has lived in multiple cities throughout the United States, as well as England and Singapore.
“I talk most about the observations I have made or things I’ve learned in my short lifetime,” he said. “All of this stuff you learn about from talking to people and researching. I do learn a lot from people who come in. Most of it is things I’ve picked up just from living.”
New volunteer training at the MMAM will be held August 14, 2010.