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Longtime sculptor, professor shaped students as artists and for life

After 32 years at UND, Patrick Luber closes out career with exhibit in The MUG

Retiring sculptor and longtime Art & Design Professor Patrick Luber was celebrated this fall for 32 years of teaching and mentorship at UND. Dozens of colleagues, students and former students joined him for both an open house and the opening of his farewell exhibition, “the space between,” in The Memorial Union Gallery. The exhibition continues through Dec. 31. Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections

Lincoln Logs and Legos. A beat-up tube of Tinkertoys. The nuts, bolts and metal girders of his childhood erector set. Even the pile of rocks and brush behind the barn.

For Patrick Luber, when he was a farm boy near Pocahontas, Ill., those were the materials that let his budding sculptor’s imagination run wild.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but I was one of those kids who even as early as kindergarten knew I was going to be an artist or an architect,” said Luber, who’ll be retiring at the end of this month after more than 30 years of teaching art and design at UND.

“I didn’t really come from an artistic family or have any kind of influence that way on the farm, but there was never any question. I just always was building things of my own creation and making things up.”

Over the course of his career, Luber has inspired thousands of students, including not only future artists but also people who brought the creativity they learned in the studio to careers in business, engineering and law.

And not long ago, dozens of colleagues, students and former students gathered to wish Luber well at the opening reception for his farewell exhibit, “the space between,” in The Memorial Union Gallery. The exhibit is open to the public and runs through Dec. 31.

His legacy at UND

Luber may be too modest to recognize his legacy, but it’s not lost on the many students — both art majors and otherwise — he mentored over his 32 years at UND.

As mentioned, many went on to become working artists and scholars, K-12 teachers, college professors or museum specialists as well as influential advocates for the arts.

UND Art Collections Curator Sarah Heitkamp is one of them. She first met Luber as an undergraduate studying sculpture, and he later would become her committee chair and mentor while she pursued her master’s degree in Visual Arts.

She chose Luber, she says, because of his “blatantly honest feedback and willingness to push students to think about things in different ways.”

“He has a reputation for being one of the tougher faculty members in the Department of Art & Design, but that’s why I chose him,” Heitkamp said. “I knew he cared about his students and would make time for me. I wanted to pursue a career in art, and his willingness to talk through conceptuality and process was invaluable.

“He also was the first professor at UND to start handing me books to read. He’s incredibly encouraging, and I can’t recall a time he ever told me I couldn’t do something I wanted to do — whether it was an aggressive art project or pursuing a career as an art curator. He’s influenced me in so many important ways, including the way I teach my own students.”

Michael Conlan is another former student who’s now walking in Luber’s footsteps by teaching some of the veteran professor’s sculpture courses.

“Patrick had a large role in my development as a working artist and sculptor,” Conlan said. “He was a great mentor, and now I’m proud to call him a friend.”

And former student Carrie Sapa, a high school arts educator at Sacred Heart High School in East Grand Forks, had this to say about Luber: “He was a major mentor and always pushed me in positive ways to be the best artist and person I could be. Not only did he care about me during my time at UND, but he’s juried my student shows at Sacred Heart and continues to be a constant support in both my career and life.”

While at UND, Luber distinguished himself as an artist and scholar, as well as a teacher. He was awarded several research grants at the University and also an Artist’s Fellowship from the North Dakota Council on the Arts and a Larry Remele Fellowship from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Also at UND, Luber served in several leadership roles, including as temporary chair of the Art & Design Department and as the department’s graduate program director for seven years.

Professor Patrick Luber gives a gallery talk at the opening of “the space between” in The Memorial Union Gallery. The exhibition includes 15 pieces that explore vernacular expressions of faith fused with various references to American pop culture. Both whimsical and serious, the exhibit gives viewers plenty of reason to pause and reflect. What will you see? Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections

Lessons in art and in life

Looking back on his academic career, Luber acknowledges that he always believed his duty as an educator should go beyond teaching artistic technique.

“Certainly, it was my primary job to teach students about art and sculpture, but I think there’s also something bigger than that,” he said. “I’m very proud of my students’ achievements, but I know not everybody is going to become a working artist or sculptor.

“So, if I have any legacy at all, I hope it’s that I helped my students learn how to think with their minds, their eyes and their voices.”

He explained that art — like poetry, literature, history and music — is at the “intersection of the human experience.”

“In the classroom, we often talked about a broad range of ideas, so students always were working their way through them and finding new ways to express those ideas,” he said. “They were learning about different cultures and the world. They were learning how to see things from multiple perspectives. It’s those kinds of skills that shape them and become a part of them.”

It was all a part of building that broader knowledge base that would serve the students well in life and in any career they chose.

Professor Patrick Luber says the artistic arch in his large sculpture titled “My America” is a “metaphor for the entryway to America … when you enter those doors, you are entering a big theater — this sort of movie world — with all of its truths, myths and history.” The sculpture was designed and constructed using wood, aluminum beverage cans, brass-plated nails, found objects and electrical components. Photo courtesy of UND Art Collections

If you go …

Luber’s personal artwork combines contemporary artistic strategies and vernacular expressions of faith fused with popular culture. It has appeared in 40-plus solo shows and 160 group exhibitions, including at the international level, and also is part of permanent collections in museums and art centers nationwide.

He has received numerous awards in juried exhibitions, and in 2016, he was selected as an artist in residence at The Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion in Washington. In addition to his artwork, he also has presented many lectures on the intersection of art, religion and American culture.

And that’s also the theme of his current exhibit, “the space between,” now showing in The MUG. According to the artist’s statement, each of the 15 pieces in the exhibit “is comprised of ideas, thoughts and materials collected and assembled from time spent in the space between — between religion and science, between religion and national identity, between art and religion, between orthodoxy and practice, and between faith and doubt.”

Luber says: “The space between, like a work of art, is a threshold — a beginning point for both the maker and the viewer to enter other visions, ideas and emotions.”

And one can’t help but feel all of that when walking into the gallery. There is much to see and much to contemplate. It’s whimsical, serious and deep at the same time.

“As an artist, I’m in the imagination business,” Luber explained. “If I can make people stop and think, I’ve done my job.”

For example, one entire wall is dedicated to what resembles a dozen jumbo-sized Operation game board pieces. If you’ve ever played the childhood game, you’ll likely recognize the usual apple, wishbone, butterfly and heart — along with the dreaded buzz-worthy pencil — but then, there’s also the not-so-familiar ice cream cone. Hmmm.

For Luber, “Prayer Offerings for Ailments Both Real and Imagined” was an interesting metaphor inspired by a preacher’s sermon one Sunday morning. But for others, it’s what they want it to be.

“Art functions on multiple levels, above and beyond the artist’s intention,” he explained. “Some people might like to look at it just because they think it’s pretty, and they can appreciate it on a very visual level. And that’s fine. They don’t need to know exactly what I was thinking. If it somehow resonates with them, that’s a good thing. All art functions that way, not just mine.”

In another piece simply titled “Signed,” Luber mixes another common pop culture reference with biblical teachings. At first glance, the X’s and O’s might register as a love letter’s universal signature. But a closer look gives the artwork a whole new meaning — depending, of course, on who you are. What will you imagine? What will you see?

TAKE IN THE EXHIBIT: Gallery hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The exhibition is presented by the Department of Art & Design in partnership with UND Art Collections. Generous financial support for the exhibit was provided by the Myers Foundations and UND.