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Painting Professor Has Brush With International Acclaim – Wins a Guggenheim!

Frank Herrmann, University of Cincinnati professor of fine art, is busy sketching out work and research plans, thanks to the 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship he’s just received.

Date: 4/7/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Jay Yocis and Frank Herrmann

UC ingot  

Frank Herrmann, professor of fine art in the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, has just won the recognition of a lifetime – a Guggenheim Fellowship!

Frank Herrmann in his Northside studio. Behind him are a few of his Asmat-inspired paintings.

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation just announced its international list of 2006 fellowship recipients on April 6, and Herrmann is among the select few chosen and one of only five painters selected among the international array of artists, scholars and scientists to receive a fellowship from among thousands of applicants. This year, fewer than 200 Guggenheim Fellowships were awarded to an international list of recipients representing 78 different fields, from the natural sciences to the creative arts.

“I never thought something like this would happen to me in my life,” said Herrmann. “I get excited about my work all the time, but I spend so much time alone with it in the studio that I really don’t expect other people to do so,” he admitted.

Selections from Frank Herrmann's Asmat art collection

Herrmann’s recent body of work, for which he won the Guggenheim, relates to the Asmat people and art of Papua New Guinea in the far-western Pacific. There, Asmat tribes still create elaborate wood carvings as well as intricately carved shields, totems, canoes, paddles and drums in a traditional manner using stone-age tools such as bird bones, rats’ teeth and rock shards. It is a work and a people that have colored all of Herrmann’s own artistic efforts for years. And with the cash prize of the fellowship, Herrmann will continue his studies and creative work related to the Asmat.

His work – color-filled, abstract images – reflects and explores the people, culture, motifs and myths of Papua New Guinea. “With my paintings, I’ve been asking, ‘What would happen if the Asmat warrior/artist and I were to meet within the space of this painting?’ It’s not meant to be soothing. I'm not interested in paintings that try to be soothing. I think that a painting should be difficult to look at and consider.”

One of Herrmann's large-scale paintings inspired, in part, by an Asmat warrior shield.

Herrmann’s focus – or rather obsession – with the Asmat began when his son, an anthropologist, gave him a book regarding Asmat art . “That was in the year 2000. I read that book, and I was hooked,” confided Herrmann. “Because the Asmat have no written language, their icons communicate the history and ideals of their culture, creating a tangible record of events, ideas, personal connections, structure and belief systems. Their carvings and art are their society and an important part of their religious and spiritual tradition of creation myths and honor for ancestors.”

His obsession has taken Herrmann throughout Europe and North America in order to view prestigious international collections of Asmat art. For instance, during summer 2001, Herrmann was able to slip away from a prestigious Czech artist-in-residence program where he was working to visit the Ethnogaphic Museum in Heidelberg, Germany, home to an outstanding collection of Asmat art.

“I walked up and down the street in Heidelberg to find this museum,” Herrmann recalled. “I couldn’t find the right street number but finally found someone who knew where it was. Then, I was standing in the courtyard of the museum only to find that it was closed for two weeks.”

Herrmann holds an Asmat warrior shield from his collection. Behind him is one of his Asmat-inspired, large-scale paintings

At that exact moment, a car pulled into the courtyard. The driver was connected to the museum, and Herrmann was able to explain that he’d traveled all the way from the Czech Republic in order to see the collection of Asmat art.

“The driver went in, and the next thing I know, the director of the museum was running through the building flipping on all the lights. She told me to take my time and look at the works – most of which were not under glass – for as long as I liked and only to let them know when I was leaving so they could turn off the lights. It was wonderful,” Herrmann recounted. “I could sit with the pieces for as long as I wanted with no interruption, no one else needing to see them. I was so close, I could smell the wood of the canoes.”

With the cash prize of the fellowship, Herrmann will likely travel again, this time to locales that include Fiddletown, California, and Basel, Switzerland, to view other Asmat collections. “I’m anxious to continue being influenced by the Asmat culture for as long as it has this hold on me,” he explained.

He also plans to devote himself to painting in the Czech Republic. He has to. “If I don’t paint, I really get nasty,” he confessed. “I’m totally addicted so I look for any excuse to paint. I like the material of paint. I like the smell of it, the touch of it. I like being in that place. In fact, I buy materials by the bucket load just so I won’t have to leave the studio for a long time.”

Herrmann seated in front of one of his large-scale, Asmat-inspired paintings.

His passion for painting has always been this powerful. As a young artist fresh out of college and teaching elementary and middle school art classes in New Jersey, Herrmann painted constantly. He stated, “There was a group of us then, all friends, who painted on the weekends, painted at night, who painted any time we could. I used to rush home after teaching eleven classes a day and paint. The more I painted, the more I wanted to paint. And the more I wanted to paint, the more I painted.”

Throughout his career, Herrmann’s devotion to painting has brought him regional, national and international exhibits. In addition, he has often been recognized through competitive grants and awards. Today, his work is to be found in private collections throughout the U.S. as well as in collections in France, the Czech Republic, Italy and Australia.

The full list of year 2006 Guggenheim Fellows is at