John Ringen is one of the artists in Sunnyshore Studio’s Vintage Watercolorists of Washington inaugural show taking place in March 2018. Discover his story here.
“The greatest gift of all is to not be able to do anything else well.”
High school academics were not John Ringen’s forte. In fact, if he had not been so talented athletically, his story may have turned out very differently. Despite his early struggles, John Ringen’s greatest contribution to Washington state art may have been as a teacher. It is quite certain that the thousands of students whose lives he touched and artists he’s influenced are thankful he found his place.
Born in Everett, WA on July 4, 1928, the eldest son of Ingvar and Elsie Ringen. Ingvar and his brother, Hjalmar, immigrated from Norway in 1905 with their parents. John’s father worked as train engineer and was often gone, leaving his mother to corral their two sons. Elsie was a gifted musician and writer, but it was John’s uncle who influenced his passion for art. Hjalmar was a very talented artist and made a good living as one of the first commercial artists in Everett. “He was my inspiration,” John says.
Despite struggling in other grade school classes, John found his place in the art room. “I found that I wasn’t interested in much else [than art]. I didn’t know I was interested in art. So I took an art program. They were looking for someone that was incapable of paying attention. I would be sent to the art room. I loved it there. I was all by myself. I could do anything I wanted to. The teacher would look in periodically.”
While John struggled academically, he excelled in athletics. At Everett High School he tried just about every sport and was a standout in football and track. He received an athletic scholarship to Washington State University, where he again played football and ran track. After a hamstring injury interrupted his athletic career, on the advice of his coach he transferred to Everett Community College. “My [Washington State] coach told me that would be a good idea, a good place for me to go. I had great years there. Everett was a good school as a far as athletics go.” It was there that John would break the state record in the low hurdles for two-year colleges.
Although his athletic career at Washington State was cut short, he grew up a lot. One of the things he took away from that experience was the encouragement of an art instructor named Bill Hixson. He was a young teacher and a strong painter. “I thought he was God. And he might have been. He registered with me. I think he was probably one of the most popular teachers. I liked the way he worked. It wasn’t experimental. It was pretty direct.”
When his time at Everett Community College ended, John transferred to the College of Puget Sound (now University of Puget Sound) where he used up his final year of athletic eligibility playing football and running track- this time he set a record in the long jump, which stood for many years. By this point, he learned how to be a student. At CPS his grade point average put him in the top ten of male students. It was at CPS that he received another, he along with a photography student and a professor were inducted into the Kappa Pi National Art Honor Society.
John went on to complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington. In his dry, witty sense of humor, John remarks: “I used up my [athletic] eligibility so I had to go to work.” He received a Bachelor in Art, a second Bachelor in Education, and, eventually, a Master of Fine Art in painting. “So I got the trifecta” he says.
Even though John enjoyed teaching, he left Marysville High School after one year, because he really wanted a Masters in Fine Art. He went to work at Boeing for the next three years to earn money for graduate school. In those days, you had to have a pre-candidacy show before you could qualify for the Master of Fine Arts program. John was one of six accepted into the MFA in painting program. “It was a pretty good program,” John comments, “except you had to be an abstract expressionist, and I wasn’t an abstract expressionist. So I kind of worked myself into that position.” Students had three years to complete the program. If they didn’t complete the requirements in three years, they were welcome to apply again, however, it was not encouraged.
During his years of graduate school, John juggled teaching in Seattle and working at Boeing with attending class. “As the third year rolled around it forced me into a position where I had to produce. “I got a Masters. Three of us got Masters. That was nice.”
With his graduate degree in hand, he was able to focus on teaching. For thirty years, John taught high school art. Many of his former students still fondly recall Mr. Ringen’s classes whenever they see him. In addition to high school, John spent six years as part of a “Community Development” art program through the University of Washington. This fit his introverted/adventurous temperament well. “They shipped him out to Alaska, Canada, Eastern WA, all over the state. Bellingham, up at Western. I moved around a lot for about 6-7 years. I met a lot of people.” These classes included instruction in watercolor, acrylic and oil painting.
John joined the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS) when he was in his twenties and a student at the University of Washington. He remembers the meetings in those early days of the society: “We’d have the little talk and then critique each other’s watercolor. We’d sit around on the floor because the places that we met were houses. Maybe there would be 10, 15, or 20 people at the most and a couple of bottles of wine.”
The one mission that the NWWS had was the annual watercolor show at the Seattle Art Museum. It was a good show with lots of local competition for spots, including students at the university. Gifted artists like Mark Tobey were involved in it early on. “It was a class show,” John reflects. “I usually made it for some dumb reason,” he says with a smile.
After five straight years of having his paintings admitted to the NWWS show, John began to be recognized as an up-and-coming artist. He was invited to be a member of the Puget Sound Group of Painters, which was an elite, all male group of artists. After many years as a member, he served as president because, as he puts it, “I had to serve my time.” In those days the group offered camaraderie, “It was well worth the effort. It was fun, though it made a drunk out of me,” John says tongue-in-cheek.
During his years of teaching John remained a busy artist. Today his home is full of decades of beautiful paintings. Most scenes are of the Pacific Northwest, but there are also paintings from Europe and South Africa where John travelled with his wife, Vicky. John’s watercolors merge his early training in abstract expressionism with crisp realism. In addition to the paintings on the walls, his studio is full of paintings. John says, “You go through lots of bad paintings. Once in a while a jewel drops out. I’d usually sell the jewel. Once in a while you see one of the jewels. I saw one of those jewels a few years ago and thought it was bad. And I thought to myself, ‘that’s a good thing. I’ve improved.’”
John continues, “I’ve found that true with other artists too. They go through periods. Periods when they think their work is really good. But it’s not so good. They churn out a lot of mediocre stuff, but when it works, it’s really great. The ability to know a good painting, a jewel, from the mediocre is an important attribute in an artist.”
Challenges of being an artist
When asked about the challenges of being an artist John puts it bluntly. The great challenge of being an artist is to make a living by your art. John says, “I can tell you. I’ve never reached the point where I’ve made a living as an artist. That’s a struggle and that’s a fact. And I wouldn’t want to have to survive on just doing art. I don’t have the courage to give up a retirement. So I’ve never made a living at art. I admire those that do. I know it hasn’t been easy for them.”
John points out that there are many artists that are pretty good, but they can’t make a living. He says, “You have to have personality. I don’t have the personality. I’m not driven. I’d rather go to work at something else. At Weyerhaeuser, I worked there all through high school. I’d rather pull lumber on the green chain than have to make a living as an artist because I knew I’d have a check at the end of the month.”
He has friends like artist Bernie Weber who went to a good art school and made a good living as an artist. However, John preferred working a full-time job and painting on the side. In fact, after 30 years of teaching art, when he was close to retirement age, John decided to transition to a different career. He worked for eight years as an illustrator at Walter Dorwin Teaque Associates. As an illustrator, he transitioned from abstract expressionism to a tight realism. John dryly comments: “I had to really work at it. The day I showed up for work, I put my head down and went to work. The other guys had been there a long time and could accomplish as much as me by not working very hard.”
John is still a prolific artist. Twenty-five plus years since his second retirement, John still paints everyday. His studio is next to their home on the south end of Camano Island overlooks Port Susan, onto the mainland and the Cascades beyond. As he likes to say, “now that I’ve given up golf, I may be able to do something with painting. If I wasn’t an artist, I may have been a better golfer- if it wasn’t for golf, I have been a better painter.”
Joys of being an artist
For John the joys of being an artist are in the whole thing. “It’s a journey,” he says. “I can say that I don’t need to sell. But it [when one of his paintings in purchased] is an acknowledgment that maybe I’ve done something that’s worth looking at.”
John points out that you’ll have some people who kind of admire you, some people who are jealous of you, and some people who know you are frauds. He says it’s a lot easier to work in the supermarket than it is to be an artist- but being a teacher, he points out, is twice the problem. When you’re a teacher you have to sell yourself. John found that teaching in the public schools, not every kid loves you and, for matter of fact, most kids don’t like you- they merely put up with you. But he reflects that there are a few successes that he’s had as a teacher. “I’ve never made a success out of a kid,” he says, “but there have been some successes.”
John counsels younger artists in this way: “If you’re really convinced that’s what you want to do, then, yeah, it’s a good life.”
John is a watercolor painter. Although he’s sneaked in acrylics and also painted in oils- but for him, watercolors are comfortable. He likes to work fast and that has a lot to do with the reason why. He can invest an hour or so in a watercolor and put it aside and start a new one. He points out, you don’t have to worry about the drying. Watercolor dries fast. John also appreciates that in the framing process, the artist can take the sheet of watercolor and if there’s a spot in the painting that works, that frames well, that looks good- it is easy to frame that small part of the painting. It is much harder to change the shape of an oil canvas.
John Ringen has painted in Washington State for over seventy years. Hundreds, indeed thousands, of his paintings fill the walls of homes all over Washington and beyond, bringing joy to their owners and collectors. His paintings sparkle with the magical merging of loose washes and crisp, realness of transparent watercolor. Each marked with his trademark: Ringen.
But it is perhaps as a teacher where John Ringen made his greatest mark and left his greatest legacy. John Ringen has often been called an artists’ artist. The names of students that he taught are a kind of hall of fame of watercolor in Washington State, including master watercolorist Jerry Stitt.
When one thinks back on John Ringen’s life, back to the days when he was a struggling schoolboy, back to the days when he found his niche in art class, it should not surprise us that John has left a legacy of encouraging, challenging, coaching, and nurturing students himself. For where we have been given much, we are able to give much back.
Sunnyshore Studio’s Vintage Artists of Washington takes place on Saturdays March 10th, 17th, and 24th, 10:00am-5:00pm.
There will be a reception on Saturday, March 10th, from 3:00-5:00pm
Learn more here: Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Art Show Announcement
We are thrilled that the Northwest Watercolor Society, one of the top ten watercolor societies in the nation, is partnering with us in this inaugural show.
Finally we want to thank our sponsors: David and Mary Anne Keyser and the Jack Dorsey family for sponsoring this show.