Painter draws from pain, energy of a long life
By Anna Bard Brutzman       Dec. 20th, 2011

Ireland Regnier says truly great art only emerges after a painter is long gone.

The Clemson painter and retired university professor nevertheless has legions of fans, including those former students, work colleagues and friends who know him best.

A World War II veteran, accomplished flamenco guitar player, former semi-pro shortstop, Regnier said everything informs his art. Those who love it stick with it, he said, noting that he almost quit art school because he couldn't draw a figure. He buckled down and learned.

"It's going to be exciting because it's difficult," he said. "I admire people who try."

Thirty-four of Regnier's paintings, which number in the thousands, will be featured in an exhibit opening Jan. 19 at Clemson University's Lee Hall Gallery.

Regnier, who is 86, retired from Clemson University in 1988, which was the last time his work was featured in an exhibit. His longtime friend and fellow Clemson retiree John Bednar helped organize the show.

"Art is his thing. It is his source of happiness," Bednar said.

Clemson President Jim Barker said Regnier's influence on him as a student in the 1960s was "profound."

"He taught me to see the world through different eyes, and today I realize this perspective has helped me in my current service as president," Barker said.

Birds, dancers, oceans, clouds and corpses are recognizable in Regnier's work. Even a gnarled stump, exposed when Hartwell Lake receded three years ago, has energy. His paint is laid on thick; the colors are bold. He said he admires 20th-century masters such as Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze and American modernist John Marin, but he never tried to copy them.

Clemson artist John Acorn, a friend of 50 years, said he recently heard Regnier describe himself as a "dreamer." He owns three Regnier paintings, including one called "Cock Fight."

"It has the energy of the animal in action." Acorn said. "As soon as you saw it, you'd recognize it's a bird, and it's a bird under extreme energy."

Regnier first started drawing birds at age 5 growing up near Texarkana, Ark. He completed his first large painting at 13. It was during The Depression, and talented men, including his first art teacher, were at his school.

"Everybody was looking for a job," he said.

Regnier graduated from high school at age 18 in 1943 and was drafted within a couple of months. He trained as a U.S. Army machine gunner in California and Australia and first saw combat a month after he turned 19.

Regnier remained in combat zones for the next two years, landing on five beaches in the South Pacific.

When asked, Regnier speaks freely about his service, though some memories are painful. One painting features a white line around a vaguely skeletal figure whose mouth is open in alarm. This, he said, depicts the white body bags all soldiers were issued but also the shell shock many experienced.

"They didn't look like that, of course," Regnier said. "It's an expression of a feeling."

He got home on Jan. 6, 1946, a few months after viewing the destruction at Hiroshima.

Regnier let his sons play with his service medals, all of which they lost. His wife, Linda, recently had them replaced, including his Bronze Star.

"None of us talked about it when we first got out," Regnier said. "We were just glad to be alive. No point in telling people everything. I don't think I even told my mother."

Seven months after returning to the states, Regnier enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. Five years later, with the help of G.I. Bill money, he'd completed a bachelor's and master's degree.

Regnier had by his early 20s seen more of the world than most do in a lifetime.

After school, he lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and St. Petersburg, Fla. He spent a year on sabbatical in Guadalajara and worked another year in London. He also spends a month in France annually.

He said he met a New York School artist while he was teaching art in St. Petersburg in the '50s.

"He asked, How the hell can anybody from Arkansas be an artist" Regnier said. "I asked him have you ever been outside a 12-block area"

Regnier has sold cemetery plots and sporting goods. After coming back from Japan, his work on the baseball field attracted the attention of a Cardinal scout.

Today, his is an eclectic home, full of paintings and books. A grand piano is in the living room, and Regnier keeps a guitar in the studio.

Regnier arrived at Clemson in 1961. Acorn said Regnier's studio in Lee Hall was infused with light and music. The students filled the majority of the space with their own paintings while Regnier continued his work in a corner.

"He was always urging them to find their voice," Acorn said.

Regnier was a tough teacher, bringing in art history and technique. He taught them how to make paint pigments from area clays with screens borrowed from Clemson's chemistry department. Some students were surprised by the rigor, he said,

"One wrote me a letter over break asking to change his grade from a C to a B," Regnier said. "I wrote him back saying I was glad to change his grade to a D. It's a serious thing, doing art."

Regnier was his son Marc's first guitar teacher. Marc would go on to study classical guitar at Peabody Conservatory and is a music professor at the College of Charleston. He has released several recordings, one of which was nominated for a Grammy last year.

Growing up in Clemson, the younger Regnier was surrounded by musicians and artists who gathered at their home for bluegrass jam sessions.

"I always felt he had a better ear than I do," he said. "I remember us singing folks songs when I was 3 years old."

Marc's mother, Jennie, died when he was 19 and his youngest brother, Matthew, was 10.

"I was trying to help Matthew with his schoolwork, and he helped me with the cooking," Regnier said. "We learned together."

During that period and again two decades later when Matthew also succumbed to cancer, Regnier would eventually turn to art to express his pain. Matthew was 36, and his father stopped painting for months.

"I couldn't work either," Marc said. "We all think about him every day."

Regnier shows visitors his son Marc's CD of Brazilian music and his oldest son Michael's book of art photography. He smiles recalling Matthew's accomplishments as a landscape architect working at Yellowstone National Park.

"All my sons are artists without my encouraging them because I knew how difficult a life that could be," Regnier said.

Regnier is humble about his own work, noting that painters until the invention of photography were regarded much like "boot makers."

"From Michelangelo forward, artists wouldn't pick up a brush or a chisel unless they had a commission," he said. "Now, people put artists on a pedestal. It's ridiculous."

Impressionists such as Monet could never get a show, he said, and Van Gogh sold one painting during his life. Time is the best test of bad art, he said.

"People who say they have no talent, if you could explain what talent is to me, you might make me believe it," Regnier said. "It's not talent. It's study."