An Oriental patterned carpet lies underneath the Battle of the Little Bighorn painting in progress in William Ahrendt’s studio, but not a speck of paint has fallen on it. Ahrendt has placed a smaller, much less expensive rug directly under the canvas to catch wayward paint drops, but no visible paint has fallen on that rug either.
Ahrendt is meticulous. He might be forbidding with his tidiness and ferocious intelligence were he not so gracious.
The spectrum of human history lies within his imagination, much of it reflected in art history, the knowledge of which he readily dispenses without pretension.
“I am an incurable teacher,” he said.
Ahrendt works in an impeccably ordered upstairs work space, sometimes preparing educational video tapes.
“You have to be (neat). It gets chaotic.” One gets the impression Ahrendt’s spaces never resemble chaos. The first floor studio where he paints features custom woodwork embellishments and an adjacent photography studio.
Perhaps the artist’s neatness arises from his precision. His paintings, which sell for anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, feature intricate scenes, many of them Indians, with texture and light that require study and analysis.
For paintings like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Custer dies after battling thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, Ahrendt studies. He read roughly 30 to 40 pages of two dozen books to give his paintings accuracy.
The work is for a “Custerphile,” client, for whom Ahrendt is also creating an educational Custer video. Clients become friends. “I like to take care of my friends,” Ahrendt said.
Clients commission him, and most continue to commission him, becoming patrons in the old school tradition and friends. Many of his clients own six to 10 of his pieces.
Ahrendt was born in Ohio to a solidly middle class family. His father worked in heating and cooling, and his mother as a secretary. His parents had no artistic inclination, as Ahrendt says many people assume.
At the age of 7, a substitute teacher assigned the boy’s class a drawing project. When his mother picked her son up from school, the teacher told the mother she thought Ahrendt had talent. He started Saturday morning art classes.
Ahrendt studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, earned a master’s in art history from Arizona State University and studied in Germany for for 11 years before returning to the U.S.
For 12 years, he served as art department chair at Glendale Community College before stopping in 1979 to paint full time.
He gained his appreciation for history in Europe, surrounded by crumbling cobblestone streets once walked upon by men whose minds shaped today’s world.
The Greats — Michelangelo, Bouguereau, Peter Paul Rubens — Ahrendt studies and uses as the standard for his own quality.
Ahrendt loves history. He listens to classical or Baroque music while he works and dislikes modern, abstract paintings because of their disconnection from the human condition. He talks about a now-recurring Renaissance — a return to the educational foundations of drawing and observation of nature.
Out of social rubble, classicism is reborn. Ahrendt says renaissances have erupted out of social disorder, and that the destruction from widespread war throughout the 20th century has spawned a return to the foundations of classicism.
It happened after the bubonic plague killed half of Europe, and again after the French Revolution gave power, and art, back to the masses after kings hijacked it. Art began again to explore the human condition.
Now, schools teach drawing again. With lines, Ahrendt draws faces. With paint, he gives life.
“I never paint without drawing,” he said.
On the 48-inch-by-72-inch Battle of the Little Bighorn canvas, Ahrendt has painted the background in broad brush strokes. Some soft detail exists.
However, on places like a horse’s nose, Ahrendt has created texture with egg tempera, and while looking at the exquisite lines and light, one wonders how an artist has the patience to complete an entire painting.
It takes contemplation. For instance, the placement of a man’s leg on the horse will affect the splay of light on the horse’s side.
“There is nothing more frightening than a white canvas,” said Ahrendt. “Because we’re afraid we’re ugly.” We’re afraid that the unfiltered inspiration that will come from our fingertips will not live up to the set expectation.
Ahrendt says he thinks about removing the smaller rug under his canvas that protects the more expensive one. A falling splash of paint is inevitable, he says.
Perhaps we can achieve excellence without perfection. Ahrendt’s depiction of Custer’s famous battle would still be great, even if perched above a dirty rug.