by Nathan Christophel
Staff Writer/N'West Iowa Review

MAURICE-John E. and Denise Vander Stelt of Maurice never have a problem with a lack of art in their home.

"We've got more than we know what to do with," John said.

The walls of their home practically are lined with paintings, drawings or other pieces of art. Each has its own flavor, from the depiction of the Wells' Dairy ice cream parlor in LeMars to the front of an old building in downtown Rembrandt.

The artist behind most of them lives in the same house.

John E. Vander Stelt has a knack for art. The 43-year-old has impressed many people with his Norman Rockwell-esque canvasses. He has been commissioned over the years by several businesses and organizations to paint or draw scenes for their special occasions.

His attention to detail is incredible, right down to the last wrinkle of the waitress' face in his Maurice Centennial painting of a former cafe.

"A lot of it is either my hometown, local history or local things," he said. "I was taught to always paint the things I know and the things I love, so that's what I do."

John calls his style "regionalist realism" because of what he paints. He admires artists like Grant Wood who took the same road - although he doesn't mind being compared to Norman Rockwell.

"I really take it as a compliment," John said. "He's kind of known as America's painter, and he captured a lot of the same feelings and emotions that I do in his work."

He compares himself to a cross between Edward Hopper and Rockwell. John likes the emotion Hopper's paintings evoke and said they're more art than illustration.

John started painting his sophomore year at Maurice-Orange City High School but always has drawn.

"My artistic ability really is an inherited thing," he said.

His grandfather, John Vander Stelt Sr., painted, etched and whittled. One of his early etched mirrors, previously hanging in a meat locker in Doon, now hangs on the Vander Stelts' dining room wall.

John E.'s father, John Jr., always encouraged his son to pick up a brush. Although his father didn't paint or draw much himself, John E. said John Jr. had just as much artistic ability and imagination as his father before him.

"And I see it in him," John said, referring to his oldest son, John "Joe" Joseph. "That's neat to see."

At age 10, the younger Vander Stelt already has a grasp on drawing. He recently finished a sketch of a hand that is flawless. Another is of a cartoon super hero.

"You can't help but be proud of it," John E. said. "Knowing you have it as part of your heritage already and seeing it passed on to the next generation is exciting."

After graduating from high school in 1979, John attended Northwestern College in Orange City, where he majored in fine arts and art education. He and a friend traveled to Europe between his junior and senior years, allowing him to see many of the world's largest and most well-known art museums like the Louvre in Paris.

"That just kind've changed the way I work," he said.

John went to work for K-Products, now American Identity, in Orange City as a graphic designer almost immediately after graduating from Northwestern in 1983.

"I feel fortunate I've been able to work in a field where I get to use my artistic gifts," he said.

However, with all the technological changes taking place in his field, "it's nice to come home and see the brushes and paint. Those never change."

John's not prolific with his paintings. His realistic and detailed scenes take time - he just can't produce 15 or 20 paintings in a year.

Walking around the Vander Stelt home might portray a different picture, but not all of the paintings on the walls were done yesterday. John has canvasses as old as his high school days hanging in his basement.

"You have to keep some of those old ones around to remind yourself of how far you've come," he said. And all of them are of different subjects. He has paintings of his children - Joe, Jack, 6, and Becky, 24 - and of Denise. There are scenes of his grandfather and several of his brothers and sisters. Others depict hometown events like gassing up the car. He even has the tulip painting in the basement.

"You have got to have the token tulip," John said.

He used to paint in the basement, but an addition to their home made way for an upstairs studio so he can paint and remain part of what's going on in the living room.

Juggling a family and a full-time job seems like it wouldn't leave a lot of time for art, but somehow John finds time.

"Where do I find time to paint, boys?" he asked Joe and Jack.

"Saturdays," Joe replied. "Saturdays and on nights, probably," John said. "It's hard to find time, especially when you have two young boys. I don't want to miss out on them being kids."

He and the boys are working on a painting together now.

"You have to make time for it," John said. "Just say 'no' to a couple things you normally wouldn't, and the whole family is good. If they know I have a project I need to get done, they don't harp."

He's not pushing any of his children to follow in his footsteps and hopes to see them all reach their full potential - art or no art.

"Just having them appreciate it is more than anything," John said. "Appreciation of art helps make a person well-rounded."

-Reprinted with permission/Nathan Christophel/N'West Iowa Review