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Erik Sommer: '... And I'm a romantic'

Erik Sommer belongs in a movie -- seriously. "... And I'm a romantic," the Duluth-born artist and lyricist said Monday. "There's something about living in New York, being poor and just painting. [Laughs] It's really kind of exciting, you know?"

Sommer is explaining how he ended up in Harlem, one of the "last affordable places to live in Manhattan."

"It's cool; there's like a Harlem renaissance happening again," he said. "... It's kind of like the next place, I guess."

Though he moved away from the Zenith City right before the onset of junior high, Sommer found his way back in 2000. (He had reconnected with some old friends while attending Saint John's University near St. Cloud.)

Back in Duluth, he started playing drums with his roommate, Nate Starke. Around this same time, Sommer also started putting together lyrics and submitting them to Starke. Their first collaboration was "Ol' 61," which they later recorded when they formed the Castle Band with Will Adamczak and Erik Berry.

"I was lucky," Sommer said. "He actually made a song out of it. It was like it just worked."

The group lasted only about four years, but they managed to play a number of shows around the region and put out an album ("The Shaky Ray Sessions") during that time.

"By 2004, Erik Berry had helped form Trampled by Turtles, I was beginning to paint and the band just sort of ended," Sommer recalled. "I moved to New York City, Nate and Will formed Lo-Fi and Nate and Marc Gartman formed the Gallows, among other projects."

Though drumming has taken a backseat to his painting, Sommer still sends lyrics to Starke and Adamczak about once a month. As a testament to the potency of his words, the Gallows' debut, the aptly titled "Sings Erik Sommer," consisted entirely of songs that utilized Sommer's lyrics.

"They did a great job," Sommer said of that record, beaming with pride. "... I'm fortunate that they don't just read my lyrics and laugh and throw them away. [Laughs] I guess there's a little something to it -- it just strikes them a little bit, you know?"

The Manhattan projects

As mentioned earlier, Sommer didn't starting painting until roughly five years ago -- he was a business major in college, after all -- but, once he caught the art bug, he jumped in headfirst.

"I just really, really, really got into painting," he said. "I was getting a lot of positive feedback from a lot of painters that I admired, friends who had been painting forever. I just got a lot of positive reinforcement."

Sommer's work is unique because of its liberal use of concrete and other industrial materials.

"Honestly, I think it's just the urban environment I'm living in everyday," he said. "I just walk around Manhattan and there are all these abandoned buildings everywhere, they're just beautiful -- and they're deteriorating.

"... Even kind of before I started painting, I knew that I was going to be interested in these overlooked, worn-out areas."

Sommer also said the way he stumbled upon his approach was almost a "freak accident." He was applying a bunch of materials to concrete, letting it dry and watching it crack.

"I just really, really liked it," he said. "It was beautiful. ... I guess my version of beauty is really just kind of delicate and quiet, and I think that really comes through in my work. I try to create stuff that's beautiful -- to bring beauty into the world. I relate beauty to something that's delicate. I think that's really important to me."

Though there's a lot of chance in his medium, Sommer said he can always "scrape it all off" if a piece isn't working.

"There's a lot of adding and subtracting -- adding to and removing of the material," he said. "And just kind of building it up so it's really thick and gritty."

Sommer said the process of creating one of his pieces is "very, very physical."

"I paint on canvas, but I don't really use any paint. I use a lot of just really heavy, dense industrial material," he said, listing off various thick pastes and the aforementioned wet concrete. "I do that because I like using this heavy, dense material to make pieces that are really fragile and really delicate.

"I like the dichotomy of that."

For more information on Erik Sommer's art, visit


Erik Sommer will be back in Duluth Feb. 29 for a reunion of the Castle Band, the group he formed with Nate Starke. Lo-Fi and the Gallows will also perform. The show, which will be held at Lakeview Castle at 9 p.m., also serves as Starke's going-away party. Cost TBA. Call 525-1014 for more info.