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An Eye for Art: Mechanically inclined artist from New Windsor enjoys the process

Calvin Custen is a local artist living in New Windsor. When he was in seventh grade at Wheaton High School, he became interested in architecture. As part of the architectural classes, Custen studied mechanical drawing, inspired by his father who was a mechanical engineer.

After high school, Custen enrolled in Montgomery Junior College and then transferred to University of Maryland to study engineering. He took classes when he was in the service. At that time, they were drafting 66,000 men a month and Custer did not have a good grade point average. Knowing he would be drafted, he opted to join the Navy.

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Custen’s brother was killed in the Vietnam War, which would affect his life forever. So, when he got out of the Navy, he decided to return to art and began to do artwork with social overtones.

Calvin Custen, artist living in New Windsor
Calvin Custen, artist living in New Windsor (Lyndi McNulty)

Custen attended University of Maryland, Baltimore County and took a design class and an art history class. The instructor knew he liked scrimshaw, traditionally images carved into whale bone. While in the Navy, Custen had carved images into shells. His instructor suggested he talk to the print making instructor. Custen had no knowledge of printmaking but it became a pivotal point in his life. “I have been into art and printmaking ever since,” Custen said.

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Then he moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Custen came back to Maryland and attended Frostburg State University. He majored in printmaking and photography and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in art. It was a good experience. At that time, the only artists he knew about were Picasso and Norman Rockwell.

While attending Frostburg State University, Custen was inspired by instructor Joseph Boyes who changed his idea of what art was and changed his life.

Custen learned to do etchings and gum bichromates. In the 1970s, there was a resurgence in interest in gum bichromates. According to Custen, “it is an early non silver photo process from the 1800s. It involves using gum Arabic and ammonium bichromate. The artist paints onto a piece of watercolor paper. When the light hits it the unexposed areas look like pastels.” His show for graduation was composed of etchings and gum bichromates.

After Custen graduated from college, he worked as a technical illustrator for an engineering company in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. He did view graphs and line drawings of missiles. Because computers were not being used yet, they had 300 artists working.

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He also sold his art at craft shows. Gum prints and lithoplates. He sold them at craft shows in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. He did not make enough money selling his art to make a living like other artists at the shows but Custen enjoyed it. Then, when his father asked him what he wanted to be doing in 10 years, he realized he wanted to teach art and get a master’s degree. He became a teaching assistant.

Custen decided to leave to attend the University of Tennessee in printmaking to get a master’s degree. “That is where I realized why I started in art. It was because of my brother’s death,” Custen said. He did social commentary and a book titled “Catharsis and the American Myths” containing 24 woodcuts, three pages of lithographs and a 15-minute video. It dealt with growing up in the 1950s and 60s and Vietnam. The show traveled around the United States for eight years. It was a family album of sorts. For a long time “I believed that art had to have a social commentary to be art,” Custen said.

After receiving a master’s degree at UT, Custen taught at University of Maryland Eastern Shore including classes on art history, drawing, design and computer classes. He taught six classes but when they asked him to teach the seventh class at a prison, he decided to teach elsewhere.

John Sparks, head of printmaking at MICA, offered him a position at Maryland Institute College of Art. Custen taught there for two years and then at the University of Wisconsin for three years. Custen got married at 44 years old and had a child. He moved back to Maryland and taught at a magnet school for the arts in Dundalk for two years.

Then he went to UMBC and taught for three years printmaking and graphic design and also taught computer science. Then he went to Georgetown and then UMBC again. He retired in 2017 but teaches one class per semester.

Currently, Custen is a member of the Carroll County Arts Council and has participated in several shows. He was a member of the Maryland Printmaker when it existed.

Custen has been selling at Art All Night in DC, a show that travels around the United States annually at 12-18 venues around the city. The show hosts all kinds of artists including visual and performing art. In Washington, D.C., it last until 2 a.m. and is free and open. He sells his colorful windows made of plexiglass called “Memoryscapes”; images of his rides on motorcycles. It is a type of printmaking where Custen scratches an image into plexiglass and colors it and lights it up with LEDs.

“I do artworks that make me feel good. It is fun. It takes some work. It allows me to do printmaking. It is because I can get into a Zen escapism. I go three or four days without sleep. I get new ideas. I am mechanically inclined. I am keen on the process more than the final image that is a document of the process. It is a challenge. I can get lost in my own head and a stream of consciousness.”

He can be contacted calvincusten@gmail.com.

Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.

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