The Arts Flourish in Rural Minnesota
The legendary Grand Marais Art Colony in northern Minnesota and the tiny town of Farwell in the central part of the state draw artists from across the country
On a walk one summer day in 2007, Jean Wright came across a demonstration of encaustic painting outside Wet Paint, an art supply store in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Wright had never heard of that style of painting, an ancient art form that combines colored pigments with heated wax, but she was transfixed by what she saw.
"I smelled the wax, a sweet smell like a flower or good food, and I could not look away," said Wright, 68. "Watching, I saw that the wax was like a veil, where the artist tells a story, puts a veil over it and then scrapes it back to tell secrets, a continuous process of conceal and reveal. Other people stayed 10 or 15 minutes, but I was there for over two hours, and I knew I had to try it."
"I want to know what light looks like, how to paint what it feels like to be embraced."
Wright promptly signed up for a class, and then took four more over the next three years.
Now, she rents a studio in Minneapolis, where she continues to work in the ancient technique. "Heck yes, I'm still doing this," Wright said. "I want to know what light looks like, how to paint what it feels like to be embraced. I want to know how to stay in touch with whatever I perceive divinity to be, figure out what solitary feels like and show that I wish safe passage for a friend who recently died."
Jeffrey Hirst, the artist at the demonstration that day in 2007 and her teacher since then, has encouraged Wright's explorations. "Jeff is a generous teacher," she said. "His approach is if you want to know about something, you will know by trying it, and he talks you past the fear of doing the wrong thing."
Hirst, 64, is a painter and printmaker based in Chicago. His work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe, and he is credited with pioneering the process of combining silkscreen and encaustic painting.
Hirst speaks highly of Wright. "Jean does phenomenal work, and she has taken encaustic art to a different level. She shows and sells her work, and has done well," he said. "She was one of the first people to attend a workshop I taught at Grand Marais Art Colony"
The Art Colony at Grand Marais Serves as a 'Creative Home'
Founded in 1947, the storied Art Colony is in Grand Marais, a town on the north shore of Lake Superior just south of the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
The longest-lived arts colony in Minnesota, the Art Colony offers studios, multi-disciplinary spaces, classrooms and a writing room that all lend themselves to aesthetic inquiry, experimentation and artistic development.
"While firmly rooted on the North Shore of Minnesota in what we like to call the Third Coast, our arts community is at the same time not geographically bound," said Ruth Pszwaro, artistic director. "We've become a creative home for many artists and arts learners across the nation."
"The external horizon line offers us all an expansiveness that translates to the internal, and we support the stepping stones of learning and growth for those who want to give art a try as well as for those who want to mature in their work," Pszwaro continued. "Some people have been coming here for 20 or 30 years, and we also have younger artists finding their place in our community for the first time."
The Art Colony draws as many as 300 adult students and 100 youth each year. They sign up for small in-person classes (with a few virtual options), where they explore everything from painting to literary arts to sculpture to ceramics to printmaking. Some 45 to 50 instructors are leading classes in 2023.
Festivals and an Interdisciplinary Poet Draw Fans
The instructors and those in residencies stay on the premises, and some lodging is available in town for students. Fans from far and wide also flock to the town each year for the annual Grand Marais Arts Festival in July and the biennial North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in November.
The residency program, which has recently expanded, greatly benefited Moheb Soliman, an interdisciplinary poet who spent time on the shoreline writing his book "HOMES," which traces the coasts of the five Great Lakes through postmodern poems. Affiliated with the Art Colony for over the past decade, Soliman, 43, has led workshops, presented art installations, served as a featured presenter at the annual literary festival and headed up a performance project.
"They are so supportive of me," Soliman said. "They connect so strongly to the regional community, but are aware of themselves as important to the larger region and the country, one node of greater consciousness of thinking about the Great Lakes — and that is so stimulating to me."
One workshop Soliman led attracted an older crowd of writers to the class, which focused on writing about contemporary nature even as we are aware that it is in crisis. "Our reading list included authors who write about nature in interesting ways, some of whom fold in loss and activism," he said. "We talked about what the lenses are and what we are prompted to do as writers. They all picked it right up and got in there, investing in the topic from a personal place."
Farwell, Population 51, Boasts Four Art Spaces
Last summer, Gloria Pfeifer took a class in plein air painting through the Art Colony, and now she's scheduling a related workshop in Farwell, a town in rural farm country some 336 miles southwest of Grand Marais. Pfeifer is one of several older adults who over the past six years has helped restore four historic buildings there, turning them into art spaces to display the talents of artists and musicians from the region and beyond.
"I plan art classes and shows, pop-up art sales, storytelling workshops and music concerts from May 1 through October 1, and we even have a gift shop," said Pfeifer, 66, who lives in nearby Starbuck. All the events take place in the restored one-room schoolhouse, a service garage, a creamery and the Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church, built in 1907. Ted Irgens, a corporate lawyer in Minneapolis with family connections in Farwell, bought the long-vacant church in 2017.
Later that year, Irgens hired Pfeifer to restore the decorative painting inside the church, and Pfeifer's husband, Jack, signed on to help with building repairs. That Christmas, hundreds of visitors attended the reopening of the church. Soon after, Irgens bought the additional buildings. Volunteers came forward, including Rose Meade, 71, manager of the Bremness Gallery in Glenwood, and Deb Holmes, 73, of Lowry.
"The work was completed last fall, and we've planted trees and put in gardens that bloom from early spring to late fall," Pfeifer said. "Right now, I'm scheduling events and we're working with nearby towns to bring more people to this special place where we can gather through the arts. It's all been a giant experiment — and the result is epic."