Each winter photographers and painters from around the Midwest gather at the YMCA canoe camp Menogyn for the Grand Marais Art Colony’s Winter Arts Festival. This year, the art’s festival ran from January 25th to February 1st. During the week, plein air painters, Neil Sherman, Matt Kania and Tom McGregor painted canoes racked for the winter at the camp. The contrast between the white snow and blues, reds and greens of the canoes popped off the wall during the show that runs all of February at the Grand Marais art colony. (Featured painting by Tom McGregor.)
I caught up with each of the painters and asked them a few questions:
PaddlingLight: Canoes, winter and northern Minnesota where the lakes are frozen 3 feet thick don’t seem like an obvious combination. Why did you paint these canoes?
Matt: I love painting the “non-obvious”. In winter it’s assumed that a painter would only be interested in sweeping snow and snow-ladened pine bows. Not me, I’m fascinated by what’s been forgotten or put away during the cold, hard water months. I ask myself, “What’s a canoe thinking about while it’s resting?” And besides, on a cloudy winter’s day I’m excited to paint some ‘color’! Also, see my canoe painting “Snowbirds” from last year.
Tom: There was something sort of melancholy about the canoes at rest for the winter. I guess happy memories of canoeing through the boundary waters and lakes of Minnesota might have had something to do with that.
Also, there is something so perfect about the form of a canoe. It is perfectly suited for its use – graceful in its lines while being totally functional. I also painted a canoe at the summer plein air because of its beauty.
Neil: I liked the idea of the canoe workshop in winter. I liked the dusting of snow on the canoes and how it trailed off into the shop.
PaddlingLight: How do you keep your paint from freezing in winter? Or, is there anything special or different about painting in winter that you have to do?
Matt: Oil paints don’t freeze. But that said, when it’s really cold … they stiffen up. Just a little bit of mineral spirits will loosen them up so they flow. You don’t need much, so just a little thinner will get the paint to flow.
Tom: Oil paints get a little stiff when the temperature is below zero but they are still workable. It just takes more effort to cover the canvas. I carry extra clothes when I’m hiking to a painting location. You don’t want to get too sweaty before you paint. When I arrive on location I add a layer or two depending on the temperature. To be honest, I am blessed with good circulation, so I don’t get as cold as a lot of people. Also, I get so immersed in the act of painting that I barely notice that it is cold. Still, why should I want to paint when it is blistering cold out? – because the best lighting effects usually occur when it is coldest. The sun is low in the sky all day casting pink and yellow beams across violet shadows in the snow. I much prefer that to the endless green of mid summer.
Neil: It usually stays pretty workable unless the temps get into the single digits then the paint gets kinda stiff and stringy. Often I’ll keep tubes in my pocket on the inside of my coat to keep it soft.
PaddlingLight: What’s your paddling experience?
Matt: I consider myself more of a kayaker. But I do love canoe travel as well. Most of my trips are long, for 2 or 3 weeks at a time … in Canada and on Lake Superior.
Tom: I’ve canoe camped in North Dakota, and the boundary waters and along the St. Croix River and elsewhere in Minnesota. I’ve taken quite a few day trips. I’ve successfully rolled a canoe without losing any gear.
Neil: My dad starting taking me to the BWCAW when I was in the fifth grade. I’ve also paddled in numerous Provincial Parks including Woodland Caribou, Bright Sand River and Atikaki.
PaddlingLight: Wood canoe, Kevlar or plastic? Really?
Matt: For kayak, it’s fiberglass or composite all the way … makes for a fast and durable vessel! For canoeing on a local lake it’s gotta be wood. But if there’s a portage involved, give me Kevlar at all costs!
I always enjoy reading artist’s artist’s statements, so here they are next to their paintings
Neil Sherman Artist’s Statement
At 6’2” and 260 Lbs. it’s not hard to miss landscape painter Neil Sherman. “ I was once literally mistaken for Bigfoot,” says the Grand Marais, Minnesota artist. Like the woodland creature, Sherman prowls the woods and shoreline of the northern coast of Lake Superior searching for nourishment. “Only it’s a visual appetite I’m trying to quench.“ The artists humbly notes he is nowhere near the legendary status of Bigfoot but his work has won awards at the Salmagundi Club, Salon International exhibit at Greenhouse Gallery, the Minnesota State Fair and the Grand Marais Plein Air competition.
Tom McGregor Artist’s Statement
The feeling of total immersion in a world of my own creation is something I strive for every time I paint. Painting on location (en plein air) combines my passion for being outdoors with my love of painting. The beauty of our natural and man-made world—the woods, the streams, the structures placed upon it—never cease to fascinate me. I’m satisfied with a painting if transports me to a particular place and time of day and at the same time, looks like paint on canvas.
Matt Kania’s Artist’s Statement
I can sum up my approach to painting in one short sentence … “I am fascinated by what’s right in front of me.” That’s why I paint ‘en plein air’ … I’m painting directly from my experience.
I am currently working toward my first solo exhibition of plein air oil paintings, to be hosted by and on display at the Duluth Art Institute at the end of this year (October through December, 2013). The theme of my work and show is “Start Seeing Duluth: Plein Air and Studio Paintings of the Zenith City” – a thematic look at iconic landmarks and often overlooked views of the ‘city on the hill’ – through the yes and hands on an oil painter.
I have recently received a Career Development Grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, which is funded in part with money from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008; an appropriation from the Minnesota State Legislature; and The McKnight Foundation.