Painting the Town: Plein Air Artists Create Pieces for Upcoming Exhibits

Carl Bretzke creates a painting at Duluth Timber on Monday. Bretzke is a member of Plein Air Painters of America whose work will appear in the exhibition “America’s Industrial Landscape” at the Tweed Museum of Art through Nov. 12. The Tweed is hosting an opening reception Friday; the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Arts is hosting a Plein Air Painters of America reception Saturday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
, Duluth News Tribune

On a gray day at Duluth Timber, the plein air painters scattered across the spread of massive wood piles, rusted boats and gravel roads for industrial vistas.

Carl Bretzke, an award-winning painter whose style the Washington Post once compared to Edward Hopper, went for an unclaimed view. He climbed to the top of the pilothouse of a rusted barge and painted a scene with a white trailer, an old boat and a construction vehicle.

It was the only way to snag a glimpse of a Duluth identifier.

“I wanted the lift bridge in there so there was something iconic,” he said after he had climbed down from the perch. “I needed elevation.”

Bretzke is among a handful of painters — including about 10 members of the Plein Air Painters of America and friends — who set up easels at the harborside site on Monday for a day spent considering the various views. Throughout the week, painters have set up at Duluth Timber Company, Glensheen mansion, Hawk Ridge — and today the Clure Public Marine Terminal — to create pieces that will be shown during a reception from 7-10 p.m. Saturday at Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art.

Billy O. O’Donnell paints inside Duluth Timber on Monday as sparks fly from a saw blade being sharpened. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Meanwhile, previously completed industrial scenes created by 28 Plein Air Painters of America are currently on display at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. An opening reception for “Plein Air: America’s Industrial Landscape,” and “A Thousand Words,” photographs by local and regional artists, is 5-7 p.m. Friday at the museum.

Plein air painters create works on site, rather than in a studio or working from a photograph.

For Bretzke, the acres of reclaimed wood and rusted out thisses and thats at Duluth Timber offered a favorite subject.

“I’m a junk painter,” he said, adding that he likes placing old cars in his landscapes. After packing up on Monday, he said he planned to return to the site and paint another day.

For the Plein Air Painters of America’s annual exhibition, they decided to try something different than the land and water themes they have typically chosen, according to Andy Evansen, a watercolorist who is the president of the group’s board of directors.

The chosen topic: industrial America.

“Duluth is such a great blue collar town with a history,” he said.

They connected with Tweed Museum of Art and were able to set up an exhibition. As the group’s 10 painters have settled into town, they’ve been able to go to prearranged places to paint — or strike out for the unknown.

“There’s a couple of (painters) over the bridge in Superior,” he said on Tuesday while at Glensheen Mansion. “Another is painting on the streets up the hill looking down at the lake.”

Neil Sherman, a Grand Marais-based artist, was invited to join the painters even though he’s not a member of PAPA. On Monday, he opted for a spot on a gravel road with a view of a grain elevator in the distance. He liked the castle-like aesthetic, he said, and the way the road looked leading to it.

Neal Sherman puts more paint on his brush while painting at Duluth Timber on Monday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The group-paint gave him something he doesn’t usually get when he’s working: connection with other people.

“Usually, you’re just doing this by yourself,” he said. “This is great for me to connect with my tribe.”

Matt Kania, who was also a guest of the group, was a painter in motion: surveying his work from afar, measuring the boat that was his subject, shifting forward and then lightly incorporating a tarp on his raw linen canvas and blending it with a napkin.

“It’s fun to see what everyone is doing,” he said. “It’s fun to see other painters in person.”

For two members of the Plein Air Painters of America, it was a return to Duluth. Joe Paquet, of St. Paul, and John Cosby, of Laguna Beach, Calif., painted the Globe Grain Elevator in 2010 as part of their long-term project “Rust and Roadsides.” It’s nearing completion.

“We think of it as an American tale,” Cosby said of the work that considers rail, steel, shipping, coal, mills and more. It has grown beyond what they originally planned, he said, and likened to a Ken Burns documentary.

John Cosby creates a painting Monday at Duluth Timber as Great Lakes Academy of Fine Arts students Eric Rauvola and Kelly Schamberger watch and learn. In the background, Carl Bretzke paints from a high vantage point. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

On Monday, Cosby faced the workshop at Duluth Timber and incorporated faceless students from Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art — who were sketching and observing — into his scene. The area between his thumb and pointer finger was stained dark gray and gold.

Paquet, his partner in paint, was drawn to a spot with a distant grain elevator because of the shapes and colors. It’s a unique point in history, he said. The waning days before all of the old is replaced by new.

“You can still see what was there,” he said. “You get to see what’s left of the generation that built the country.”

Paquet had planned to just stop by Duluth Timber and visit his fellow painters, he said, but ultimately pulled out his own tools. He said he prefers gritty, uncommon beauty rather than scenes that are traditionally pretty and quoted Irish poet John O’Donohue to further make his point.

“The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere,” he said.

If you go

• What: Opening reception for Plein Air Painters of America’s “Plein Air: America’s Industrial Landscape,” and “A Thousand Words,” photographs by local and regional artists

• When: 5-7 p.m. Friday

• Where: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth

• Tickets: Free, open to the public

• What: Plein Air Painters of America’s scenes from Duluth

• When: 7-10 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art, 810 W. Third St.

• Tickets: Free, open to the public

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