Artist seeks inspiration in Mississippi River adventure

  • Article by: SAMANTHA LUHMANN , La Crosse Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2014 - 11:32 PM

Ellen Kolbo McDonah will begin the 2,350-mile trip from Lake Itasca.

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Artist and paddler Ellen McDonah will embark on a 2,350-mile kayak trip down the Mississippi River in late May. When she returns, she plans to make paintings based on her experience.

Photo: Peter Thomson • La Crosse Tribune,

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Artist Ellen Kolbo McDonah of Galesville, Wis., tried to pinpoint her style for years. She paints and sketches, finding inspiration from people and breathtaking scenes in nature.

People often told her she had a distinct way of portraying her art, but McDonah didn’t know what that was. She would sit inside of her studio and think, wondering what it was that separated her work from the rest — until now.

Adventurism art, the term McDonah uses to define her style, is more than just a way of creating art; it’s immersing oneself into different places and situations that bring about inspiration.

Instead of waiting for creativity to come, adventurism art is going out into the world and finding it. It’s not knowing what will bring about inspiration, but rather discovering it in unforeseen ways.

“Adventurism art is when you seek an exciting experience for the purpose of art,” she said. “I’ve been searching for my style, and I really think I’ve found it.”

And this summer, McDonah will execute her newfound method in a 2,350-mile kayaking trip down the Mississippi River. “I’m so excited about it it’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s going to be a gem that I’ll hold forever.”

Her ‘dream trip’

McDonah will depart on her once-in-a-lifetime trip on May 24, two days before her 60th birthday. She will begin in Lake Itasca and end in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her husband, Jeff McDonah, will drop her off in Minnesota and pick her up in New Orleans. McDonah said that the journey “wasn’t a race” and that she plans to take her time reveling in the experience.

“I want to challenge myself as a creative person,” she said. “It’s like my dream trip.”

The idea to embark on an extended trip down the Mississippi River came about when McDonah was 16 years old. She had always enjoyed outdoor recreation, she said, and was, of course, passionate about art.

McDonah began researching the river and learned everything she could about other adventurers who successfully completed the trek. Her biggest inspiration, who is also McDonah’s hero, is Janet Moreland from Columbia, Mo.

Moreland kayaked the entire length of the Missouri-Mississippi river system in 2012, a 3,800-mile trip. She was the first woman to complete the trek solo and recorded her experience online.

Hopes for an exhibition

Similar to Moreland, McDonah plans to track her adventure through regular journal entries. But the journey, for her, will be more about the art than the actual outdoor pursuit.

McDonah will sketch or draw anything she finds inspiring on cotton and acid-free paper, she said. She will also bring a limited pallet of acrylic colors to paint with, including Mars black, titanium white, burnt umber and ultramarine blue.

Upon returning home from the expedition, she plans to paint an estimated 50 pieces that depict her overall experience. She hopes to display the art in a public exhibit.

McDonah thought about the trip from time to time, but didn’t get serious about it until last year. That was when she was finally able to discover her style, two years after she retired as an elementary school teacher for the school district of Holmen in 2011.

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