Art Weeks didn't shake my hand when we met.
It wasn't because the artist was rude — he was actually being polite. He didn't want to muck up my hand with the pastel pigment caked onto his fingertips.
We were standing on the second floor of the New Brighton Community Center, as a room full of eager Minnesota artists — who'd come from as far afield as Duluth and Red Wing — worked away at easels, surrounded by boxes of variously colored, short, thick chunks of pastels.
The word "pastel" may call to mind middle-school art class, but this sometimes wild, often messy medium has made appearances throughout art history. Édouard Manet painted some portraits using pastel, as did Eugene Delacroix.
But justifying the use of pastel wasn't the purpose of this annual "paint-in" by members of the Lake Country Pastel Society, an organization founded in 1997 by pastel enthusiasts. The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is hosting an exhibition of their work through March 4.
Fred Somers of Northfield, a professional artist who makes a living from his pastel work, serves as president. Weeks, a retired architect, is the exhibition chair. With 84 members from across Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, the pastel enthusiasts say the medium is easier to work with than oil paints, because you don't have to wait for it to dry, but the colors are just as vibrant.
Pastel is pure pigment, and functions as a dry binder. It's also more affordable than oil paints.
"Is it painting? Is it drawing? It's both!" exclaimed an excited member.
It was too cold to do a plein-air outdoor "paint-out," but the weather didn't make a difference to all the artists intensely working away, getting their pigment on.
A table of cookies, coffee, nuts and bottled water functioned as the equivalent of a water cooler — a spot for folks to take a break before darting back to their easels.
'It has this sparkle'
Artist Lisa Stauffer wore a bright blue sweatshirt and blue jeans. She'd driven all the way from Duluth to participate in the pastel paint-in. Though she wasn't working on anything that day, she did have a couple of framed abstract landscapes and facades of buildings and barns on hand. Her love for pastel runs deep.
"It has this sparkle, this ability to lay one color over the other, to shimmer it through," said Stauffer. A nature lover who participates in many plein-air painting competitions, she teaches painting at the Grand Marais Art Colony, White Bear Center for the Arts, Bloomington Center for the Arts and even the State of Mississippi Pastel Society. (Every state has its own pastel society. There is also the International Association of Pastel Societies, and the Pastel Society of America in New York.)
Given her painting background, Stauffer says she often uses watercolor as an underpainting, then puts the pastel on top.
"To me it feels playful, I can do it in an interactive way. It's great for the water and messy meadows."
Getting to New Brighton was a 2½-hour drive for Stauffer. Although snow was in the forecast, she did not feel deterred.
"I'll go through a blizzard to get here," she declared.
Many artists at the paint-in were focused on landscapes, but Sue Rowe was deep into a portrait of a surly looking rabbit. Other pictures of rabbits surrounded her on the table. This wasn't her first time hyper-focusing on an animal. Her path into pastels was pretty random, and grew out of a sense of restlessness.
"I'm an antique dealer in Stillwater, and I got bored and drew a bear out of a magazine," said Rowe, who is originally from rural northern Wisconsin. "I finally used my art degree from UW-River Falls — I graduated with highest honors back in the day, and then didn't draw from 1981 to 1997."
She became a bear artist, creating what she describes as "fantastical bear art" — pink bears with yellow noses, or a red bear dancing against a yellow background. But when she arrived at pastels, she also had a desire to diversify her mammals.
"I just got bored, so I took pictures of the bunnies at the State Fair, or I'd steal a couple of images from online," she said. She came to pastels by chance, and finally got over her dislike of them.
"I hated pastels," she said. "They were messy and icky."
As Rowe spread fresh magenta pigment around the rabbit's head, it was clear that her relationship with pastels had turned into something else completely.
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