Pandemic gives Spicer artist time to create, work now on display at the Berge Gallery in Granite Falls

·6 min read

Jul. 21—SPICER — When going to work each day, Michele Steffen walks through a lush garden in the summer — deep snow in the winter — to get to a barn that was converted into her studio on her family's hobby farm near Spicer.

There, the lifelong, self-taught artist uses inspiration she finds in nature, family and nearly everything else that surrounds her to create paintings and drawings.

Working in a space that's away from the "noise and chaos of whatever else is going on in the world" provides the perfect place to be a creative person, she said, while acknowledging that having the summer garden near the studio door is a mixed blessing.

"So if I need to step away from a work in progress to figure out a difficult problem, let a layer of paint dry, take a break or just procrastinate a bit, there is always a distraction waiting — weeds to pull, berries to pick, interesting weather, bugs or wildlife to look at," she said.

Those distractions may very well end up in a future piece of her artwork.

Steffen currently has an exhibit called "In a Place Beyond" at the K. K. Berge Gallery in Granite Falls that runs through Aug. 7. The gallery, 807 Prentice Street, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

The exhibit is a collection of 16 paintings that includes works in watercolor, acrylic and Sumi-E, which is a Japanese style of ink painting.

"There is a nice sense of quiet calm and mystery that happens when seeing this collection as a whole," Steffen said of the exhibit, adding that those feelings may be enhanced because several of the paintings were completed "in such extreme isolation during the pandemic."

She'll have another exhibit in January at the Cultural Centre in Bird Island.

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Steffen, who has been the recipient of several arts grants and has worked on special community projects, including designing a Minnesota license plate to honor fallen law enforcement officers, said her favorite work is art that helps others. She's currently working on a series of owl drawings, with a portion of sale proceeds going to the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota.

Besides being a full-time artist, she and her husband, Joe, operate Joe Bee Honey.

Steffen provided a glimpse into her art world in a Q&A with the West Central Tribune.

WCT: What are your earliest memories of making art?

Steffen: Drawing with an ordinary pencil or pen on any scrap of paper available was my favorite form of imagination outlet and play. I can't remember a time when I wasn't drawing something, usually animals and most often horses — hundreds of horses! I remember my high school art teacher finally saying, "OK, we know you can draw horses, now you need to draw something else."

WCT: Describe the art you're currently doing.

Steffen: I am currently working on a collection of portrait and figurative paintings and drawings. I am using the term "portrait paintings" a bit loosely. I plan to paint a portrait of a river birch tree on our field road that has always seemed like an old friend and some of the portraits are of animals.

I am the recipient of a grant this year through the Minnesota State Arts Board and the portraits and figurative works of people that I am doing now are for that project.

I recently finished a couple of those paintings for the gallery show in Granite Falls and the rest of the new collection will hang for the first time in the Bird Island Cultural Centre in a show scheduled for January of 2022. I am working mostly in watercolor, acrylic, pastel, various drawing mediums and Japanese style Sumi-E.

WCT: How has your art evolved over the years?

Steffen: The art I do is constantly changing, mostly due to just whim. I wouldn't say my art has become either more abstract or more realistic. The style I choose to paint in is tweaked and tailored to get the look and mood I am trying to achieve for each individual painting.

Over the years I have learned several tricks and shortcuts that make it easier for me to get where I am going with a painting, so the way I work has become more direct and efficient. I don't have to think as hard about how to accomplish effects, etc. In recent years I have been painting more in the style of Japanese Sumi-E for my own enjoyment. I also enjoy calligraphy and have been using it as a design element in paintings more than I used to.

WCT: What/who inspires you as an artist?

Steffen: What doesn't inspire me would be a much shorter list! Nature is an obvious obsession, especially animals and birds, trees, flowers, gardens and landscapes — the moon shows up in many paintings — my family and friends, music, good books, my faith, food, interesting people, experiences (good and bad), emotions and mood (good and bad), architecture, and on and on.

My husband has gotten really good at waiting for me while I stop and stare at random objects on our outings. I tuck lots of things away as rough sketches that will show up later in a painting. I shouldn't run out of ideas for new work anytime soon, but I will most certainly run out of time to paint everything I want to paint.

WCT: How do you make your art available to the public?

Steffen: Most of the paintings at the gallery shows, other than the private collection pieces, are available for sale. I usually do work on commission for clients who saw my art somewhere or heard about me via word-of-mouth. I have always worked by word-of-mouth. I may be the last artist in the world who doesn't have a website, but thankfully I have been blessed with some supportive patrons over the years.

WCT: How did COVID-19 affect you and your art?

Steffen: During my career my work has gone from spending most of my creative time drawing and painting to spending most of my creative time teaching workshops, classes, school residencies and when time allowed, private students. As none of the teaching I do is virtual, COVID caused all of that to screech to an abrupt halt.

The plan then changed to using the time in isolation to create a new body of work for gallery exhibits. When I do a painting, it is usually on commission, so I don't ordinarily have a large group of new paintings ready to show. I miss teaching, but the pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity to dedicate plenty of time to focus on basically just painting exactly what I want to paint.

WCT: Where do you see yourself, and your art, in five years?

Steffen: Just working out in the studio. I have several ideas for new collections for exhibiting. There are more groups I would like to help. I hope to work on more classical portraiture, in acrylic and oils especially, and I have some new directions I want to go with the watercolors and I may even finally get around to that website.

To contact Michele Steffen, call 320-979-6011.

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