‘We protect what we love’: St. Croix River Valley artist Kami Mendlik is landscape painter — and caretaker
“I’ve been told countless times how ‘painterly’ my work is, and I’m often asked how I achieve this quality. A painterly painting may appear to have happened effortlessly, but for this to occur, each and every stroke of color must symbolize light, shadow, and/or form. The more confident a painter becomes with color and its purpose, the looser and more effortless the brushstrokes appear. Good painting simply takes practice, time, knowledge, discipline, and desire. There’s really no way around this; these skills aren’t handed out on a silver platter. If you want your paintings to be filled with beautiful light and color, go back to the beginning and strengthen your understanding of the properties of color. The more you slow down and enjoy this process, the faster you’ll grow and improve.”
– Kami Mendlik, “Color Relativity: Creating the Illusion of Light With Paint”
Impressionist painter Kami Mendlik has a gift for finding beauty in the ordinary.
Take her painting studio in Grant, just west of Stillwater.
It’s on the upper level of a brick-red, hip-roof barn on 16 acres of land that she purchased in 2014. The barn – and the house that goes with it – had been on the market for a year when Mendlik first toured it.
“It needed a ton of work,” she said. “It was mice-infested, and there were so many trees, there wasn’t a driveway over here.”
The selling point for Mendlik? More than half the land was wetlands. Unfortunately, bank officials didn’t see the low-lying land saturated with water as an asset.
“Nobody would give me a loan,” she said. “The marsh, to me, is paradise, but the banks and everyone else called it a swamp. I can’t tell you how many times I had to say: ‘It’s not a swamp. That’s not even the definition of a swamp. It is a marsh. It is a haven, and we can paint it.’”
After striking out with eight lenders – “one guy said that as a single mom and an artist, I would have a better chance of getting a loan if I worked at McDonald’s” – Mendlik finally found a banker at Central Bank in Stillwater willing to help.
The windows on the northeast side of her studio overlook the marsh, which is populated with cattails, monarch butterflies, red-winged blackbirds, spring peepers, fireflies and sand-hill cranes.
Mendlik can often be found outside with her easel and paints capturing the scene.
A blue chair positioned under a large oak is Mendlik’s “thinking chair.” “I sat under this tree when I was trying to decide if I was going to buy this place,” she said. “It said yes. It’s just so beautiful. To me, it’s paradise.”
SCENIC ST. CROIX RIVER
Mendlik, 49, grew up in May Township in northern Washington County not far from the St. Croix River, which continues to be one of her favorite subjects.
“The river is parallel to life in the fact that the constant is the change, and that the moving is the steady, and every moment is fleeting,” she said. “That’s what is beautiful about it, and that’s what you can count on.”
Mendlik, the founder of the St. Croix River School of Painting, hopes that her paintings will inspire others to protect the land, especially the St. Croix and its tributaries.
“I recognize that I’m in a position that my art can help people engage and love the land,” she said. “We protect what we love. We’re so lucky to have it, and we have to work hard to keep it protected.”
Mendlik was featured in the documentary “The Wild and Scenic St. Croix,” released in 2018. Filmmaker John Kaul, who lives in Afton, said he picked Mendlik to “be the voice of the river because it inspires and informs her art.”
“I think I fell in love with the river when I started painting it,” Mendlik says in the documentary. “Painting the river … has been a great source of inspiration since before I can remember. We made an agreement – the river and I – that we would have a mutual respect for one another.”
Mendlik started studying plein air painting, the practice of painting landscape pictures outdoors, when she was in her early 20s. “I love landscape painting simply because it’s where I want to be – immersed in the elements, studying light, studying color,” she said.
Mendlik works outdoors in all types of weather. When it gets too cold, below 18 degrees, Mendlik shifts to the passenger seat of her Honda Pilot.
“You’ve got to be able to move your fingers,” she said. “I call it ‘car painting.’ It’s actually become a trend. There’s, like, people all over the world doing it now. They want to know, ‘How do you do it?’ ‘Where do you go?’ ‘What do you do?’”
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Mendlik said she started car painting years ago after getting tired of being stuck in her studio during the winter months. “I thought, ‘I’ll just go out and sketch,’ and then I thought, ‘Well, why can’t I have my paints on my lap?’” she said.
She cut the ends off her brushes, so that she’d have more space to paint on the small canvases she props on her lap. She keeps the car running with the windows cracked open and uses Gamsol Mineral Spirits, which is odorless, to thin her oil paints.
“It really works,” she said. “It’s like all things in having a creative life: You’re pretty much problem-solving and figuring stuff out, and then if something works, you stick to it. The world is my studio, for sure.”
FASCINATED WITH COLOR
Mendlik, a member of American Women Artists and the American Impressionist Society, specializes in teaching representational painting with an emphasis on color. She recently published her first book, “Color Relativity: Creating the Illusion of Light With Paint.”
Mendlik says she has been fascinated with color since she was a little girl. She remembers walking to her paternal grandparents’ 400-acre farm, which was a mile away, and seeing “the pink tops of the seed pods and the purple in the sky – this was before I ever started painting – and wondering how I would paint that,” she said. “I always wanted to draw and paint.”
When she was in second grade, her parents gave her her first set of oil paints – complete with a jar of turpentine. “I just kept asking for it, and they didn’t exactly know why,” she said. “Today, given the toxicity level of turpentine, you probably wouldn’t give that to a second-grader, but back then, it was ‘Here. Here’s your oil-painting kit.’”
She took her first art class from a professional artist when she was in fourth grade. Her maternal grandmother, Ruth Shervheim, was a serious art collector and would buy her paintings and hang them in the parlor of her house in Lake Elmo, she said.
She continued painting as she got older, escaping for hours at the farm with her sketchbook or paints and observing the land, she said. “I had a really strong work ethic when it came to painting. When things were hard, I would go into nature, no matter what was going on.”
ST. CROIX RIVER SCHOOL OF PAINTING
After graduating from Stillwater Area High School in 1991, Mendlik studied classical realism with artist Mary Pettis in Taylors Falls. “I realized that if I was going to spend my life painting, I needed to earn a living doing so,” she said. “I knew training and education would be key in order to become the best I could be.”
Between painting and teaching classes, Mendlik waitressed part-time at Trumps in Stillwater. She founded the St. Croix River School of Painting in 2008.
Stillwater artist Jim Hainlen, who has taken classes from Mendlik since 2010, said Mendlik “shines the light on the twists and turns of our internal world – the jagged moments; the smooth moments; the moments of intense, passionate love, and the moments of confusion.”
In one of his favorite paintings, “Red Wing Blackbirds Sing,” Mendlik “reveals the beauty of the ordinary – the collective memory we share of St. Croix River sunrises, cattails that emerge from the painting and from the cattails of our youth,” said Hainlen, the former orchestra director at Stillwater Area High School. “The moment where we understand better that what connects people is our common humanity, not our political differences.”
Mendlik started writing “Color Relativity” 12 years ago when her children, Paige and Nick Polzin, were 12 and 10. She worked on the 193-page book – which includes 170 images that she painted and illustrated – between raising the kids and teaching and painting full-time. It retails for $165.
“I was so just completely obsessed with finishing it because then I knew I could live freely,” she said. “I knew that it needed to exist and be out there. I just wanted to make sure it existed for the world when we are not here. That was a big deal to me. I get what art is, and this is art history in the making.”
The inside front and back covers include dozens of black-and-white photos of some of the more than 1,000 students Mendlik has taught through the decades. “They’re all painting outside,” she said. “Everyone is studying color for natural light.”
The book is for anyone interested in art and anyone interested in understanding “how to see what they’re seeing because we need to learn how to see the truth,” she said.
This summer, Mendlik won two major awards from the Oil Painters of America. The 2022 Bronze Medal in the Associate & Signature Artist Division includes a fully funded art retreat to Europe and a cash award funded by OPA with a total value of $5,500. She also received the Dorothy Driehaus Mellin Fellowship for Midwestern Artists, which includes a $20,000 cash award.
Being recognized for her work has “reinforced to me the importance of my work here – continuing to show up, painting light, painting beauty,” she said. “It makes me want to work harder to share the message that beauty exists.”
Mendlik this fall will be starring in two instructional painting videos that will be shot in Austin, Texas. After decades of teaching, she will be taking a class for the first time in 20 years at the Scottsdale Artists’ School in December in Scottsdale, Ariz. She’ll be studying design and composition with two of her best artist friends: Kim Casebeer and Chula Beauregard.
“I’m an eternal student,” she said. “I never want to plateau; I always want to continue to grow. I love being pushed. It also helps me to remember what it’s like to be in the role of student.”
Supporting the arts – and artists – is critical, according to Mendlik.
“Art is not just pretty pictures on the wall,” she said. “We need people who are supporting art, and it can be in lots of different forms. First of all, they’re bringing recognition to the natural world oftentimes, which then engages them, and then we love it, and then we protect it. We need it to be safe and preserved for always. I want that for my grandkids who don’t exist yet – and their grandkids – because that’s our job while we’re here.”
Supporting artists means artists “can do the work and keep getting better,” she said.
“That’s what I want to talk about,” she said. “That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I just want to paint. I just want to educate. I just want to bring joy and help people see the beauty through paintings. I love that.”
KAMI MENDLIK AND ‘COLOR RELATIVITY’
For more information about Kami Mendlik, go to kamimendlik.com.
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