For the past month or so, the New York-based artist Brad Kahlhamer has been making art in a cabin studio in Minnesota’s Northwoods.
Just before, he had been traveling through Europe, exhibiting his work at shows in Paris and Cordoba. Then, he came to Park Rapids, Minn., the north central Minnesota town surrounded by lakes at the Mississippi headwaters.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this residency in the first place was to fish the incredible waters that you have,” says Kahlhamer, pointing to the studio wall tacked with a large piece of painted canvas: watery pools of color form the shape of a bird over blue shapes. “This eagle is in a sort of vertiginous state over a series of lakes, a chain of lakes.”
Kahlhamer, whose work resides in museum collections around the world, and Waverly Bergwin, a fellow New York artist and Kahlhamer’s apprentice, are the first artists in residence of the Nemeth Art Center, which has been in operation for more than 40 years. The residency program culminates with the opening of an exhibition July 1, which will feature the artwork they created at the cabin.
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Artist Aaron Spangler is the vice chair of the center’s board and curates exhibitions with the new director Mark Weiler. They say the residency was created to help bring great contemporary art and artists to a rural area, essentially the center’s mission.
“I just want to show work that is relevant to an international and regional narrative that’s going on in visual arts, in the visual language,” Spangler says.Sculpture Garden piece gives Park Rapids artist a boost
He grew up in Park Rapids; his mother was one of the folks that started the center in the seventies, still in its original location in the 19th-century Hubbard County Courthouse. “We’re also trying to get school kids involved in meeting the artists,” he adds, “Like me when I was growing up, I think about, what did I want? My audience is me when I was 16.”
The Nemeth Art Center has long exhibited the work of many internationally renowned contemporary regional artists; up until last week, it was Poa Houa Her’s “Attention Series,” a collection of photographic portraits of Hmong-American veterans.
It has also been fostering an artist exchange, helping send regional artists to exhibit elsewhere, such as the current “Cross Country” show at the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation’s Ojai Institute in California, featuring artists Julie Buffalohead, Bruce Engebretson, Christopher Harrison and Melba Price. (Carolyn Glasco Bailey, who died in 2015, was formerly a Minneapolis gallerist and collector).
And the residency has been sort of unofficially happening for years, Spangler says, with artists and writers coming to stay and work at the cabin that is on the same remote woodsy property where he lives with his wife, Amy Thielen, the famed chef and tv personality behind “The New Midwestern Table.”
As of June, the residency became official under the Nemeth Art Center umbrella, complete with artist stipends to support a monthlong residency.
Kahlhamer was an easy first choice for the residency program because Spangler has known him for years, since they were both artists living in New York. They even played together for a few years in a band in Brooklyn.
Although based in New York, and part time in Arizona, Kahlhamer has roots in the Midwest (he grew up in Wisconsin), and frequently shows his work in the Twin Cities, where his art is in the collections of Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and he is represented by the Minneapolis Bockley Gallery. Kahlhamer is known for art — prints, sculpture, painting and more — that explores, often playfully, his Native and white identity.
Spangler says he hopes the residency gives artists the space and time to try new things with zero pressure to produce anything commodifiable.
“Part of what we want to do is: We’re a place where you can really experiment with new work,” Spangler says.
In the cabin studio, Kahlhamer points to empty beer cans Bergwin is painting with plant life.
“So, over the period of this residency, we’ve acquired or amassed a number of cans of which, you know, we physically have drank out of,” Kahlhamer says. “And then we’ll paint them. In a way, we’re kind of rebranding various things we pulled out of Park Rapids stores. Obviously, inspired by the local fauna.”
Kahlhamer tours the other pieces they are developing: small sculptures, a totem painting, a dream catcher, oil portraits of folks from the recent White Earth Nation powwow and a reimagined La-Z-Boy type chair he found onsite.
“Part of being in a residency that that has a lot of freedom is I can go through various things laying around,” Kahlhamer says. “I have a habit of improvising a lot of work, especially the sculptural work.”
Bergwin is a sculptor and writer who has been working with Kahlhamer for nine years as an apprentice, assistant and collaborator. Bergwin has also been creating their own sculpture series of “weird fairy tale swords and daggers” using wire and organic plant matter, including wildflowers and dead beetles found on site.
“One day I’ll go off on a cool quest or something,” Bergwin says, laughing. Bergwin and Kahlhamer have done other residencies, but those felt more like summer camp, they say.
“We’re trying to complete the body of work here to take it to show at Nemeth,” Bergwin adds. “We have tasks, we have goals, there’s a direction with everything.”
Mark Weiler, who became the center’s director in April, is helping move the artwork from the cabin studio to the center in town. He says just having the artists hanging around the area, having exchanges with the community, is important.
“When you bring someone like Brad Kahlhamer to work in the woods, he’s riding his bike to the general store every day, and he’s meeting the shop owners, and he’s naturally meeting people that are coming through to get gas or donuts or whatever,” Weiler says. “There’s a direct influence on that community, just from him being there and having that presence.”
He says the Nemeth Art Center wants to create a “cultural nexus” in a rural area. “There’s such a concentration of really talented world-class creatives in a small place, that it kind of lends itself to that,” says Weiler who comes to Park Rapids from Fargo, N.D., where he ran the Ecce Gallery.
“The key is that there’s an approachability to it in Park Rapids,” Weiler says. “Artists and creatives, people in general, chefs — they’re doing things at a very high level, but not something that’s fancy and makes you kind of shy around or embarrassed. Because people are wearing sandals at the opening. It’s not the Metropolitan or something like that … it’s upscale but not uptight.”
The artist residency exhibition has an opening reception 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, July 1, and runs through Oct. 1. In the spring of 2023, the Nemeth Art Center will welcome their next artist in residency, Madeleine Bialke.