Minnesota painter Tom Maakestad has a solo show on view through June 6 in which paintings done from aerial photographs show the lessons and experience of painting Minnesota landscapes en plein air

“The Long View,” at Minneapolis’s Groveland Gallery, is a project that Maakestad has been contemplating for years. “I was a mountain climber when I was younger,” he says. “My dad was a mountain climber and he encouraged us to go along, and we loved it. The view from the mountaintop was expansive. Often when you are climbing you are buried in the woods, and then suddenly you get up above the trees and you can see down, and see out.”

“Some Perspective,” by Tom Maakestad, 2011, oil pastel on paper, 14 x 20 in. Courtesy of Waseca Art Center, Waseka, Minnesota. This is not part of the current show, but it’s an example of the artist’s plein air work, in this case done from a high ridge.

His parents’ property was in a wide valley, and Maakestad took to painting from the ridges, looking down and over the land. In his work life, he was often in planes, sometimes over sparsely populated areas such as Mongolia or northern Canada. “In this particular series, I was looking at how man has interacted with the landscape and affected it,” says Maakestad. “I was considering what parts are still pristine in my particular area. Some of the overlays that humans have brought to the landscape are very interesting. Pipelines, roads, and railroad tracks all can make a more interesting painting. They are the things that make ourselves more successful as humans, but they may ultimately work against us because of their impact on the earth.”

“Distant Farm,” by Tom Maakestad, 2015, oil on linen, 20 x 28 in. Courtesy of Groveland Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Maakestad says the photography that informed his aerial paintings made him think about the very nature of plein air painting. He sees evidence of the impact of photography on the Impressionist plein air paintings, in that, like a photograph, a plein air piece captures a single moment in a changing environment. “What you are trying to understand is the moment,” he says. “In a plane, you get mere moments to consider what to do with your camera, with a picture. You take the photo, then back in the studio you consider what to do with it.”

The artist was able to create this body of work thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Maakestad hired small airplanes and hung out the doors, strapped in, snapping thousands of photos. He experimented with various media and grounds. He considered various compositional approaches. “What is my perspective?” he asked himself. “Half of the pieces in the show have obvious horizon. Others have clouds reflected in water, or clouds casting shadows to provide the context.”

“Back Channel,” by Tom Maakestad, 2015, oil on linen, 20 x 28 in. Courtesy of Groveland Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

With so many options, Maakestad says it was a challenging project. “I wasted more canvas in this show than I ever have,” he says. “I finished as many as 45 pieces and hung 30.”

Maakestad isn’t quite done with the aerial viewpoint. His next project will even more closely weld plein air with aerial photography. “I will probably hire a hot-air balloon and take all my gear up,” says the artist. “I’ll do 20- to 30-minute paintings, and maybe finish them in the studio.”


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