Millie (left), has been smiling and taking tolls for 30 years. She now has a beautiful plein air watercolor by Dan Mondloch!

Outdoor painting is so much more than a creative outlet—it’s a way to connect with nature, form lifelong relationships, and expose passers-by to an exciting cultural phenomenon.  Discover how one ascending watercolorist is using his talents to give back to the community he captures in so many beautiful ways.

Do you know that feeling when you’ve just purchased a new painting?  It’s exhilarating—like welcoming a new member of the family into your home.  There’s nothing quite like it.  What if that painting was given to you for free, and was a subject that was special to you?  I can’t even imagine.

Sound impossible?  It’s not through watercolorist Dan Mondloch’s current “#PaintItForward” project funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board.  This community plein air project has Mondloch painting 50 watercolors in public locations around his home town of Saint Cloud, Minnesota.  Mondloch has pledged that he will give away half to onlookers, for free, who have a unique connection to the place being painted.

For Mondloch, the project is a way to call attention to a driving force in his art and, in particular, his philosophy behind plein air painting: the experience and character of place and importance of home.  “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that draws me to a scene,” Mondloch suggested, “I’m sure it’s a number of both technical and intangible things, such as composition, large value shapes, light, and often that unexplainable spirit you feel from a space.  I paint to re-create these connections, and, of course, if my viewers are able to see and feel that as well, it’s a great moment.”

Longtime fair employee Bruce now has a special painting of the Benton County Fair.

This last part is key to Mondloch’s “#PaintItForward” project.  It’s all about a shared experience—a connection, if you will.  Not only has Mondloch formed a special connection to the places he painted, but so have other locals, each with a unique story.  I’m sure most plein air painters have experienced something like this out in the field.  A passer-by happens to come across you and your work and is compelled to engage you in conversation (welcomed or not).  While some will engage in the typical surface-level banter, a few will take it deeper, perhaps retelling a childhood memory, or a recent visit to the area that made an impression.  Perhaps you and your onlooker are inspired by the same colors, sounds, and light.

Deb poses with her new work, “Mississippi Morning”

Begun in August, the project has been a wonderful experience for Mondloch, which is still happening as you read this!  One of the first locations Mondloch chose was situated deep within the shadows of a parking deck in downtown Saint Cloud.  It was here that the artist met Millie—a lovely woman who’s been taking tolls in the deck for 30 years.  When the ramp opened, the city asked if she would drive through and take the first ticket, which she did.  “She said I made her day when I gave her the painting” Mondloch recalls, “but I think it was the other way around!”

Skye, Josh, and Jake found themselves in the “Pay It Forward” project, shown here with “Skate Park” (Number 17 of 50 paintings)

Bruce was another lucky recipient, this time at the Benton County Fair, where Mondloch had positioned himself to capture a cacophony of color and movement near the attraction’s Ferris Wheel.  According to Mondloch, “Bruce started working at the fair when he was 11 years-old.  His first job was the bottle top ring toss game, and now he manages all the rides.  He walked up and asked ‘How much?’, I paused and said ‘How does free sound?’”

Mondloch’s “Partial Shade”, number 15 of 50 paintings

Deb and Dan both had similar ideas on the morning of August 8.  “We both woke up this morning with the same idea in mind—go somewhere to relax in the beauty of nature” Mondloch recalls, “She’s an empty-nester and the river often brings her peace and a sense of purpose.  We didn’t know our paths would cross this morning, but at the confluence of the Sauk and Mississippi rivers, that’s exactly what happened.  Deb is a sweetheart, and the first person to watch me complete an entire plein air painting start to finish!  As the recipient of this painting, she will not only be able to enjoy the final image, but replay in her mind every brushstroke that brought it to life.”

You might be wondering what’s going to happen with the other 25 paintings Mondloch will complete over the duration of his project.  The artist has planned a special exhibition of the works at Saint Cloud’s Paramount Center for the Arts.

Luckily, Dan hasn’t told his good friend Andrew where he’ll be painting around the town—otherwise I might be unfairly amassing my own private collection of his work!

To learn more, visit Dan Mondloch.

This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.

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Editor PleinAir Today, Andrew Webster
Andrew Webster is the Editor of Plein Air Today and works as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.

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