Since 2010, painters have gathered at YMCA Camp Menogyn to paint the austere beauty of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the heart of winter.

Let’s Go Painting Outdoors!

By Renee LeVerrier

Each January, artists trek easels, canvas, and luggage a half mile across frozen West Bearskin Lake toward a lodge on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. For nearly a decade, this group of painters starts the year together in Northern Minnesota where, for five days, they work on their art in temperatures that range from 30 degrees above zero to 30 degrees below.

Crossing the lake toward camp

The painting outdoors migration began in 2010, originally conceived by Neil Sherman, and sponsored by the Grand Marais Art Colony. Now sponsored by the Outdoor Painters of Minnesota, thanks to Allison Eklund, painters arrive from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Ontario. Songbirds wait until spring, but these plein air artists gather when the snow transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland. Artists enjoy the changing weather conditions that provide opportunities to paint familiar subjects in new ways. And for artists who work in nature, no bugs and no crowds make it a plein air painter’s dream.

Allison Eklund with her plein air painting setup
Fresh hoar frost on the trees

Michelle Wegler, a pastel artist, has participated in the retreat since its beginning. “I came the first year because of the lure of having three meals a day provided. No need to cook, just paint. As a bonus, there’s no cell phone service, no TV, no internet.” She says she returns each year for the painting opportunities and spending time with people who are now friends. “There is no competition, no awards, just days of painting and fun.”

No fun with this group!

Artists head out to paint after breakfast, when it has “warmed up.” While oil paint doesn’t freeze, fingers do when painting outdoors in the cold. Artists have developed ways to stay warm and keep painting. Parkas, good boots, and hand warmers are part of the standard clothing.

To keep his paints warm, Adam Swanson sets his acrylic tubes in a cooler with a hot water bottle. Watercolorists have tried various tricks. Vodka is not a water replacement, they’ve learned! The artists working in pastel, on the other hand, carry on as their sticks are impervious to the temperature.

Matt Kania in a sheltered spot

Painting is hard work and builds up an appetite. Lodge staff provide three hearty and delicious meals each day. In the evenings, there can be night painting, indoor setups, sitting around the fire discussing art topics, or participating in the traditional hootenanny, led by our own Tom McGregor and friends. Newcomer Greg Finnegan provided bagpipes this year.

Lisa Stauffer staying warm in the lodge
The day’s work

Each day’s work is displayed in the lodge, and the week’s work is displayed in a pop-up exhibit in a gallery in Grand Marais.

“Menogyn Sunset With Trees, Waxing Moon” by Michelle Wegler

The weather may be cold and gray, but the painting and friendship always warms the soul. Here’s to next year!

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