Price's "Witnessing Waves" paintings to be featured in Owatonna Arts Center

The striking, socially-conscious artwork of Alison Price will be on display in the Owatonna Arts Center gallery later this month and in February, with most of the pieces focused on trees — and the ties that link all of humanity together.

Many of the paintings in this exhibition are from Price’s “Witnessing Waves” series, which concerns “the waves of human migration up and down the Mississippi River and how it shaped our lives and culture,” Price said. At first glance, one notices “pretty, colorful trees,” but the trees are anthropomorphic, and they’ve “witnessed and gently welcomed everyone coming up the Mississippi River […] with no questions asked.”

Historically, 26 different languages were spoken in the mills of Minneapolis, for example, she said. “That’s mind-boggling.”

Trees “have a life expectancy that goes well beyond our own,” said Silvan Durben, creative director of the Owatonna Arts Center. Much like the cliché “If these walls could talk,” trees “have seen a lot of different transitions, people, and customs.”

Price recently completed a painting called “No Matter the Distance,” which features two large trees on opposite sides of a river, she said. On one level, they represent the Twin Cities, but, more deeply, they symbolize those who have ventured to start new lives in Minnesota while leaving family and friends behind in other states, regions, or countries.

Price’s parents were in one in a similar position, she said. Though she was born in America, they emigrated from the United Kingdom, and while her father quickly found his niche through his job, her mother “was lonely” until she “threw herself into helping other people.”

Consequently, Price’s own personal experiences go into every piece of art she creates, she said. That’s why they really do “take a lifetime to make.”

Artistically-interpreted strands of DNA are interwoven into the “Witnessing Waves” paintings, as well, she said. “Some people notice right away,” while others… “are like, ‘what a cool shape.’”

The “Witnessing Waves” series launched with a stump Price would sketch between classes while an undergraduate at Augsburg University, she said. Later, the tree theme continued to flourish, as a friend introduced her to the remarkable Coldwater Spring.

Considered sacred to the Dakota People, the area has “been inhabited by humans for 9,000 years,” and, no matter the time of year, the water is always 47 degrees, providing warm respite in winter and cool relaxation in summer, she said. “It’s a powerful place.”

She painted a tree hanging over the spring, calling it the “Guardian of Cold Water Spring,” but sadly the tree was later cut down, she said. Keith Ellison, a representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and the current deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was so attracted to her work he selected the “Camp Cold Water Spring” series to hang in his office.

“Ever since I was a little kid, trees and water have been my thing,” Price said. Some of the trees she paints are historically-important, having been recognized by the Department of Natural Resources, while others “I paint because of their personality.”

“Trees are such a great analogy for our current climate,” she said. For example, trees regularly avoid being toppled by wicked storms because their root systems hold them together.

A friend of Durben’s had met Price at a Minneapolis fundraiser and left quite impressed, so “we looked her up online and loved all the use of bright colors,” Durben said. Price also “documents how nature is consistently there, if we are willing to care for it.”

Squares — prominent and minor — are a recurring theme in her work, Price said. The squares “represent every opportunity and person you meet.”

Price has “always been an artist,” with her earliest artistic memory occurring before she turned three and developed any verbal skills, she said. Following a rainstorm, she took squirt bottles of food coloring and toilet paper out to a gutter, squeezed the coloring onto her elementary canvas, and “saw the water swirl it around.”

“It was so beautiful, all the colors blurring and mixing together,” she recalled. She kept her first creations “under my bed for a long time.”

Price’s exhibition opens Jan. 14 and closes at the end of February, Durben said. Price will be on hand at the OAC for an artist reception Feb. 25 from 1-4 p.m.

She prefers to work in acrylic paint, because “it’s more archival than oil,” Price said. It also offers “a greater breadth of color.”

January and February is a felicitous time for her art to be exhibited in Owatonna, as the vibrant colors provide a welcome contrast to winter, Durben said. “This time of year, it’s so bleak, cold, and white (outside).”

Though her pieces have been exhibited in myriad conventional locations, a permanent collection can also be found in an unexpected place: the Federal Bureau of Investigation building in Brooklyn Center.

Price’s explanation?

“They are regular people who like pretty things, too,” she said with a laugh.

More seriously, several of the pieces are “somber,” including “Interruption,” which depicts the Interstate 35W Bridge that collapsed in August of 2007, killing over a dozen and injuring nearly 150, she said. She called the piece “Interruption” because that tragedy interrupted not only traffic and commerce, but “all of our lives.”

Price’s pieces at the OAC are sizeable, as she tends to work on large scales, she said. Of course, she’s also a muralist, “so these are small by comparison.”

Price, who has a master’s in studio art from the University of Wisconsin, currently resides in Burnsville and she works out of the Northrup King building in Minneapolis. She was a featured artist on the Bravo series “Tabatha Takes Over” in 2013 and a selected artist by the Minneapolis Institute of Art the following year.

As director of Phantom Galleries in Superior, Wis., Price has focused on public art, including developing plans and color outlines for massive community murals, the latest of which was 190-feet-long, she said. More than 900 residents joined in the painting.

“I ask everyone to color in something that makes them happy,” which ranges from food — one young boy painted purple pizza slices in a waterfall — to pets, she said. “You get lots of personal stories that way.”

For her community mural projects — and other work with the gallery — Aug. 27, 2013, was declared “Alison Price Day” by Superior’s mayor, she said. “I’m really proud of that collaborative effort.”