Fall/winter healing artists to counter the seasonal darkness and chill with warmth and color

Days are growing shorter and temperatures colder, but there’s plenty of warmth and color in the art for the fall/winter season of Healing Arts, which will run through February.

This new season will officially kick off with a reception Tuesday at Owatonna Hospital for the featured artists: illustrator Gary Harbo, painter Lori Tapani, painter Andrew Judkins, Alan Shefland, photography, and Matt Swenson, mixed media. Tuesday’s event is scheduled from 4:30-6 p.m., with several of the artists planning to attend.

Tapani is eager to return to Owatonna, a place she’d never spent much time in until taking a downtown tour recently, she said. “I thought, ‘what a cool town.’”

Lori Tapani

When Silvan Durben, the Owatonna Art Center’s creative director and curator of Healing Arts, approached Tapani about Healing Arts after seeing her work exhibited in Austin, she “felt really passionate about” participating, because “I do feel art has the power to heal,” as art has made a profound impact on her, she said. “I’ve had some trauma in my life,” and “painting has really helped me through some tough times.”

And her colorful floral paintings ought to be especially welcome in the hospital during the fall and winter, she said. “As you can see, I’m not afraid of color,” and her pieces tend to be “bright and sunny.”

Though she’s now a devotee of acrylic, Tapani, who currently resides in White Bear Lake, didn’t start with that medium until 2013 when she took a class and discovered a new “methodology” for painting, she said. Because she owns her own business (Wyoming Machine) and holds a degree in accounting from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Tapani previously approached painting in a “meticulous” manner, waiting for the “perfect” time and idea.

Alas, “when you’re busy,” that perfect time “never comes,” she said. With the new method, she’s more “free,” and she often has as many as 10 paintings “in progress at a given time.”

“I’m not pushy with it,” she said. “I’ll hang up a painting” and “wait for it to tell me what to do next.”

Acrylic is a pivotal element in that process, as she appreciates “the flexibility it offers,” she said. It also “allows you to be a little bit fearless.”

An avid floral gardener, it’s no surprise flowers fill her artistic portfolio.

She paints what she “knows,” yes, but also what she “loves,” she said. “I love to be in nature.”

Those who view her pieces at the hospital will “see something about me” as they look through them, she said. “You will see some pieces with more elements of chaos.”

Matt Swenson

Like Tapani, Swenson’s background is actually in business, but “all my life I’ve been looking for an (art) medium that matches who I am,” he said. “I have tried everything,” but “I’m very much a perfectionist,” so he was perpetually “disappointed when what I saw in my head didn’t come out in my hands.”

Finally, when he discovered assembled art — “bringing together disparate objects to create something new” — “what is in my mind comes out in my hand,” he said. “That’s very satisfying.”

Assembled art allows Swenson to indulge his passion for “old things,” he said. “The everyday items people look past, I connect with.”

Initially “a hobby, I’m now making a full go of it as an artist” and with his Minnesota Art Truck, which is “a food truck for the soul,” he said. The art truck contains hundreds of pieces of art from roughly 40 artists, including Swenson, and it’s designed to make art “accessible” to the masses.

“It’s important to share (art) whenever possible,” Swenson said. In fact, the Art Truck is where Durben discovered Swenson’s assembled art, mixed-media murals, and illustrations.

Swenson has roughly a dozen pieces, mostly sculptures, all from this year for Healing Arts, including three “brand new” sculptures he designed specifically for this exhibition, he said. A pair of “strong females” — one ancient and one more recent — are spotlighted in those three new pieces, with one inspired by Athena and the other by Amelia Earhart.

Also in Healing Arts is a 24-inch-by-24-inch “interactive” piece with 961 screws that weights roughly 35 pounds, he said. Each screw has an image, and “the farther back you go, the easier (the large, main image) is to see.”

Even more intriguing, the “image pops out further when you hold up your phone to it with the camera on,” he said. “So many people are looking down at their phones now” that Swenson hopes this will incorporate phones but also get them to “look up.”

While it sounds complex, the interactive piece is actually “very simple,” and simplicity is a hallmark of Swenson’s art, he said. Viewers tend to be attracted to that, and his art “creates conversations” between all types of people, from art experts to novices.

“It makes me happy to bring people together,” he said. “Art is more than just museums and high-end galleries.”

Swenson’s art is featured in homes across America, as well as countries like Finland and Switzerland. A half-dozen of his sculptures are also on exhibit by Delta Airlines.

Swenson so appreciates the “junk” he uses for his art he named part of his studio “Djonk,” the Swedish word for junk, he said. He finds materials anywhere and everywhere, but metal, wood, and glass are prized.

Metal, for one, “can be welded easily,” “wood is another good choice,” and “I like to incorporate glass when possible,” he said. While modern glass is too “fragile,” glass from 70, 80, or 90 years ago is “heavier, thicker, and stronger.”

He calls his studio his “morgue,” because it’s “organized by body parts” for his sculptures, he said. He has roughly 100 bins, and they’re separated by body parts — one for heads, one for elbows, one for eyes, one for feet, etc.

He tends to start with a main piece, then bring his various parts into the equation, so “I usually have three-six sculptures going at one time,” he said. For example, the main piece of the new Earhart figure was a tin for airplane polish.

“Art is a process, and the whole journey speaks to me,” he said. “Its part of who I am, and it keeps me relaxed.”

Andrew Judkins

Owatonna art-lovers will remember Judkins, as he was featured in the OAC gallery this summer.

Judkins adopted his single-layer technique for oil painting while in graduate school at the suggestion of a professor. Previously, he’d utilized numerous layers, waiting for oil to dry, then using small strokes of the brush over the top, but he switched to a single-layer, wet-on-wet method and “liked the immediacy.”

It also offered a look that wasn’t “overworked,” he explained this summer. “It was a big switch for me, but that technique touches me more.”

With a grandmother who was an artist and a mother who also caught “the artist bug,” Judkins “was surrounded by (art)” so it “seemed like something normal to do,” he added. “I went to school for it, and I’ve been working at it for a really long time.”

Alan Shefland

Shefland actually spent four decades as a film editor, primarily on episodic television — shows ranging from “Veronica Mars” to “Third Watch” — before diving more seriously into photography as an art form.

His time as a film editor “honed my digital arts,” and “I was always in touch with imagery,” which “made it easier to get more serious” about photography roughly a dozen years ago when he relocated from California to Minnesota, he said. His photos run toward abstraction, rather than realism, but even his abstract photos are “easy enough on the eyes that you get it.”

“I want something I” — and viewers — “can hook into,” he said. “I always look for the hook.”

Early success for Shefland, who resides in Minnetonka, arrived as he experimented with pond hockey photos, he said. He discovered he could “pull the colors back” and “keep the white background,” leading to “a really cool abstract photo.”

Many photos in this exhibition are from his rust-themed series, and “I’m telling a little story,” he said. “The names I’ve given the photos help tell the story.”

“There’s some humor and irony” in this exhibition, too, including with the titles of certain photos, he said. For example, one image depicts “heavy weeds in front of a rusted car,” and that’s called “Opposites Attract.”

Rust is “a phenomena,” because “it’s totally on its own and never the same,” he said. “If you can cut through the thin coating, vibrant colors are really cool,” and “rust is beautiful.”

His history with photography dates to childhood, toying with a camera and a dark room — his bathroom — at ages 10 and 11, he said. In that era, of course, focusing photos was a challenge, and “I was kind of limited in what I could do.”

Choosing subjects for photos is “sometimes intuition,” he said. Even when he assigns himself a certain subject, “I find other things to shoot,” too, as the key is to “keep an open mind out there.”

“As you get better at something, it’s more intuitive to you, and you think less about it,” he said. “I’m never afraid to take a picture just because it captures my eye.”

Subjects should “communicate with you,” he said. “If it doesn’t speak to you, don’t take the photo.”

Shefland also teaches at the Minnetonka Center For the Arts, which “I really enjoy,” he said. “I hope students absorb my passion into their own art.”

He does take representational photographs, of course, as well as doing portraits and landscapes, but no matter the type of photo, he’s always concerned with story and composition, he said. “I want to take a nice photograph.”

To get one of those “nice photos,” there are three steps, he said. First, select “an interesting subject matter,” then, “simplify” the content of what’s in the frame, and finally, “isolate it as well as you can.”

Gary Harbo

For children’s book author/illustrator Gary Harbo, “the toughest part” of preparing for this exhibition was simply selecting which pieces to use “out of a couple hundred,” he said. Ultimately, he chose illustrations from three of his favorite books, as well as some wildlife art from his earlier artistic years.

Harbo has “always been an artist,” dating to early childhood, when he would sit on the floor alongside his father coloring, he said. The callow Harbo naturally remained “inside the lines,” while his father was doing the opposite, adding shadow, for example, to create three-dimensional images, which “dazzled” his son.

“He kind of inspired me to jump into it,” Harbo said. “I had a passion for it, and I drew all the time.”

He’s since shared his liking for illustration with more than 300,000 children at roughly 750 schools, he said. He’s also executed lessons at children’s hospitals.

His time with youth “regenerates me and gives me perspective,” he said. “The key is to make it fun for them and take the pressure off.”

“Real-life experiences” inform the stories he tells, as do his own children and grandchildren, he said. While his book characters are “cartoonish,” the backdrops of his stories — many of which involve Minnesota geography and terrain — are realistic, which “ties the real world to the fantasy world.”

Harbo exhibited an aptitude for electronics and engineering during his time in the Air Force, so following his service, he achieved a degree and then entered the career field, he said. Eventually, he built enough capital to pursue his top passion of writing and illustrating children’s books, which he’s done now for nearly three decades.

Harbo understands better than most the healing power of art in locations like hospitals, because “I’m a cancer patient” currently, he said. “I can see how nice and soothing the art is.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.