Local artists have chance to showcase talents in May with annual Steele County Art Exhibition

Sure signs of spring are legion in southern Minnesota, but one of the many portents is the annual Steele County Art Exhibition at the Owatonna Arts Center each May.

This tradition dates back nearly 70 years—prior to the creation of the OAC—when works hung in the Gainey Room of the Owatonna Public Library, said Silvan Durben, creative director of the OAC. This year’s art will be displayed May 6-17, with entries accepted next week Tuesday-Friday, and it’s not too late to apply.

Artists must be 18 or older and either reside in Steele County or be members of the OAC, Durben said. “Pieces need to be ready to hang,” and virtually all mediums of art are accepted, with the exception of photography.

“It’s a great opportunity” for burgeoning artists to “get their feet wet in a professional setting” as well as for experienced artists to demonstrate how they’ve evolved over the years, he added. Artists may offer pieces for sale, and selling a piece can be an indication that “you’ve arrived as an artist,” providing a certain “stamp of approval.”

Jim Killen, who has exhibited pieces in this exhibition longer than perhaps anyone else, always enjoys seeing the works of others in addition to showcasing his own, he said. In fact, he and his wife have several pieces from local artists in their own home.

“Art is a very personal thing,” he said. “It’s an important part of our life.”

Back in Killen’s youth, “I don’t think our high school even offered an art class,” but he found a creative outlet when he moved onto what is now Minnesota State University-Mankato, where—among other endeavors—he edited the college yearbook, he said. He was recruited by Jostens, eventually rising to the position of art director, before striking out on his own to make a career out of being an artist.

Killen, who moved to Owatonna in 1960, initially focused on landscapes in his art before concentrating on “nostalgic things” like machinery and barns, he said. In the 1970s, wildlife art “became very popular, so I gravitated toward that,” spending plenty of time at regional and national shows.

Currently, a majority of his commission work involves dogs, and that’s been the case for several years, he said. “People have special relationships with their pets,” and one of his most-beloved pieces ever involved a group of puppies.

He used to work primarily in watercolor but has shifted to acrylic, a relatively-easy transition since acrylic “is a water-based medium,” he said. “No one medium is better than another,” but, rather, the comfort of the artist is important.

Generally, Killen photographs his subjects, than paints based off those pictures, he said. In fact, he took several photos of a field that he painted as his submission for this year’s exhibition.

“Autumn” is a “full-landscape of a field just north of Medford on I-35, a beautiful, picturesque corn field that I’ve had my eye on for a long time,” he said. “I think it came out really successfully.”

While Killen is a veteran of this show, Pug Borgmann will exhibit for the first time this year, and she’s entered a large poured painting and an alcohol ink drawing.

The former is “definitely abstract, but it’s really cool,” she said. She used 18 different colors, poured paint on her canvas eight times, and “I’m really pleased with it.”

Though she only began working with alcohol ink a month ago, she quickly fell in “love” with it, she said. “I feel like a kid.”

Time flies by while she’s creating, and “it’s so relaxing,” she said. It’s also quite inexpensive.

While the ink can be manipulated with a brush, “a little rubbing alcohol really makes it move,” she said. With this medium, “you can never have two (pieces) anywhere near each other, because the ink responds differently every time you pour it.”

And no one should be intimidated, either, she said. “There’s no such thing as wrong, and anyone can do it.”

Borgmann added that she only recently became acquainted with the arts center, and she hopes others take advantage of a tremendous resource in Owatonna.

“It’s a beautiful place, and the town needs to use it,” she said. “Everybody should go (visit).”

Harvey Degen, who has submitted several pieces over the years for this exhibition, concurred, noting that “Steele County is pretty well-equipped with artists.”

At this exhibition, “it’s fun to see what everyone else is doing and contribute to that,” Degen said. “The more rooms are filled, the more interesting (the exhibit) is for people to see.”

For watercolor painter Dallas Ketchum, who entered this exhibition for the first time last year, putting his art alongside others on public display serves as motivation.

“It motivates you to get your brushes wet,” he said. “You don’t get any better unless you keep trying to improve.”

This year, Ketchum is entering a painting he did of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, S.C., famous for its tower clock. The church, which dates back to the 1750s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.

“I looked at it, and it was framed by two buildings, set back in there,” he recalled. “It has lots of windows and a cross on the top.”

Degen’s entered two paintings and a woodturning for this year’s exhibition. The first painting is in oil and depicts a White-breasted Nuthatch, while the second is an acrylic of Bridge Number 6 on the Seven Bridges Road in Duluth.

“I don’t have any one (medium) I prefer,” as Degen has entered everything from pencil drawings to acrylic paintings over the years, he said. “I like to change it up and see what happens.”

He was struck by the majestic scene of the Duluth bridge in July and took a photo of it, he said. In his painting, he added “fall colors to brighten it up.”

He only recently started woodturning, but “I was a professional carpenter all my life, and I liked woodworking enough to keep it as a hobby,” he said. He began with bowls, and he uses firewood, with the piece for this exhibition crafted from black walnut firewood.

Ketchum has been impressed by the work of local artists displayed in the exhibition, he said. For many, this exhibition presents “the only chance you have to see them.”

Degen echoed those sentiments, saying the exhibition is “worthwhile” for both artists and observers.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Degen said. “All the pieces are very good.”


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