Artists from near and far converge on Owatonna for Art on the Hills weekend

While local artists were—as usual—well-represented at Art on the Hills this weekend, the festival also, as has so often been the case, drew artists from all around the state to showcase their works.

New Prague’s Rose-Marie James, who took home the best of show award at last year’s festival, was among this year’s returnees. James, a fused glass artist, was also a regular when Art on the Hills was conducted in Central Park before it moved back to the Owatonna Arts Center grounds in 2017, and she favors the new location.

“The Owatonna Arts Center is very strong,” and over the decades, it’s gotten “a lot of people interested in art,” said James, who operates Dream in Glass Studio. With the festival at West Hills, as opposed to Central Park, the “traffic has changed,” as attendees are “coming for the art,” not any other accoutrements.

James actually started her glass art with stained glass in 1978, but as that fell out of favor nationally in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she transitioned to fused glass, which “opened a door to freedom,” she said. With stained glass, she was required to remain inside patterns, but fused glass liberated her, and “I like to be free.”

“I never make the same thing twice,” she said. She employs various techniques, including the aforementioned fusing, but also glass raking, draping, and slumping.

Naturally, these all require different temperatures, and—for raking—her kiln grows as hot as 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

“As soon as you open the lid, the temperature” begins cooling back down to roughly 1,500 degrees, so “you have to be quick,” she said. “You only have 10 or 20 seconds.”

That rush stands in contradistinction to the rest of the fused glass process, which requires patience, she said. “The slower you go, the better the results.”

Typically, a piece requires at least a 24-hour cycle, she said. “Every art takes its time to be done.”

Only fused glass, not stained or blown, affords James the flexibility she requires, as it expands with heat, she said. “How hot you go, and how long you keep (the glass) in,” dictates the shape.

For example, “to retain dimension, keep it on a higher temperature for a shorter time,” she said. The longer the glass is in heat, the more it will flatten.

“You always work on the base of the glass,” and it’s critical to remember glass “always wants to come back to a quarter-inch thick,” she said. In order to add shapes and patterns, James must return to her kiln multiple times.

For James, glass art has become a way of life.

Over the years, it’s shifted from “interest to passion to obsession,” she said. “I cannot let go.”

Debbi Kay only started publicly exhibiting her art in the past year, and this weekend marked her first appearance at Art on the Hills, she said. “It’s only my third show.”

Previously, Kay executed her “nature on nature paintings” of wildlife on canvasses like wood, rocks, and even mushrooms “for my own enjoyment and private shows,” she said. Though she’s been “drawing all my life,” Kay only fell into her current theme when a friend gave her a mushroom.

“I painted on it,” she said nonchalantly. “If it’s natural, I’ll paint on it.”

Mushrooms must be completely dry for painting, of course, and some can require so much patience as to exasperate Job.

While smaller mushrooms requite about six months, the gigantic mushroom with a peacock painted on it that she brought this weekend needed 10 years, she said. “Mushrooms are always fun.”

Still, she has a particular affinity for wood, embracing its imperfections, she said. “I find the anomalies and work with what the wood has to offer.”

For example, one of her paintings, “Knot Flowers,” incorporates knots in the wood for the centers of her flowers. Another piece of wood had a depression, so she placed in that spot a wolf digging a den.

Kay uses various types of wood, but favors cedar for its “uniqueness,” “cool edges,” and—of course—the fact that “people seem to like it,” she said. “The wood usually tells me what is going to go on it.”

Bears—well, representations of bears—were omnipresent in Sue Rowe’s tent this weekend.

Bears are about “85 percent human metaphor,” said Rowe, who made her first trip to Art on the Hills this year after encouragement from Sue Peoples, a longtime exhibitor at this event. They have similar anatomies to humans, “they look forward, they can stand up, they can kill you, and they can be cuddly and fluffy.”

In this era of her artistic life, bears are “the best method of getting across what I want to,” she said. She doesn’t paint realistic bears, since plenty of others do that already, and “I don’t want to make boring art,” so, instead, her bears boast colorful flowers on them, or one bear puts an arm around another to watch a romantic sunset.

She was raised “around” bears in northern Wisconsin, she said. For evidence, one only needed to consult the damage the creatures left behind near dumpsters through which they’d scavenged.

Rowe, who operates the titular Sue Rowe studios in Stillwater, utilizes many methods for her bear-centric art, including oils, acrylics, mixed media, colored pencils, and pen-and-ink, but soft pastels are her top choice, which no doubt would have shocked her younger self, she said. “In college, I hated—and refused to work in—pastels.”

She’s not just a visual artist, either, as her witty wordplays are found on popular cards that accompany bear pictures, she said. Often, those cards will depict interactions she’s heard about from others.

In fact, Rowe is constantly in close proximity to a notebook, in which she writes down ideas and/or sketches, she said. “I hear amazing true bear stories,” and “those circumstances come out in my (art).”

Art on the Hills offers attendees an opportunity to purchase art, as well as hear from the actual artists about their processes. Furthermore, it’s a chance for emerging artists—this year, Gar Olson, Maureen Fuller, Donn Robinson, David Phillips, Rachel Kepler, and Beth DeCoux—to have their works displayed inside the OAC. This weekend’s festivities also included live music Saturday and Sunday, demonstrations from artists, food vendors, and an area for children to create their own art projects.

Winners this year included John Smithers, photos, best of show, James, first place, for her glass pieces, Peoples, second place, for her jewelry, and Ernest Gillman, third place, for his pencil pieces. Rowe netted an honorable mention nod for her mixed media, as did Melinda Sisk for her clay art. 


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