Leaving a legacy: Grant gives artist freedom to capture images of county parksWORTHINGTON — As Agnes “Bobbie” Alsgaard-Lien was sitting in Robertson County park along Loon Lake in Jackson County contemplating her next painting, a fledgling bird paid her a serendipitous visit.
WORTHINGTON — As Agnes “Bobbie” Alsgaard-Lien was sitting in Robertson County park along Loon Lake in Jackson County contemplating her next painting, a fledgling bird paid her a serendipitous visit.
“This baby robin came flying in, dead speed, and all of a sudden, there was my camper,” related Bobbie. “It grabbed on to the metal wires of the camper, clung there, and just looked at me. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get my canvas.’ Most people would say, ‘I’ve got to get my camera,” but for me it was the canvas.”
As she tried to capture the moment with her paintbrush, Bobbie began to worry about the fate of the robin, which seemed in need of rescue.
“But this bird hung on just long enough for me to paint it, and when I was done painting, it flew away, just fine. It modeled for me,” she said.
The small bird painting became a diptych — three paintings that grouped together form a full image — that is included in Bobbie’s solo exhibit, “County Parks.” The show is the result of an Art Legacy Grant received through Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council.
Bobbie, who has been an art instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus, for 25 years, had planned to take a year-long sabbatical from her job when the grant opportunity came along. Due to family health issues and other commitments, she had to scale back the scope of the grant project from 18 counties to six, but the idea was to undertake a series of landscape paintings and drawings from county parks in southwest Minnesota.
“This grant would allow me to get lost in my painting for vast amounts of time, allowing me to transform the richness, the beauty and the subtle contours of southern Minnesota’s landscapes into art,” she wrote in the grant application. “… This project will allow me to create a body of drawings and paintings and provide a high-quality arts experience for me and the members of the counties that will receive my artwork. Many pieces will reflect the importance of the landscape viewed from the country parks. Visitors to the courthouses and galleries where the work is exhibited will view my artwork and will be encouraged to develop a new way to look at nature.”
Why county parks?
Bobbie’s decision to focus on county parks was influenced by both personal past history and current events.
“We used to go to county parks as children, as a family,” she recalled. “We’d go there to fish and play, never traveled far from home. So county parks were always important to me. I had tactilely felt the wonderment of county parks, getting down there with the worms and dirt and rocks, so it was not foreign to me.
“… Then, one day I heard a news report about (national and state) parks being in financial trouble, and I thought, if those parks are in trouble, county parks are going to be in real trouble. The idea grew larger and larger, and the next thing I knew, I’m writing a grant.”
In doing so, Bobbie also contemplated the “legacy” concept of the grant — how she could leave a legacy and about what she wanted to leave a legacy.
“I’d ask these questions as I was doing dishes, driving to work, grocery shopping,” she explained. “I wanted to leave these paintings somewhere, and the first word in what I was doing was county. I teach public art, but most people don’t go to museums, find them totally foreign, but everybody has to go to a courthouse, so that’s one way to make people look at original art.”
Each of the six counties — Cottonwood, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Rock, Pipestone — will be given one painting or drawing from their area, with the intention that it will be displayed in public view. During the exhibit, people will be asked to vote on which painting should go to the respective courthouse, and Bobbie has also invited each county’s commissioners to cast a ballot.
As she stated as her intention in the grant application, Bobbie did the bulk of her painting at each park site, retiring to her studio only when weather and circumstances kept her from the field.
“I did some photos for recording, but I’m a real on-site gal. I’ve got an old camper that I’d take, and the old truck that I had finally gave it up and caught on fire in the fall,” she said with a laugh.
“It was an absolutely lovely and yet lonely experience,” she said about her tour of the region’s county parks. “There are not many people, and the parks need some repairs. Some parks, needless to say, are wonderful. I love that the counties are still proud of their parks. Not all of them had camping, and not all are really a park — some are just boat ramps.”
For the paintings, Bobbie didn’t stick to one medium, sometimes working in oil, sometimes in acrylic, and also experimenting with egg tempura, which starts with yolk as a base.
“Egg tempura is what the early Christians used to make manuscript illuminations,” she explained. “I made up my own. My niece and nephew brought me some pigments back from Machu Picchu in Peru, not knowing I was experimenting with egg tempura. You can come back to them in 50 years and polish them up a little to look new. … Sometimes my studio really stunk because I hadn’t cleaned up my last batch.”
The goal was to end up with a landscape from each park destination, but sometimes Bobbie was compelled to focus her vision in a bit tighter on some small detail of a park, such as a monument, a railing, or even a swingset mechanism. When a friend shared a photo of a hotel that once stood on the shores of Round Lake, Bobbie did a sketch of it and will include it in the exhibit.
“I continually said it’s a landscape, but it’s a fine art piece, too,” she said of the resulting paintings. “People have preconceived ideas about what a landscape should be. I wanted to give them a little glimpse of a painter’s eye. I’m giving myself the delight of application of color. I’m still not making a tight little line like a photograph, but I’m dancing with color so the viewer can tell what it is.
“Some are more abstract, but for me, when I paint, I have to dance with my hand for a little while and enjoy myself and not be rigorous so much. Sometimes these landscapes I do to warm up are nice, too, so some of those warm-ups are in the show.”
While she was capturing images of these parks for posterity — leaving a legacy —and bringing awareness to the sites, Bobbie also felt she was educating the viewer with the artwork itself.
“I wanted the viewers to understand the beauty of a brushstroke, which is also very, very beautiful,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know original paintings and that there is a difference between a poster and a painting.”
Wrapping it up
With just a couple of paintings to finish and the exhibit on the horizon, Bobbie is somewhat relieved to have accomplished her goal of leaving a legacy in six counties. The duration of the grant has concluded, but Bobbie indicated that she might pick up the project again someday, when life isn’t quite so complicated.
“I think it’s a lifelong project,” she said. “I could go back to these places a million times and always find something new to paint.”
It is now Bobbie’s hope that her audience — and the recipient counties — find beauty and value in the varied collection of paintings.
“The whole purpose of the series is to make people who view it feel good,” she stressed, “not question any political issues, social issues. This is what it is. But I’m not a Thomas Kincaid, not a wildlife artist. I’m just a backwoods Norwegian artist.”
As she reflects on her year-long artistic journey and frames the paintings for exhibition, Bobbie feels a sense of accomplishment and relief.
“It was sometimes very difficult, because no artist will ever touch the beauty that’s out there,” she reflected. “But I enjoyed taking all that freedom of line and color that I’ve learned over the years and applying it to something I can leave as a legacy. I find it amazing that the state of Minnesota allowed a few of us to leave a legacy and how blessed I am.”
The opening reception for “County Parks” by Agnes “Bobbie” Alsgaard-Lien will be from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Center for Performing and Visual Arts, Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus. The exhibit will continue through Aug. 30.