A Home Coming: Holly DeGrote returns to her roots to teach, exhibit

WORTHINGTON -- When Holly DeGrote began teaching her first Art Appreciation class last week at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, she was pleased to discover she was dealing with familiar material.

Holly DeGrote is currently displaying her art in the Fine Arts Building at Minnesota West Community and Technical College -- the same place where she is now teaching art.

WORTHINGTON -- When Holly DeGrote began teaching her first Art Appreciation class last week at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, she was pleased to discover she was dealing with familiar material.

"We're using the same textbook that I had when I took it as an undergrad," she noted.

Holly has assumed the art instructor role at Minnesota West for the coming school year, taking over while longtime instructor Bobbie Alsgaard-Lien is on sabbatical. And the material isn't the only thing that's familiar. DeGrote is no stranger to the Worthington community.

"I was born in Worthington and graduated from Worthington High School in 1999," she explained. "My parents are Gail and Al DeGrote."

Holly credits her high school experiences, and art teacher Tricia Mikle in particular, with putting her on the path to a career in art education.


"Mrs. Mikle was really inspiring and energizing for me," Holly recalled. "She gave me some good opportunities."

After graduation, Holly headed off to St. Cloud State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in painting. But Holly knew she wanted to teach, so she continued that higher education at graduate school at Illinois State University in the Bloomington-Normal area,

"I think I was 16 or 17 when I knew I wanted to go into art, and there was always the appeal that I wanted to teach at the college level," she reflected. "I knew if I was going to go into art, I had to have that attitude. I decided that was what I was going to do and just did it."

With a master's degree in painting, Holly was able to achieve her goal of teaching at the college level, both at Illinois State and Heartland Community College, also in Bloomington-Normal.

She also married another WHS graduate, Adam Thiner, a humanities instructor at the college level. They have a 2-year-old son, Elias -- Eli for short.

When opportunities arose in the area for both Holly and Adam, they decided to return to their hometown region.

"It was an eight-hour drive here from Illinois," Holly said. "This was an opportunity to be closer to (Eli's) grandparents."

Adam is currently teaching at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon, Iowa, while Holly is taking over temporarily for Alsgaard. They chose a point in the middle -- Sibley, Iowa -- to live.


"I've got this great opportunity, if only for a year," said Holly. "I take over here for a year, and who knows what comes after that year. I'm not looking at that yet."

In addition to Art Appreciation, Holly's schedule this semester includes a Painting and Drawing class, as well as Display and Exhibition.

"That's a new one for me," she said of the latter offering, "but I get to teach students how to set up for an exhibit and work with the artists."

The first artist with whom the students will work is Holly herself.

"Since it was the first exhibit of the year, I decided to use myself as a guinea pig," she said. "And Bobbie encouraged me to have a show, so I thought I would use it as an intro. People here know me, my parents, my in-laws, but they don't know me as an artist, so it's like 'This is who I am now.'"

Holly's acrylic paintings now line the halls of Minnesota West's Fine Arts Building. The work is from the last four years or so, with a few very recent additions. She currently has work in two other shows, so she painted several pieces on paper to round out the Minnesota West exhibit.

"At our house in Bloomington, I had my own studio. Now I'm painting in the dining room," lamented Holly, adding that having a 2-year-old underfoot also limits her painting time. "I try to set up an easel for him with watercolor, but he's more interested in playing with me than letting me work."

Much of Holly's work is based on how people interact, and it incorporates figures, "but in an obscure way."


"Most of these are from the same series, although a couple are starting to go into a different one," she explained. "With the move, I've been really thinking about home, locations, so I'm looking more outward now."

When she begins a new painting, Holly doesn't pick up a paintbrush -- she starts with a computer mouse.

"I use Photoshop," she said. "It's a good tool for figuring out colors. So I sketch it out in Photoshop, and I can switch out the colors and see what I like. I've integrated that tool into my sketchbook process.

"Usually, I just start with one or two colors," she continued about her painting process. "I'm really interested in color theory and how colors interact, the fact that colors can change the colors around them. I get that planned out before I get to the canvas. ... The colors are always richer in paint, but at least (Photoshop) gives me an idea of what I'm looking for."

Holly's "canvas" is also unconventional. She prefers to work on wood rather than the traditional fabric.

"The harder wood surface shows more texture than canvas, and I like to play around with sheen," she said. "I build my own panels. My family makes fun of my husband and I. For Christmas, he got a coffeemaker, and I got a table saw. I haven't had the chance to use it. But the nice thing about building the panel myself is I can play around with the dimensions. I use Masonite, because it's lightweight and so slick that it grabs every brush stroke, even of the primer that I put on it."

When people look at the images that she creates, Holly hopes they discover the hidden elements and yet draw their own conclusions about what they see.

"I have so much control over what a piece looks like, but the minute it leaves my hands, I lose control," she said. "It can mean something different to someone else. That's the beauty of art."


Holly is excited to share both her own artistic viewpoint and her love of art at the Minnesota West campus in her hometown.

"I feel fortunate I could take something I love and make it into a career," she reflected.

"I'm fortunate to be able to bring that passion into my work life. I feel very privileged."

The reception for "A Home Coming," an exhibit of works by Holly DeGrote, will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts at Minnesota West. The exhibit will hang at Minnesota West through Sept. 18.

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