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Meier’s Great Plains history informs her vast landscapes

Catherine Meier works in animation, installation and large-scale prints and drawings whose influences include the Great Plains and Mongolian Steppe. Meier’s show, “Site: Sage Creek,” opens today at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Meier, a Nebraska native, has lived in Duluth for five years. (Clint Austin / / 2
One of Catherine Meier’s drawings, depicting Badlands National Park in South Dakota. (Clint Austin / / 2

There is a specific place between here and her source spot in South Dakota where Catherine Meier begins to feel the positive effects of the landscape. It’s there: right after the Missouri River.

“The land feels high and wide and …” the visual artist said with a deep breath. “Ahh. OK.”

Wide-open spaces are Meier’s thing. The Nebraska native was born into them, spent her early adulthood traveling across them and now pays tribute to them in her art. Her latest work, “Standing Witness, Site: Sage Creek,” is a large-scale installation featuring hand-drawn animation of a national park in the Badlands and will be featured as part of the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition opens today and runs through early January.

For Meier, the lure of land is clear.

“I’m just content. I feel like anything is possible,” she said.

On the road

Before she was a visual artist, Meier was a truck driver. She was 18 when she married into a family of ranchers and then spent almost a decade carrying cattle from Nebraska to the far corners of Montana and deep into Texas. Sometimes the directions she received were as cryptic as taking a turn where the old school once stood and another turn by the fence post topped with two birds.

“I kind of loved it,” Meier said during a recent visit to her basement studio space. “It obviously had an influence on what I do now. The sense of freedom, the constant movement. (I went to) all kinds of random places.”

She was drawing through all of this — animals and people — but:

“It didn’t feel like there was a purpose,” she said. “What was I going to do with it?”

Meier lived the ranching life for seven years, she said, long enough to learn the seasonal rhythms. That lifestyle ended when she got divorced.

Meier went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then went to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — but her schooling had a personal caveat.

“I want to be an artist,” she said. “The desire to do that is inescapable. I wanted to come out (of graduate school) able to do this for my life. Part of that was direction to pursue (a topic) that would engage me for a long time.”

She considered her body of work to that point and noticed a theme of strong horizon lines, and in 2008, in a piece of assigned reading, she found a sentence that strengthened the direction she wanted to pursue.

“That is why smooth space is occupied by intensities, wind and noise, forces, and sonorous and tactile qualities, as in the desert, steppe, or ice.”

Meier recites this idea from an essay by philosopher Gilles Deleuze like it’s a favorite piece of poetry.

‘Site: Sage Creek’

For Meier’s exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the walls will be painted black. Projected on a wall will be a large-scale, hand-drawn gray and white animation of the view from Sage Creek Campground, a national park in South Dakota’s Badlands. Her work has the look, feel and detail of vintage landscape photography, and it comes from time spent in the space, sitting directly on the land and drawing.

Viewers will see the subtle changes, shifts and movement in the images that she achieves by photographing her drawings as they develop.

Meier has had other exhibitions, including in Japan and a current exhibition in Kearney, Neb. She set up an installation at Sage Creek Campground, where her drawings were on a large screen and set against the backdrop she had used as a subject.

Anne Dugan, executive of the Duluth Art Institute, showed one of Meier’s animations during the Free Range Film Festival, an event held in her barn in Wrenshall.

“A lot of arts writers and arts people feel like the white box gallery is dead,” Dugan said. “The work Catherine does speaks to that feeling that artists and writers are expressing.”

And it elicits a physical response, she said.

“It speaks to your head and your core.”

Meier hasn’t had a major exhibition in Duluth, but her friends have seen her work. Artist Kathy McTavish, whose media overlap with Meier’s, described the latter’s work as “haunting.”

“I’ve rarely seen work that describes the landscape like she does,” said McTavish. “Time slows down when you witness her work. I think she’s doing incredible work. I’m happy she’s in our area. She’s a big inspiration to me.”

A few weeks ago, Meier was putting the final touches on her installation. She said she doesn’t place expectations on exhibitions.

“The best I can do is be satisfied with what I’ve made and see what unfolds,” she said. “I really hope I’ll be happy with the work. And that I feel good about it. I hope it opens up more opportunities.”

‘How I live here’

Meier has lived in Duluth for the past five years. It’s a story that involves meeting a woodsman while working on the Gunflint Trail, moving to Michigan for graduate school and later returning to his home state.

Duluth is decidedly short on the sort of landscape Meier needs (all these trees), but she’s found a way to survive.

“The lake is how I live here,” she said. “This has occurred to me in the last year how the woods are affecting my brain. I like the shelter of the woods, but if I don’t get a yearly road trip where I get open space, I get a little freaky.”

Luckily, she’s got an upcoming trip to Kearney planned, where she will stop in at her exhibition at the Museum of Nebraska Art.

Going that direction, the relief hits before she crossed the state line. By Worthington, Minn., the landscape begins to change.

If you go

What: “Standing Witness, Site: Sage Creek” opening reception

When: 6-9 p.m. today; Exhibition runs through early January

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 Third Ave. S.

Nov. 19: 7 p.m. gallery talk