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Innovation to spare: Native artist keeps unique vision while spreading wisdom to others

Karen Savage Blue works on a 10-by-8-inch acrylic painting of a turtle in her classroom at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College recently. The painting is one in a series she has started. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 10
Karen Savage Blue paints a painted turtle. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 10
Karen Savage Blue (left) gives Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College student Emily Granholm tips on putting a painting on a frame. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 10
Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College student Lilly Wallin removes her painting from a backing board as instructor Karen Savage Blue checks out Wallin’s art. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 10
A self-portrait by Karen Savage Blue.5 / 10
"Birch Bark Women" by Karen Savage-Blue6 / 10
Karen Savage Blue talks about her painting “The Creation Story,” one of the paintings in the 2018 AICHO Art Calendar. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com7 / 10
"Explicit Love" by Karen Savage-Blue8 / 10
"Pussy Willows in Their Hair" by Karen Savage-Blue9 / 10
"When the Buffalo Come to Tea" by Karen Savage-Blue10 / 10

It's the end of the semester in her art class at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Karen Savage-Blue helped Lilly Wallin remove staples from a canvas.

"I like that she's looking away," Savage-Blue said of a woman in Wallin's painting. "And there's the monarch and the darkness."

"That wasn't intentional," Wallin responded.

Seeing students realize that art isn't impossible is one of Savage-Blue's favorite moments as a teacher. Another favorite is when they get far enough along that she can sneak behind her own easel and paint.

On Tuesday, after helping students prepare and hang their work, Savage-Blue of Sawyer moved yellows and oranges around on her own canvas. She's been teaching for 20 years and has been an artist for longer.

Her paintings have been shown at the Duluth Art Institute, the Tweed Museum of Art and is currently part of Maamawi ("Together" in Ojibwe) — a collection by about 30 artists at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at the American Indian Community Housing Organization.

"Sometimes, people look at a piece of art and think that it's some kind of magic, but it has to do with a technique.

"Creativity is half of what they should be striving for; technique is the other half," she said.

Wallin said her art teacher is good at guiding students through contouring, coloring — and that guidance extends outside the classroom.

— — —

Jonathan Thunder, a Duluth painter and animator, posted on social media that he wanted to learn more about oil paints, and Savage-Blue responded. She went to his space at the Washington Studios and gave him an hour-long lesson.

That's when they became buddies, Thunder said, and years later, the two joined up for Savage/Thunder, an exhibit this fall at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis.

Savage-Blue has been in the business for quite a while, and it's helpful to take from her experience, he said, adding that he appreciates her style.

"Her painting has a bit of an attitude that really appeals to me because I like work that isn't afraid to be what it is," he said. "She's true to her vision, and she really puts out some brave work."

Moira Villiard has seen Savage-Blue's paintings since she was a child. "When I think of artists from Fond du Lac, or artists from this region, I really do think of Karen," said the arts and cultural program coordinator at AICHO.

Villiard is also a portraiture and surrealism artist and has received valuable tips from Savage-Blue on tools to use in her own work painting. ("Water-based oils.")

Of Savage-Blue's paintings, Villiard said: "She has these plein art landscapes, but she also has these things that are from her imagination."

— — —

In "Hazy Blush," bare women rest on lily pads. In "Lactating Ladies," breast milk falls from women whose arms angle into tree branches. In "Pussy Willows in Their Hair," five female faces make a flower form, their long reddish hair draping over cream-colored branches.

In "When the Buffalo Come to Tea," steam rises from the wooded ground where wolves swirl around the feet of women in red dresses sipping from cups with tall buffalo figures in black cloaks.

For paintings like these, Savage-Blue said she wanted to integrate the human form into nature. "I started putting marks on a canvas randomly," she said. From there, she'd sit back and let an image come to her, the shapes eventually evolving into buffalo heads.

While starting from marks on a canvas became "extremely frustrating" at times, Savage-Blue thrives in challenges like these. This fall, she created a series of 20 crow paintings in 20 days — now on display at AICHO.

Before that, it was a painting a day for a year — she did that twice; the latter became the "Spirit" exhibit at DAI. Recently, she has started painting turtles. What that will turn into, she doesn't know, but she already has sold one of her turtle paintings.

The genesis of these exercises is to do art when you don't want to, and to harness creativity.

Artists have to be disciplined, she said. "There's a lot of good talent out there that could be developed, but people don't do it because they don't feel like it."

Not having your piece mapped out is no reason to avoid creating something — you just need to trust. Some call it faith, but it's more scientific than magical, Savage-Blue said.

"When you trust the process, you have to trust that everything that you already know, everything you've learned, it's still there. It just needs to be accessed."

— — —

As a child, Savage-Blue always wanted to do challenging things, and to keep up with her brothers. As an artist today, she always strives to do better and be better, she said.

Savage-Blue loves painting landscapes with a palette knife, and she prefers oil to acrylic paint. She also likes to work quickly — capturing more of the expression than the detail, she said. While she uses references, pictures of animals or scenes, she actively tries not to look at television, movies or the work of other artists, so she can create from the inside.

"If I'm like someone else, then who's going to be like me?" she said.

While painting becomes an addiction, "it's all you can think about, all you want to do," art brings joy, she said. "It's like a neutralizer; it makes everything OK."

Screen prints of her landscape oil paintings line the walls of the buffet area at Black Bear Casino. Behind the Players Club desk, Wendy Jensen of Superior works among more than 40 of Savage-Blue's landscape and surrealist pieces. One of her favorites is "Birch Bark Women."

In it, three ladies hug themselves, their faces pointed upward, eyes closed, relaxed. The gold of their skin mixes with the white of the birch bark. Green leaves pepper their long black hair. Around them is a forest of browns, sepia and charcoal. For this one, Savage-Blue said she wanted the women to look like they were hibernating for winter.

Jensen said she's partial to being in the woods, and looking at this: "You can picture yourself in the nature, in that combination — that we're all one part of a world, that we all have to reside in it."

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Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346