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Duluth painter showcases artists who insipire her in new exhibit

With portraits of local painters, poets, musicians and costume designers looking on, Sarah Brokke works on a portrait of Patricia Canelake in her home studio recently. Brokke is completing 35 portraits as part of a project to thank people who inspire her. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Sarah Brokke’s portraits of (clockwise from top left): musician Rachael Kilgour, videographer Jim Richardson, painter Scott Murphy and poet Ryan Vine.2 / 2

Sarah Brokke’s studio space is a second-floor bedroom in her West Duluth home where she paints while surrounded by the faces of the dozens of local artists who have inspired her:

There is poet Ryan Vine, with his words embedded into the canvas.

There is singer-songwriter Rachael Kilgour playing guitar with her eyes closed.

There is painter Scott Murphy, receiving a side hug from a brown bear.

The faces, each painted with oil on a 20-by-20 inch canvas, were born of introspection as Brokke neared her birthday last year and began to consider life as an artist.

“I was thinking of a way I could thank the people who even make that a thing,” she said. “How do you say ‘thank you’ to people, period? I wanted to do something that felt significant and connected to the fact that I’m a painter.”

She called the idea a crazy one: To paint one local artist who inspires her for every year of her life. Since then, Brokke has made 35 portraits of painters, printmakers and poets, songwriters and costume designers. There will be an exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute in the fall, and, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, a 100-plus page book published by Holy Cow! Press will be released at the same time.

Brokke will also be the subject of a locally produced documentary by Shook Productions.

“I think, sometimes, when a good idea happens, it just kind of snowballs,” said Anne Dugan, director of the Duluth Art Institute.

The process

First, Brokke came up with the Portrait of an Artist parameters. The subject had to be someone she hadn’t yet painted. The artist had to be accessible. She needed to have specific memories of being inspired by the subject’s work.

The next part was the hardest. Artists tend to be private people, she said, so:

“Asking was tricky,” Brooke said.

Just two declined.

“To be honest, I sort of thought everyone would say ‘no,’ ” she said.

Brokke has spent the past year juggling the project’s three parts: Asking artists to participate, taking source photographs and then painting the portraits.

“It was a constant cycle of vulnerability — in the best way,” she said.

Brokke paints in her studio, fitting in sessions between work at the College of St. Scholastica, where she is a lecturer of art and teaches painting, drawing and art history, and a home life that includes two young children. She works with her laptop open to her source images, oil paints on her left, a child’s-sized princess dress hanging on the back of the door.

The portraits hang, lined in rows on the walls of the studio.

“I thought it would be overwhelming,” she said of sharing space with her work. “I try to think of this as a series because they all inform each other. They’re a group.”

Kathy McTavish sits with her cello against her body. Writer Andy Bennett stands, eyes closed, with a poster from a play he wrote that Renegade Theater Company produced. Because of the surreal aspects of Murphy’s work as a painter, Brokke added some whimsy to her portrait.

“I couldn’t help but put an animal in there,” she said, and added, “They all have such unique personalities in their work. It’s fun to play around.”

Printmaker Rick Allen wears two pairs of the glasses and was captured smiling in his studio.

It’s the Allen painting that is among the pieces that most successfully captured what Brokke sees in his work, she said.

“His painting is the painting that does what I want them all to do, which is talk about them as people and their creative process,” Brokke said.

The subjects

Singer-songwriter Rachael Kilgour met with Brokke at Chester Creek for an emotion-filled photo shoot this past summer. Kilgour sat on a rock, played guitar and sang, while Brokke photographed her.

“It’s a funny thing, having a portrait done,” Kilgour said. “My art is so different and so not about my physicality. So, it was weird that someone says ‘I’m going to capture what you look like when you’re doing that thing.’ It was intimidating and sweet.”

The result was a right-side view of Kilgour, eyes closed, with her guitar in a swirl of natural greens.

Brokke brought the portrait to Kilgour’s home, so she could see the painting when it was completed. The musician said she likes her portrait and that Brokke’s paintings offer more than what the person looks like.

“On top of looking like me, it feels like me,” Kilgour said.

Tyler Johnson is one of Brokke’s former students. He considers her a mentor. So when she approached him about making a portrait, he was surprised, he said. She set him in the art studio at the College of St. Scholastica, where he spent much of his time while in school.

“Being her student, you don’t think of being on an even playing field as her,” said Johnson, whose medium is graphic design. “It was a cool experience, ‘Oh, wow. She looks at me like an artist, too.’ ”

Johnson said self-portraiture is pretty common when you’re studying art. This offered a new view.

“It’s cool to see yourself from someone else’s perspective,” he said.

Brokke’s forte, according to Dugan, is her ability to wholly represent someone in her work.

“She’s able to catch something in her of her subject that goes past likeness,” she said. “She’s able to catch — I’m not going to say soul — she’s able to show what’s driving them without props. It’s not, ‘Here’s (artist) Ann Klefstad holding a paintbrush.’

“She’s able to catch Ann Klefstad as a mind.”

Growth of the project

As soon as Brokke told Dugan about the portrait project, the art institute’s director wanted in. An exhibition of the 35 portraits opens Oct. 15 and runs through January 2016. At the same time, there will be a show featuring work by the artists Brokke has painted.

“I said ‘Can we please do it at the Duluth Art Institute?’ ” Dugan recalled. “It’s a perfect match: a community art center with a community-driven exhibition. I love that we’re able to show off not just her project, but the ripples that happen from that. The whole thing is about the reciprocity of creativity.”

Brokke launched a Kickstarter campaign in February to raise money to publish a full-color book of the portraits. It took about five days to exceed her $4,000 goal.

The book will be published by Holy Cow! Press. This falls in line with what the company does, said publisher Jim Perlman. The local house often works with anthologies and released “Spirit of Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders” by Sara Balbin, James R. Bailey and Thelma Nayquonable in 2012.

Perlman said he’s enthralled with Brokke’s work.

“There’s a term in literature called magical realism,” Perlman said. “I think that applies, totally, to how she approaches these portraits. They are both realistic, and there is something transformative with the way she renders each person in her work.”

And with the making of the book, Johnson, the student-subject, will be charged with designing the collection.

What started as an exercise in gratitude has had some powerful moments that Brokke said she didn’t foresee when she started this more than a year ago.

“It’s turned into interesting conversations in the community,” she said. “It’s been an admission point for people to think about artists in their life who are inspiring.”

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