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Duluth artist ends portraits project honoring those who inspired her

Artist Sarah Brokke stands near some of her paintings on exhibit at the Duluth Art Instute. Two years ago, Brokke began painting portraits of 36 local artists who inspire her. The featured artists will take their portraits off the walls during today’s Membership Exhibition. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Sarah Brokke's portrait of painter Scott Murphy. 2 / 5
Sarah Brokke's portrait of videographer Jim Richardson.3 / 5
Sarah Brokke's portrait of poet Ryan Vine. 4 / 5
Sarah Brokke's portrait of musician Rachael Kilgour. 5 / 5

Two years ago, Sarah Brokke started a thank-you project to acknowledge the local artists who have influenced and inspired her. She said she imagined painting portraits, receiving a small amount of funding and, the finale, a show at a pop-up gallery.

In retrospect, it was a modest vision.

Today marks the closing of “Portrait of an Artist,” an exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute featuring Brokke’s portraits of 36 poets, sculptors, musicians, painters and designers. It’s a show that grew to be bigger than the George Morrison Gallery space it inhabited for the past two-plus months, and inspired dozens of spin-off events, pieces and demonstrations by the subjects she painted.

“The project evolved into nothing I could have ever imagined,” Brokke said. “On a microcosmic level, it’s how I start with paintings anyway. I start with an idea and have to get out of the way and let it do what it’s going to do. It’s been a lot of incredible surprises. I think it’s probably going to take me a good six months to even quantify what it is.”

The artists will get to take home their paintings during the show’s closing reception, which starts at 7 p.m. today. The finale runs alongside the Duluth Art Institute’s annual Membership Show, which features a single piece by participating members — ranging from watercolors to sculptures to installations by hobbyists, up-and-comers and professionals — and Emerging Photographers, by students in the University of Minnesota Duluth photography department.

The project

Brokke’s project was born around the time she was turning 35. She set out to paint one influential artist per year of her life. (She added another after she turned 36.) The concept was a good fit for the Duluth Art Institute, a community art project at a community art center, said director Anne Dugan.

“The kind of connections Sarah made with her project further strengthen our creative scene,” she said. “She had this idea that ran away with itself and continues to run away.”

Each portrait was done on a 20-by-20-inch canvas, using oil, acrylic, graphite and ink. They are all scaled similarly. Within each, she included biographical touches: writer Andy Bennett’s eyes are closed; one of Ryan Vine’s poems is embedded in the piece; musician Richie Townsend’s portrait has small beadwork in a swirl representing his connection to the universe and cosmos, Brokke said.

Tyler Scouton, a performance artist from the industrial rock band Bratwurst, said that before Brokke painted his portrait, she asked if he had any distinct mannerisms. In response, he ran his fingers through his dark wavy hair.

That’s the moment she grabbed.

Scouton said he’s proud of being a part of the show. He was at the Depot recently and had the surreal experience of knowing his portrait is hanging there.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “A pretty well-known painter from around town choosing me to be a part of this artist series.”

Sasha Howell, a textile artist and costume designer at the College of St. Scholastica, is set against the kind of swirls she might encounter in her work. She said she never thought of herself as a traditional artist until she was approached for the series.

“When (Brokke) explained what she was doing, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Howell said. “This was culminating from her wanting to do a gratitude project, which I thought was so refreshing and unusual. I was humbled that she wanted me to be a part of it.”

Howell had a chance to visit Brokke’s studio space, a room in her West Duluth home where Brokke had lined the walls with the portraits as she completed them.

“I got to see all of my friends on the wall,” Howell said. “It validated (me) in a way. I felt like ‘This is really cool. I made the club.’ ”

The project-born projects

Then everything else started happening — both for the artist and the artists she featured. Brokke launched a Kickstarter campaign and exceeded her goal of raising $4,000 to publish a full-color book of the portraits, published locally by Holy Cow! Press.

The exhibition opened in October — each portrait hung at about eye level — and the adjacent gallery was filled with work by the featured artists: Lil Haldorsen has a series of paintings; Karin Kraemer has a ceramic bowl with a pattern of carrots; Howell has a vintage-style dress, a costume from “An Ideal Husband,” which played at the College of St. Scholastica.

In more than two months, there have been themed events that tie into the series. A few of the featured writers had a public reading. In early January, Kathy McTavish, a cellist, composer and digital media artist, shared some of her works-in-progress.

Scouton was invited to perform a family-friendly show at the art institute — a departure from his usual work at his usual venues. (For the uninitiated: He’s known for industrial rock performed in front of horror film visuals and raw meat play.) Upping the difficulty: Setup for another event had begun when he arrived at the Depot, so he was asked to perform more quietly than normal.

He considers all of this a positive.

“That pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” he said. “My comfort zone is RT Quinlan’s with a bunch of drunk people. This is an art gallery with children and a wedding in progress. It made me do things that haven’t happened before.”

This series hasn’t just been about physical work. The art institute hosted a presentation and discussion about the economic impact of the arts soon after the exhibition was hung.

“In that backdrop of community arts, it was this serendipitous thing that underlined how strong the artist culture is right now,” Dugan said. “That showed it off.”

And now, even though the pieces are coming down from the gallery walls, Brokke is working with Shook Production — co-owned by subject Dan Branovan — on a documentary about Duluth’s art scene.

‘A powerful thing’

Along the way, Brokke said she has enjoyed watching these artists and their own big moments. Rachael Kilgour recently won a major songwriting award. Ann Klefstad secured a public art commission, and now her animal sculptures greet visitors to the Government Services Center. Flo Matamoros had an exhibition of her graffiti-style work in the Duluth Art Institute’s Corridor Gallery.

“I think the more we can recognize each other in space and the amazing things we’re trying to do, it benefits us all,” Brokke said. “You’d think it would be a competitive thing, but when one of us does well in this community, we all do well.”

During today’s closing reception, the artists will each present Brokke with a token and finally get a physical copy of the thank-you she started two years ago. Though she was the one who painted the portraits, Brokke said the project is not about her. It left her hands as soon as she finished the work.

“All I really did is name something that’s already here,” she said. “We have this crazy, vibrant arts community here, and we all know it. It feels like there is this energy that is present in our community, and we don’t get a chance to acknowledge it. We’re all trying to make our own things happen.

“The beautiful cascading events that have come from it, what a powerful thing to get to be the seed of,” she said.


What: Closing reception for Sarah Brokke’s “Portrait of an Artist” and multiple artists’ “(Self) portrait of an Artist”

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: George Morrison and John Steffl Galleries at the Duluth Art Institute

Tickets: Free, open to the public


What: Opening reception for 2016 Membership Exhibition and Emerging Photographers

When: 5:30 p.m. today

Where: Great Hall, Depot

Tickets: Free, open to the public