Lake Avenue Café, Wendy Rouse is comin' home.

No, the former owner isn't taking back the reins in some sort of bizarre Canal Park coup d'état. Rather, recent paintings by the local artist will be on display there until the beginning of next month.

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"I feel like I can almost do anything there," she said of the eatery, which is now owned by some friends. "I'm not painting for a gallery or anything specific -- I can just have fun, and I knew that they would let me put up anything that I wanted to.

"They trust me, I guess. [Laughs]"

Don't take this to mean Rouse's pieces will be pushing the boundaries of good taste or anything. The exhibit is called "Mirror Lake" and draws from the artist's large collection of paintings that use figurines instead of live models -- needless to say, something the whole family can enjoy.

"I set up little objects on a mirror, and the mirror starts to symbolize lakes and Minnesota for me. Models can get expensive, and they need breaks," she says with a laugh. "I shine a light on (the figures), and they just stay there for me. The mirror's just an idea I work with, and then the little objects are kind of about people I know or ideas I have.

"I just kind of take it from there."

The idea stems from the two-year period she spent in New York City attaining her master's degree at the New York Academy of Art. She was doing portraits of her daughter holding flowers, fruits, etc. when she was urged to "be more original."

"Instructors come by and critique you," she added, "and they can be kind of tough."

With that constructive criticism, she instead had her daughter hold a round mirror with a little boat on it because that represented Minnesota to her and, as she so eloquently put it, Manhattan needs more green spaces.

"And I like the ideas of reflections," she continued. "A painting, in a way, is a reflection of the artist and what I'm thinking, and the mirror is a literal reflection. All those different ideas start to come to mind."

Besides, Rouse added, the process of doing large realistic portraits with finger paints is painstaking.

"Sometimes they drive me nuts, because you work so hard to get it just right," she said, mentioning that the pieces for this new series are smaller, more colorful and, all in all, just more fun to do.

... and for the love of art

"I just always really loved art," said Rouse, who, before achieving her master's in the field in New York City, studied art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "It's not the most practical thing, but, I don't know, sometimes you're just compelled to do something whether it's practical or not."

Though Rouse credits much of her enthusiasm for the medium to Mel Kumsha, her high school art teacher, she said her fascination actually began a lot earlier.

"I've read that lots of times middle children, and I'm a middle child, tend to be creative -- and especially if there's some kind of stress in the family. It's like an outlet," she said. "Not that I had a terrible childhood or anything, but we had some things going on at home that it was nice to just go to my room and draw and paint."

These days, Rouse spends most of her time away from home (which is "out in the sticks," as she puts it) in her East Hillside studio. She considers the space a "consolation prize" for having to leave New York -- though she also added that being around the family and friends in Minnesota she's known her whole life is "irreplaceable."

"I love to paint. It's my favorite thing, and I don't quit," she says with a smile. "I get started and I don't want to do anything else. I find it's a lot better to have a separate place, and then, when I'm done, I always go home to eat and sleep."

NEWS TO USE

"Mirror Lake," recent paintings by local artist Wendy Rouse, will be on display from March 3 to April 3 at Lake Avenue Café in Canal Parks' DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace building (394 Lake Avenue). An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. March 3.