Shows remind us of how environment defines our self-portrait

Published 9:11 am Saturday, April 11, 2009

At first glance, the two exhibits currently showing at the Albert Lea Art Center appear to have little in common. But let’s look again.

The walls in the Storrer Gallery are filled with self portraits done by junior and senior high students. Some are realistic, some are playful and some are unusual and fun. The room is alive with unique animals, colorful ceramic desserts and young energy.

This gallery defines art as seen through the eyes of a teenager, and it connects art to their lives and their personalities. While you may not be able to discover the national origin of these kids, and by this generation they are probably quite a mix of ethnic groups, you know that you are seeing “young art” — the portrait of youth.

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The Herfindahl Gallery offers a totally different kind of self portrait. Norway is usually defined by descriptions of mountains, fjords, fisherman, farmers, rosemaling, hardangar, Ole and Lena jokes and Uffda. These stories shine in the eyes of the descendants of 19th century Norwegian immigrants. Is this found in their present day art? You betcha!

American citizens of Norwegian descent are proud of their heritage. So much so, that even the spouses without a drop of Norwegian blood learn to make lefse. But the energy that was so evident at the new show’s opening reception last Sunday emphasized just how vital our heritage is to our very being and how proud we are to present it to all who care to listen and observe.

These shows are a reminder of how we are identified by the art in our homes and businesses, how the environment we choose defines our own self portrait.

Recently I was in a law office established by a father and his sons. Did the walls hold pictures of lawyers? No way. Wildlife — deer and ducks and fisherman. You knew the minute you walked into the building, what the interests of this family are, and I learned a lot about a four year old son who loves fishing and cries when it is time to go in for lunch. Last summer he provided enough crappies for two of their family meals. These offices were not the portrait of legality, they shouted “outdoors.”

I have a daughter-in-law who was born in Germany. There is a sense of order about her home and a style in her decorations and curtains that is immediately obvious when you enter the door. Germany is here in her American home.

My husband has a niece who loves music. Here again you feel it when you walk into the house. It’s more than the grand piano in the living room. Music is on the walls and in the atmosphere. Music is the portrait that she presents to the world.

I have a friend who grew up on an area farm, but for many years she lived in a large city and loved all of the culture and opportunities offered there. When it was time for retirement, she decided to move back to the family farm and decorated her house in a comfortable, rustic style. Her home is warm and inviting and displays to all who care to see, that her values are still rural southern Minnesota. It is the self portrait she presents to all.

At the Art center, the young students are very proud of the newness and creativity they brought to the show — their own original American art — their expression — their self portraits. The older Norwegians are equally proud of the creativity displayed. Many of their exhibit items are available because of travel to Norway, but even more are American made originals, created by using skills that have been passed down from generation to generation, all with the determination that this heritage will not be lost — their own self portraits.

Just as the student art and Norwegian art reflect the personalities and interests of the artists, we are reflected in the art in our own lives. Our homes are our own self portraits.

Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center, where the April displays include art by Southwest Middle School and Albert Lea High School students and traditional Norwegian art on loan from the Sons of Norway and others who are very proud of their Norwegian heritage.