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Brothers of the brush: Artists’ annual retreat fuels creativity, kinship

Carl Oltvedt captured painters working during the annual Crowe Farm artists retreat. Special to The Forum1 / 3
The Crowe Farm Retreat in 2005 featured (standing, left to right) Zhimin Guan, Dan Jones, Jim Conaway, and Carl Oltvedt, with (left to right) Bob Kurkowski, Paul Kellett, and Bob Crowe seated in front. Special to The Forum2 / 3
Bob Crowe's view of his farm in pastel. Special to The Forum3 / 3

MOORHEAD—Every October, Dan Jones and a group of buddies load up and drive out to Bob Crowe's farm for a weekend. There, they get up early in the morning, pack up their gear and walk out into the fields to set up posts for the day. At the end of the day they return to the farmhouse with their prize, make dinner, have a drink or two and catch up.

It sounds like a hunting trip, but their game is the landscape and their weapons are paints and brushes.

"It's very much like a hunting retreat, only we're hunting the light," Jones says.

The culmination of this annual artists' weekend, "Crowe Farm Retreats : 25 Years Celebrating Art & Nature," opens Friday at the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum.

The show features work by Crowe, Jones and Zhimin Guan of Fargo, as well as Jim Conaway, Paul Kellett and Carl Oltvedt, all of Minneapolis.

The annual getaway actually started at photographer Jon Solinger's resort on Lake Lida, Minn. The following year, Crowe hosted at his lake place, where it remained for a few years. Eventually, he invited the group to his family farm near Comstock, Minn., a nod to his mother, Marjorie Jean Crowe, who started painting retreats there in the 1970s.

"She was a giving person and instilled in us to share what we have," Crowe says. "I was trying to give back and share like my mother had done. I love it out here so much I wanted my friends to share in that."

The artists each go off in their own direction to find an interesting vantage point to paint. Sometimes they will be out of site from each other, sometimes two artists will work side by side.

"It's not supposed to be competitive, but it is," Jones says.

He says over the years he's been pushed and encouraged by Oltvedt, a former MSUM art teacher.

The artists take part in an informal critique at the end of the day, and will share techniques or materials over the weekend.

While the weekend doesn't often allow enough time to finish a piece, Jones says many of his most successful works started at the retreat and were developed after.

While there is support between the painters, there's also good-natured ribbing among the friends.

Jones recalls how Kellett would paint on scrap pieces of wood, prompting him to chide the Minneapolis artist, "No construction site in town is safe with you roaming around."

"It's helped us become better artists," Crowe says. "The best way to learn how to paint is to paint with a painter. It's like having a class with the best artists you know. It's a win, win, win, all the way around."

"As studio painters, we have an unfortunate tendency to isolate ourselves," says Jonathan Rutter, an accomplished painter and executive director/curator at the Rourke. "So to break free of that helps to get artists out of any ruts they might be in. Operating as these gentlemen have, it's probably kept them out of any ruts they might have encountered."

Dan Jones' view of the country. Special to The Forum

"It is about the painting but it's more about the group of us getting together, the camaraderie," Jones says. "You can always count on getting some belly-laughing until it hurts and it happens every year at some point."

He speaks from the heart. The only time in the last two decades the retreat wasn't on Crowe's property was in 2009 when Jones was recovering from a debilitating brain aneurysm in Bismarck.

The other artists came to him, bringing his paint box and set up on a friend's place in the country for an afternoon of painting.

"That's what got me back in line. I didn't think I'd ever work again. Until that point I was starting over with stick figures. Then, all of the sudden, 'Boom, Dan's Back.' That was a huge thing for them to come out there like that," Jones says.

The group isn't strictly a boys' club. Through the years Jessica Wachter and Barbara Hatfield and others have taken part, but the core remains the six men in the show.

Over the 25 years, Crowe has acquired pieces of work from all of the visiting artists, a selection that will be shown at the Rourke. Still, he says, he never considered tapping the retreat as the source for an exhibit.

"I was doing it more to share a blessing with my friends," he says. "It's become part of our lives now."

"For me it's just a little more of an extension of the retreat," Jones says of the show. "The camaraderie. I love these guys. Any time we can get together, we do. To be able to put the work out in front of everybody, I hope they see that the biggest part of it all is the friendship."

Paul Kellett's landscape. Special to The Forum

If You Go

What: "Crowe Farm Retreats : 25 Years Celebrating Art & Nature" members preview

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m., Friday


What: Artists' talk

When: 2 p.m., Saturday

Where: The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

Info: Both events are free., (218) 236-8861.