The studio of 2D and 3D artist Kathy Gustafson is chock full of her art work, a library of how-to and Great Masters books, blue ribbons and plaques for many awards and a comfortable sitting space for parents while they wait for their child to finish up a drawing lesson.
Gustafson, one of the artists who will be highlighted in the Bemidji First City of Arts Studio Cruise this weekend, said one of the goals of the Studio Cruise is to actually see artists working. She likes that part because it is good for people to see how it all begins.
"If you want to get technical, I probably started drawing when I was 2 and my parents always made sure we had plenty of paper," said Gustafson. "My father would bring used paper from the office that we could draw on -- stacks of them. Of course, we would draw on the back sides and we had crayons.
"My three sisters and I would play school and I would usually tell them what to do, and I still teach," she said. I have people come here for lessons, and right now I am teaching at the Boys and Girls Club of Bemidji -- a drawing class for kids of all ages"
Gustafson finds that it is fun to teach art, and every age has its different concerns -- the younger kids are a lot freer and not as judgmental. Once children get past the fourth grade, the teacher has to work harder with them because they spend so much time erasing, and she wants them to just enjoy the process, she said.
"One of the reasons we do art is not just for the end product; we want to enjoy doing while we are doing it," said Gustafson. "I do think it is important for children to realize that it's not what you come up with but that you have fun doing it. People think that art ability is something that you are born with, but really, anyone can learn the basics. There are always some people who can go further with it, but I also think that if you put in the time and practice, then you're going to get better with it."
Gustafson, ever the teacher, went on to explain how exciting it is for her and her students when the "light bulb" goes on. She gave as a example learning about shapes and how a chair is really a series of rectangles between the rungs.
Once a student can see shapes, then he or she begins to understand what it really means "to see," she said.
"I think that is what all artists learn to do, to really see what they are looking at -- not just the brain's idea of what they are looking at," said Gustafson. "I have mentored some adult students, and when you tell them something and they say, 'Wow, so this is how it is!,' that's a light-bulb moment.
"A lot of people might have an affinity for art and have interest in it but they still have to put in the practice," she continued. "How does an artist know they are getting good? Is it because someone else tells you? That's kind of the big question. I guess if you are satisfied with what you are doing, then you have already achieved success because, first of all, you should please yourself. If people start buying and you get awards, then it's an external way of reinforcing what you are doing."
Gustafson also spoke about her 3D work in metal and stone sculpting and how she got started. Her husband, she said, is a man of many talents, and one day he decided to show their youngest son how to weld. She wanted to learn as well. They learned basic welding, how to use a plasma cutter, how to finish a piece and grind the surface for texture, and then they started to put pieces together. Gustafson is known for a series that she has named "Nest Series."
"I don't know how I started to do the "Nest Series" but it really appealed to me," she said. "The first one I made with a tree shape, and I developed an eye for finding egg shaped rocks. I started seeing them as a metaphor for art; when I make them, it's not just the nest with an egg in it, but it's also a metaphor for hopes and dreams that we all nurture inside of us. There are some pieces with lots of eggs in them, and some just have one, but it's a very special one, so I just think about that when I'm developing a new idea. I think the Nest Series is about 15 pieces now."
The biggest piece Gustafson has fabricated is by Neilson Place. It has a long story behind it because it was one of the first sculptures she made. Originally, the tree was made of wood that was varnished, with the nest setting on the branch. The piece stayed on the Bemidji Sculpture Walk for about three years and then North County Health Services (now Sanford Health) decided to purchase it for Neilson Place.
Unbeknownst to the artist and the buyers, carpenter ants had gotten into the tree and it fell down during a windstorm. Gustafson reconstructed the piece. She built the tree of metal and then put the nest back into it, promising, "No more carpenter ants!"
Guftafson went on to say that her formal training was scant, so she read a lot and took workshops. She was a member of the Northern Artists Association for a long time. She said the members were very encouraging. When she started going to meetings, she hardly knew how to mat a picture or frame it, and they were very instrumental in helping her learn by doing to be more professional. The Northern Artists Association got Gustafson involved in different arts organizations like Artists of Minnesota. She also attended annual workshops and saw really good artists' work.
"I think that was a big inspiration to me," said Gustafson. "Seeing what other artists are doing makes you excited, and you want to go home and do something. "
Perhaps it was that mentoring by fellow artists that led Gustafson to take the 10-week training on the business of art offered last summer by the Region 2 Arts Council. The course was one of a series of workshops being offered by R2AC in response to services requested during public meeting a couple of years ago.
"Part of the criteria is that they would select someone from the people, who took the class, to be an artist career counselor," said Gustafson. "That means I have been trained to help people who are stuck in what their next good step would be, how to set their own goals and how to aim for reaching those goals. They might have all these vague ideas of what they would like to be, and I am here to help them.
"My association with the Region 2 Arts Council has given me more insight into what is happening around here," she said. "I've been in the game for a long time and have some knowledge that I've gained over the years. The mentoring is set up through Spring Board for the Arts and they take care of the promotion of the program. I am looking forward to getting my first person, but I probably would have a little more to say to a visual artist because I know more, but I have been studying about different resources for all of the different disciplines so I will be ready for whoever comes."