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DeWitt's window images are Bemidji holiday tradition

Michael DeWitt's favorite mice people with trademark snowflakes in the background decorate a mirror in First Impressions Salon. DeWitt has been painting Christmas windows since 1980 in Bemidji. Pioneer photo/Patt Rall

For local artist Michael DeWitt, it was love at first sight - first sight of the northland, that is.

As an Illinois high school senior on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters, he was enthralled with the beauty surrounding him. In 1962, he returned to the area and attended Bemidji State College on an athletic work/study scholarship.

DeWitt cited his instructors in the art department as having a great influence on his life.

"Eugene Dalzotto, who taught painting, sculpture and printmaking, Keith Malmquist, who taught design, and Russ Sawdey, who taught watercolor painting and lettering, were all great teachers and mentors," said DeWitt.

He graduated from BSC with a Bachelor of Science in art education and then went to Aspen, Colo., and started an art program in public schools. The Vietnam War was escalating at that time, 1967, and DeWitt joined the Air Force Officer Training School because of an administrative mix-up whereby his deferment was no longer in effect. Sometime later, DeWitt returned to this area with his daughter, Kelly, in a shared custody arrangement with his former wife. The need to make extra money to support his daughter as well as himself spurred him toward doing some commercial art on the side. His big break came in 1980 when First National Bank Bemidji hired him to decorate its windows with holiday/winter scenes.

"I painted animals in snowball fights and turtles on their backs sliding downhill, and the legendary painter of holiday windows was created," said DeWitt. "I have always loved to paint and started painting at 6 years old when my grandaunt put a set of oil paints in my hands. I have a picture that I made for my grandmother when I was 17 years old, which then went to my mother and now to me. It is cartoons of animals doing funny things on the ice and wintertime fun, so I have always loved this kind of art."

DeWitt's winter holiday paintings were on windows all over town. This went on for years until one year when he decided that he did not want to do it anymore.

"I worked up this speech in my mind and when I went to the former Union Station Restaurant to tell the owner, two college girls were talking about the windows and wondered why weren't they painted yet," he said. "One of the girls said that she came home especially to see the windows for they were a part of her life since childhood, and I changed my mind on the spot and decided to continue to do the windows."

This year only Slim's and First Impressions are showing DeWitt's paintings. Those on the front windows are in white. Inside, mice are sleeping in Christmas stockings along with the candy canes. Another mouse is putting a star on top of the tree, while mother mouse is setting out the presents.

"There seems to be something different about the windows being manufactured today, and the paint does not adhere as well as it once did," DeWitt said. "The paints are also different in that they are not as thick and do not go on as smoothly, nor are the colors as true. There is no true red anymore."

DeWitt's fanciful and fantastic window painting will appear again in the future for the enjoyment of Bemidjians. His plan is to develop a method by which the paint will adhere to a more permanent medium, not glass. He has already researched the kinds of paints to be used, which will more closely resemble the colors he has used in the past. DeWitt works at his home studio.

"I like to be able to glance at a work in progress whenever I want to without having to drive somewhere else to do so," he said.

"I have always considered myself a fine artist with heavy commercial art skills," he said. "One of my favorite murals is in the food court in lower Hobson Hall at BSU. It is an arboreal forest with wildlife on an oval surface with a rising and setting sun."

Most of his artwork is by commission now. One piece is in the lobby of the Bemidji Methodist Church. The painting depicts a set of marble outside stairs leading to a door in a dilapidated building. Although the subject is simple, the door invites viewers to imagine what might be behind it.

DeWitt also is finishing a project which started a year ago of painted panels for the church and hopes to have them ready before the current pastor retires next year.