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Still creating art at 87

Grace Privratsky stands by an oil painting of a hawk that she donated to a charity function some time ago. She bought her own painting back from an antique shop in Bemidji and added it to the collection of her work at her gallery. Patt rall | Pioneer photo1 / 2
One of the many floral watercolors, this painting of iris blossoms is one of a series showing many color variations and shading. Pictures of iris blossoms and other flowers can be seen and purchased at Grace's Gallery in Birch Haven Villages. Patt rall | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

A room located just inside the front door of Bemidji's Birch Haven Village is named Grace's Gallery and it is an on-site gift shop of work by resident and artist Grace Privratsky.

The artwork by this nearly 87 year-old ranges from cards of her watercolors, kitschy key and spoon holders to larger watercolors of Iris and Poppies to her carvings of familiar Minnesota birds and an oil painting of a hawk that she donated years ago and found in an antique shop in Bemidji.

Grace's Gallery is always open and a customer can reach Privratsky by using the phone on the desk.

Privratsky doesn't go out as much as she used to since giving up her car. This gallery is a smaller version of her first galley, "The Art Barn," a still standing little red barn on Highway 34 in Akeley where she gave painting lessons and sold art.

"An artist always has to do it (art) and that's why I am still doing it," Privratsky said. "What makes great art is in the eye of the beholder. I started painting in grade school when my dad, Leo Merz, bought me a box of paints.

"He liked to go to auctions and he would sit there all day and one time he bought me box containing cakes of watercolor paints for 25 cents and they were the only paints I had until I was a married lady. My father knew that I liked it, making art."

She went to high school in Dickinson, N.D., in 1939 and there were no art courses at that time. She married her high school beau, George Privratsky, after he returned from World War II and went to Dickinson Teacher's College (now Dickinson State University).

That was where Grace Merz Privratsky started to take oil painting lessons with the head of the art department, Zoe Beiler.

Privratsky reminisced about her life on the ranch in Rhame, N.D., near the Badlands, and how artists would come to paint this overall scene, this unusual place. She overheard the "critics," those who knew little about art (plein air), talk about a particular young man who used too much purple in the Badlands.

"I remembered that and didn't put too much purple in the Badlands," Privratsky joked. "No, I don't have any letters behind my name but I have studied with wonderful artists like water colorist Rose Eden from Staples and Russ Norberg of Staples. I studied wood whittling with James Schram from Blackduck; he got us all going."

After painting for 80 years, Privratsky has many stories to tell and proud accomplishments, like being a founding member of the North Country Museum of Arts in Park Rapids, recently re-named the Nameth Art Center. Gabor Nameth was a restorer of paintings who worked for a collector of fine art in California. After WWII, many paintings were sold by families in Europe to buy food and just get along. Nameth collected painting for the collector and kept some for his private collection.

"We (the founding members) decided to buy the paintings from him," said Privratsky. "I am most proud that we established an art program in the elementary schools in Park Rapids, Nevis and Walker and it was called 'Picture Lady in the Schools.' We would take a master picture and tell the kids about it: why it was great art, what made it great, what makes a painting important. That program went on for many years."

Privratsky likes to paint in series of the same subject. When she and her husband retired to New Mexico, the subject she chose were abode churches.

"The whole scenery was different from North Dakota and I painted a series of paintings of the adobe churches of Grant County where the museum is located. My husband and I were docents," Privratsky said. "They gave me a solo show of 11 of the 13 churches in that county and all the paintings sold.

"That's my claim to fame; I had a solo show and it sold out. Of course, the paintings meant something to the people because they were married in a particular church or their child was confirmed there. I should have kept a copy of those paintings. Now I keep a photo of everything I paint in my computer."

Another series of paintings that Privratsky is proud of are those of the Little Missouri River which starts near the Devil's Tower in Wyoming and winds around through Montana, through the badlands of South Dakota and then up to Medora, N.D., and then into the Big Missouri. Historian Clay Jenkinson walked the river route of the Little Missouri and wrote a book, "Message on the Wind." She is proud to tell that Jenkinson has a copy of this series of paintings.

When Privratsky and her husband lived in Turkey for eight years while he was a hospital administrator for the Congregationalist Church, she chose still another series to paint. Turkey is full of historical sites like Roman roads and aqua ducts and early Christian apostles back the antiquities like a portion of a Trojan Wall from 1200 BC.

"When we lived in Turkey, I did have two one-person shows, one of which was in the Consulate in Ankara," Privratsky said. "It was quite unusual for a woman to be so honored.

"I still have the pictures of a man and a woman from the village where our son, Bruce, graduated from school. Bruce is a linguist and lives in Turkey and translates biblical writings into Turkish. "

Those portraits in oil hang in the apartment Privratsky has in Birch Haven, a place she moved into after her husband passed away. She relocated from Dickinson to be near her son, Scott, and his family, who live in Walker.

There also is a group of paintings on the bedroom wall: one by Grace, her mother, a great aunt Elizabeth Maue and granddaughter Ada's floral abstract. Ada has a master's degree from the University of New Mexico and is an artist. Privratsky hopes that her son, Brad, who works in computers, will turn his hand to painting when he retires.

"When this spring comes, I'll go out and probably get closer to the water and watch and things will speak to me on some level," mused Privratsky. "Until then, I'll just sit here and whittle this walleye, which is a special order for someone."