Artist incorporates local topography into new exhibit

Published 10:06 am Friday, July 21, 2023

By Abigail Chalmers

The Freeborn County Arts Initiative recently welcomed its July-August exhibit titled “Altitude.” The pieces in this collection were created by Mason City-based artist Mariah Piippo and feature various landscapes from an aerial perspective.

“It has kind of a topographical look to it,” said Susanne Crane, an Arts Initiative board member and gallery curator. “It’s abstract, but these actually look like perhaps you’re flying over in a plane or maybe you’re a bird, and you’re definitely looking at this artwork from a different point of view.”

Email newsletter signup

Piippo said she often studies aerial maps and photos in addition to incorporating her own impression of a landscape. In creating these pieces, she used a mixture of acrylic paint and heat-treated sand to build dimension and terrain before detailing the pieces with metallic paints and mica powder.

“I use mica powder opposed to glitter whenever possible to avoid using plastics and encourage the use of natural beauty since mica powder is colored rock,” Piippo said.

Several pieces are Piippo’s recreations of areas around southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

“Some of them are actually geography-inspired,” Arts Initiative director Elisha Marin said, referencing the works that would likely resonate with local viewers.

Two such pieces include “Albert Lea” and “Clear Lake.” The former depicts parts of the Shell Rock River Watershed that surround Albert Lea, including Fountain and Albert Lea Lake. Careful brush strokes hint at city streets and neighborhoods, details that differentiate the work from other landscapes in the collection. The latter piece is a snapshot of Clear Lake itself, with the deep blue waters covering most of the large canvas and a thin border of the surrounding land lining the lakeshore.

“Seeing anything topographical that has a bit of influence from the actual landscape around the Midwest here in this region is really exciting,” Crane said.

Piippo began designing this collection in her third year of college at the University of Northern Iowa. After transferring from North Iowa Area Community College with her associate degree, she felt like her “foundation and background in art was a little different than [her] peers” and wanted to try something new in hopes of resonating with them. Covering a work in black paint and using mica powder for detailing was a method she had learned in high school, and when she stumbled on sand as a textural medium, she put it all together.

“Mixing the sand with paint was incredibly cathartic, and I was in love with the feeling,” she said.  “Now I aim to show how beautiful the world can be to others, but most importantly myself, through this process.”

For each exhibit, the featured artist is selected with great care by the Arts Initiative board. Crane noted that the board members visit many exhibits and other galleries to discover new artists and ensure that the gallery is fresh and unique with each show.

“That’s one of our biggest priorities,” Marin said. “We don’t show anything that has been shown in Albert Lea before.”

The board carefully considers options and works to select collections that would be most appealing to the target audience.

“We actually go and recruit people and find people who are talented and say, ‘We’re going to give you a show,’ and they get really excited,” Crane said.

Marin added that they also like to support local artists and help them establish themselves in the art world.

“We’re here to support living artists while they’re alive,” Marin said, adding that galleries differentiate from museums because they offer working artists a chance to “sell their work and make a living,” while museums typically sell works to other collections and transactions often take place after an artist dies.

Crane added that the Arts Initiative is proud to offer artists a rewarding commission, noting that most galleries ask for 40-50% of the earnings on a sale, while the Arts Initiative boasts a 30-70% split with the artist, allowing them to reap more profit for their hard work. She said that this is possible due to volunteer contributions to the organization and state grants.

The gallery experiences both buyers and viewers from around the area as well as from out-of-state. Crane said that the board members, especially Marin, who is a member of the St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts organization, have many connections within the art community that draw people in.

“We’ve built a reputation for having really high-quality stuff in a place where people wouldn’t expect it,” Marin said.

Crane added that many of the gallery’s shows tend to blossom after being featured.

“A lot of our shows grow legs and travel,” she said. “We’ve had our shows go to Owatonna, Faribault, Austin — they’ve gone up to Minneapolis.”

Though viewers continue to visit throughout the length of the showing, most attend the gallery reception hosted either at the beginning or end. The featured artist or group of artists meet with attendees, talk about their works and answer questions. Crane also organizes elegant catering for the guests. She encouraged people to visit, emphasizing that the experience is free of cost.

The next exhibit will premiere in September and run through October, featuring Crane’s work alongside fiber pieces from Northfield-based Kathy Weed. Crane described Weed’s work as “fine art” quilts.

“She treats the fabric like paint,” Crane said. “And I’m a painter so we’re doing the same themes next to each other, one in paint, one in fabric.”

Marin added that the Arts Initiative board is “so excited” about the upcoming exhibit.

“Altitude” will be available for free viewing until Aug. 26. The Freeborn County Arts Initiative is at 224 S. Broadway Ave. and is open from 5-8 p.m. Thursdays and from 1-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.