Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Feature photo: Artist Bob Crowe stands on the screen porch of his home at Crowe Farm.
South of Fargo stands a yellow farmhouse that is inhabited by local artist, Bob Crowe. This humble, well-known figure has had an undeniable impact on the art community in the FM area. To celebrate his participation in a recent group show at The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, we visited with Crowe to discuss the exhibition, the camaraderie he has shared with his fellow artists for the past 25 years and how his idyllic childhood challenged him to develop creatively.
A Southern Belle Travels North
Going all the way back to the beginning, Crowe was born and raised in Fargo, where his family had a furniture store in the Loretta Building in Downtown Fargo for nearly 75 years. As a young adult, Crowe worked his way up from within the retail industry, though he was still making art in his off hours. Then, after becoming disenchanted by the world of retail, Crowe returned to to pursue an art degree at MSUM in the 1990s.
When asked to recount how he came to be who he his today, Crowe shared a story that provides a glimpse into his, what some might call idyllic, childhood.
“I grew up in a household with a mother who taught us a lot. She was a Southern Belle that moved up here from Dallas, Texas with my father. She was a very talented woman, and our house was full of art and music. We would all sing down at the lake together around the bonfire, and on rainy days, she’d pull out art supplies and we’d all draw together. It was a wonderful way to grow up,” he said.
In addition to encouraging his creativity, Crowe’s mother passed on one other important trait. “She also instilled in us not only the desire, but the need to share with other people,” he said. This would follow Crowe throughout his artistic career and inspire him to share his expertise with others.
Little, Yet Life Changing Moments
While at MSUM, Crowe studied under Carl Oltvedt, now of Minneapolis, and eventually became acquainted with fellow artist Dan Jones. The two introduced Crowe to plein air painting, which is painting out in the countryside. At the time, his medium of choice was watercolor. “I absolutely loved it [painting plein air], but I was having a horrible time trying to paint watercolors outside. The sun would dry the paper. It was driving me crazy, so Carl walked over and handed me a box of pastels, and I haven’t picked up a brush since,” Crowe revealed.
Another life-changing moment for Crowe was when he met Bob Kurkowski, whom he met through working as a teacher at the Plains Art Museum. “He changed my life again. There were only two men at the creative arts studio, and we became incredibly close friends,” said Crowe. It was Kurkowski who inspired him to become a teacher at the public school level and after teaching for a few years, Crowe decided that it was finally time to pursue a career as a full-time artist.
Yet another life-changing moment for Crowe came about when he became acquainted with ecce, a local art gallery located in Downtown Fargo. “After several years, I met Mark [Weiler] through Dan, and that again changed my life. His gallery was better than anything I’d ever seen in New York. My work looked great in there, and we did shows together that looked great in there,” Crowe explained.
Vibrant Colors and Textures
Crowe’s work is filled with vibrant colors and textures, which he achieves through the use of pastels. This medium creates a fine dust when used and a fixative is usually required to keep all of the pigments in place on paper. Because the spray is highly toxic, especially for someone in Crowe’s condition as he suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), he has had to improvise in order to continue to produce prolific works. Instead, he applies a fine mist of water over heavy watercolor paper to make sure that all of the pigments stay in place.
As for the subject matter of his paintings, much of Crowe’s inspiration comes from the peaceful surroundings of his family farm, though he sometimes creates his own scenery. Sadly, this tranquility has been compromised by nearby construction. In fact, that is why Crowe added a beautiful pond to his property—to distract from the noise. To help install the pond, the artist enlisted the help of a tiny house enthusiast who lives on the land in exchange for maintaining the farm, which is greatly appreciated by Crowe.
25 Years of Camaraderie
Crowe also appreciates the camaraderie he has developed with a small group of local and regional artists. Once a year, they get together to make art and provide feedback on each other’s work. “These guys are able to tell you honestly about your work, and that’s the most valuable thing. We can paint anywhere, but to get together as a group, it’s an incredible dynamic,” Crowe said.
They originally hosted the retreat at Solinger’s Resort on Lake Ida, but then moved it to Crowe’s family lake cabin. Eventually, the Crowe Farm would become the place where everyone would gather year after year. The core group of artists consists of Crowe, Carl Oltvedt, Dan Jones, Jim Conaway, Zimin Guan and Paul Kellett. However, the retreat has occasionally included other artists such as Warren Kessler and Jessica Wachter. The late Bob Kurkowski was also a participant.
When asked what an average day is like at the retreat, Crowe had this to reply, “The oldest member of the party is 83 and he’s always the first one up. He’s usually out painting by the time the rest of us get up.” Then, they enjoy coffee together and meander outside to start painting. During the daytime, they wander in and out of the house as needed. At night, they discuss each other’s paintings and bond over a large, homemade meal.
Crowe says that in order to grow as an artist, you need to be able to share your work. For other artists, he recommends, “Find somebody that you can paint with, but they shouldn’t be your best friend. They should be somebody that you admire, but not necessarily your friend. That’s what gives you a sounding board, and artists are notoriously solitary. What happens is you get this internal thing going on, and you need to be able to break out of that if you want to grow.”
The Crowe Farm Retreats Exhibition
The Crowe Farm Retreats Exhibition will be on display at the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum until June 10. In addition to featuring works from all of the core artists, the show also includes photographs taken at the retreat over the last 25 years.