Becky Jokela’s ‘Reflection’

Reflection by Becky Jokela, Pastel painting, 18 x 24

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded an honorable mention: Becky Jokela and her pastel painting Reflection.

I enjoyed the way Becky captured the early spring light and reflection on the snow and river, as well as capturing the optimism of that first hint of spring after a long winter. I was curious to learn more about what inspired Becky to create Reflection and this is what she said:

‘Reflection’ is a painting I created as part of my project, ‘Sogn Valley – Painting the Little Cannon Watershed’. Thanks to a SEMAC (Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council) grant, I spent a year creating paintings of the Little Cannon River with sketches and field studies done on site. From the headwaters near Kenyon to the junction with the Cannon River in Cannon Falls, I explored the river and watershed with the surrounding hills, meadows, pastures, woodland valleys, snow melt, springs and creeks.

Clearly, there was an abundance of subject matter along this 35 mile long river and watershed, but I was most excited to paint the limestone outcropping near the Old Oxford Mill. These dramatic limestone cliffs just around the river bend supplied limestone for building the late 19th century mill. When I was a kid, our school bus passed by this scene every day. Even then I thought the mill was cool and the cliffs were stunning. Fast forward a few decades and here I am painting them!

I chose the winter to paint this scene. It is not only my favorite season to paint but winter accentuates the drama of these limestone cliffs reflecting into the Little Cannon River. I loved the entire process… Tromping through the snow, creating two small paintings, still winter but warm enough to stand outside and paint for a couple of hours, and later creating the larger painting in the warmth of my studio. ‘Reflection’ is my favorite painting of the series, so I’m especially thrilled to have received an award at the state fair!

When I look at this landscape, I almost feel the early Spring sun on my face, the return of moisture to the air, and just the hint of the world waking up after a long Minnesota Winter. This image of the long awaited turn of the season from Winter to Spring, the turn from a child watching from a school bus to an adult to capturing the scene in pastels, reminds me of the steady but sure passage of time, like the peaceful flowing of the Little Cannon River passed the timeless limestone cliff face.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog . Learn more about Becky Jokela at www.beckyjokela.com.

Donald L. Esse’s ‘George’

George by Donald L. Esse, Pencil, 30 x 40

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded an honorable mention: Donald L. Esse and his drawing George.

George captured my attention by its perceived simplicity: an older man in a chair with a newspaper folded on his lap, looking back at me with sad, intelligent eyes. Donald captures the light falling across his subject in a way that makes the viewer wonder what lies below the surface of the man who has one arm posed to pull himself out of his chair and his other arm seeming to hold himself back, his hand covering his mouth. I wanted to know more about this drawing and asked Donald to share the backstory:

George is a dear friend I got to know about 10 years ago. At that time, he was a very active, vital person with a quick wit and sharp memory. He’s a very insightful, generous and compassionate man who cares deeply about people in need. He is also a voracious reader who loves his daily StarTribune. He is twice a widower, never had children and has no immediate family. I have sort of become the son he never had.

George is keenly aware of his declining physical and mental health, I wanted to portray the reality that each of us must face our own mortality. Over the past two years, dementia has taken a toll on his memory and my role has shifted from friend to part-time caregiver. As our friendship developed, I was struck by George’s uncanny ability to sum up a complex thought in just a few quick words. Despite his declining cognitive abilities, he still has periods where that ability shines through. He still loves to engage in a lively political discussion or speak out about social injustice, especially after the murder of George Floyd and the covid 19 pandemic. In my humble opinion, the world would be a better place if there were more people like my friend George. In a nutshell, I wanted to try to capture some of these qualities about George in a portrait and make a statement about honoring and respecting our older generations.

A big factor in my doing his portrait was George’s encouragement. In 2005, I was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer that had spread to my liver. I was given only a 5% chance of survival beyond the end of that year. Somehow, I survived and have been cancer-free since 2009. But the emotional and physical toll the battle took was crushing. I went through a very dark period over the past 5 years, trying to figure out why I’m still here. I pretty much gave up on myself and my art. But George kept after me to get back to the easel. He lost his first wife to cancer so he knew exactly what I had been through. With his encouragement, I got back to my drawing board and easel, he truly inspired and challenged me to get back to what I love. For that, I wanted to immortalize this man!

I have been an artist my entire life (67yrs old), spent my working career as a commercial artist with MN ad agencies for 33 years. My first accepted entry in the MN State Fair Competition was a pencil drawing I created in 1994. Over the years, I have had several oil paintings accepted in the exhibit as well. Although I thoroughly enjoy oil painting, I believe my strong suit is in my pencil work. My last accepted entry was in 2012, so I am absolutely thrilled and honored that my portrait of George was accepted and given an honorable mention in this year’s exhibit!

The portrait of George expresses an inner struggle of facing one’s own mortality, something all of us contend with sooner or later. Donald’s photo-realistic pencil marks create a meditation that recognizes and honors that struggle.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog.

Jennifer Ann Soriano’s ‘Cast the First Stone’

Cast the First Stone by Jennifer Ann Soriano, Charcoal drawing with gold leaf accent, 30 x 24

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded a first place ribbon: Jennifer Ann Soriano and her charcoal drawing Cast the First Stone.

It was the guarded courage on the face of the woman in the water that first struck me. The stones and dove suggested conflict and choice, the river reflected rebirth or a second chance, and the timeless gold border that suggests iconography. My curiosity regarding the events led this young woman to being hip deep in the water were piqued by Jennifer’s skill at portraiture and composition. I asked Jennifer about the work:

I started Cast the First Stone a while back but felt it was missing something. The young lady who modeled for the drawing was a friend of my daughter’s. I had always been impressed by her courage and willingness to stand up for other people. I had the privilege to teach both her and my daughter art. When all the rioting occurred in the wake of George Floyd, it brought up issues of racism that occur on a daily basis in the lives of many of my students. My students were very open in discussing their own experiences. One of the things they often asked was how people treat other people with such anger and hate, such disregard for their humanity. I think at times what was hardest for them was to hear the denial of racism and its impact on their lives from their fellow students. It caused me to take a 2nd look at this drawing.

Many of my students come from a traditional Christian background and one of the insights brought by those who had experienced the sting of racism and prejudice in their lives was the contradiction it presented in the lives of those around them that professed to love and value their fellow man. The quickness to judge others without examining their own lives and the fear and prejudice lurking below the surface. So I began to use symbols to represent the contradictions the young woman and others had perceived. In the drawing, she breaks the frame, crossing the border, I wanted her to directly engage the viewer and present them with a choice.

Breaking frame was important, she was inviting the viewer into making a deliberate choice to cross a barrier and grasp for something that unites people instead of dividing them, our common shared humanity. The feathers and the dove present the opportunity for peace and healing while in her other hand the stones retreat from the viewer but remain present in the scene, as a lingering choice many have taken. The use of water as a symbol often signifies cleansing and renewal but water can also drown us.  When we are separate, we are drowning in our own fears and misconceptions. There is pull and tension throughout the piece, where you are not sure if the viewer has taken what is offered or not and I wanted that strain to be there in the sense that this is an ongoing choice to be made and we have make it deliberately.

I was so proud of my students, their bravery, their sense of justice for people and the need for people to extend kindness to one another and take a risk on each other. Their desire for a different life was powerful. 

Since the murder of George Floyd, I have begun to dip my toes into some uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege. Jennifer’s mention of our own fears and misconceptions resonates as I look at the young woman’s fierce bravery to reach across a divide in the hope of peace and healing. For me, this portrait celebrates those that make the uneasy choice to speak even when it may feel unsafe to do so, to those who choose kindness in the face of uncertainty, and move the conversation closer to a world of social justice.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog. Learn more about Jennifer Ann Soriano at sorianofinearts on Instagram.

Bly Pope’s ‘Corn Fields’

Corn Fields by Bly Pope, Pencil on paper, 10 x 13

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded a second place ribbon: Bly Pope and his drawing Corn Fields.

The judging process was divided into two phases this year. The first phase was online: as I viewed this landscape from my laptop, I was drawn to the preciseness of Bly’s work as well as the melancholy beauty of the gray toned corn fields and sky. The second phase of the judging was in person: I was amazed by the richness and contrast of the texture of the image and the almost sculptural quality of this tiny window looking onto a timeless and familiar landscape. I asked Bly about the drawing:

The drawing itself took 110 hours to complete, and is based on a corn field near Hudson, Wisconsin, where my twin brother Rowan and my folks and I used to live. I loved the sweep and flow of the clouds in the photograph — and the complexity of detail I saw in the field itself — and I knew I had to turn it into a pencil drawing. I had a feeling it was going to be a challenge before I started, and it ended up being the most difficult small drawing I’ve done in my life! 

I built up the graphite with a mechanical pencil in three layers  – the first layer involved adding light values with the pencil and blurring/smearing with a Q-tip, the second layer I added more heavy darks and expanded the details in the first layer, and the third layer of graphite involved more touch-ups and the darkest darks. 


Besides being a technical test or challenge for myself, I also wanted the drawing to convey the beauty, majesty and grandeur of nature, and seeing the world around us with care, reverence and gratitude — and our humble place within it.

The meditative quality of Bly’s drawing comes through as a richness of tones and textures that to me, seems like a metaphor for the richness and abundance of the farm land. The choice to use pencil strikes me as nod to historic black and white photos of countryside left largely behind as population shifts to more urban settings over generations accompanied by the timeless grandeur of the sky arching overhead.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog. Learn more about Bly Pope at http://popebrothersart.org/ and https://www.instagram.com/blypope/.

Tanya Piatz’s ‘Le Conte’s Sparrow’

Le Conte’s Sparrow by Tanya Piatz, Dye-based alcohol ink, ink, gouache and pencil, 14 x 11

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded a fourth place ribbon: Tanya Piatz and her drawing Le Conte’s Sparrow.

There was a tremendous amount of wonderful wildlife and animal themed work entered, but Tanya’s image stood out to me for the clean and detailed technique of the drawing of the sparrow and its opposition to the tonal landscape behind it. My imagination was caught by the vibrant bird in its beautiful grasses precariously perched on the edge of a dry foreboding landscape. I asked Tanya about the work:

The LeConte’s Sparrow is part of a series that I am working  on “Species of Special Concern” using the Minnesota DNR’s Species in Greatest Conservation Need list.  The LeConte’s Sparrow is seeing a decline in population due to habitat loss from habitat fragmentation, housing developments, agriculture and climate change.  The sparrow’s preferred habitat is the tall grass prairie in the upper north west part of the state.  The other species in the drawing is the Western Fringe Orchid which is on the federal endangered list. They share the same habitat. 

The color in the piece is the species that is showing population decline with its preferred habitat.  In this piece you will also see the native Bluestem Grass.  I want people to see the bird and learn its name so they can start to pick them out in a crowd. But then notice when they don’t see them and ask why. 


The gray and pencil in the piece is the reason for species decline which is the changing landscape of Minnesota caused by climate change.  Prairie potholes are drying up and the sparrow nests are near these wetlands.  This year has been an extreme year for drought and heat but serves as an example of what our wildlife has to contend with.  However, the reason I draw it in grays and pencil is because we can still change the outcome of these species and “erase” the problem.

One simple thing we can do is plant more native plants in our own gardens and have smaller manicured lawns so we use less water. 

In a year when Minnesota is suffering a severe drought and the forest fire smoke in the air makes us keenly aware of climate conditions, Le Conpte’s Sparrow celebrates the beauty of one of the smallest sparrows and its natural habitat, and serves as a call to action.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog. Learn more about Tanya Piatz at tanyapiatzarts.com.

Suzann Beck’s ‘A Face of 2021’

A Face of 2021 by Suzann Beck, Pastel on Pastelcard, 24 x 21

This year I had the honor of serving as a juror for the drawing and pastels class at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Each year, the Exhibition proves an amazing showcase of amateur and professional artists representing the diversity and talent of Minnesota artists. This post is to highlight the artist who I awarded a third place ribbon: Suzann Beck and her pastel portrait, A Face of 2021.

Suzann’s portraiture skill is amazing, but she hit a chord on people’s collective heart strings with A Face of 2021. Such a timeless style to express the current year’s challenges. I was left wanting to know so much more about who the woman is and what kind of hopes she hides under her COVID mask. Below is what Suzann shared with me:

As you guessed, there is so much more story to Maggie, and it’s almost a shame to show her without that story. Maggie is a fellow artist and works with fiber and textiles (makwastudio.com). She’s Ojibwe and makes the mask style she’s wearing based on traditional Ojibwe ribbon dresses (I think she was even recognized by the Smithsonian for them). She has a deep belief in her ability to work hard to become a success with her art.

And this piece almost didn’t get entered in the Fair because my framer forgot about it in their shop and piled heavy things on top of its box. Apparently the box collapsed and smudged the center of the piece all the way down the center. It was a mental discipline for me to sit back down at my easel with it and repair it—part way into it, I almost gave up. But something in me said it was one of my best pieces and I should stick it out. So here we are, at the Fair looking at my piece with the ribbon awarded—I almost felt like a kid again with my 4H project winning a ribbon!

A Face of 2021 speaks to me of the best efforts we have all taken to protect ourselves and others, never really knowing whether it is enough, and retaining our hopes and dreams through the our strength and resiliency.

If you attend the Fair this year, stop by the Fine Arts building at the corner of Randall and Cosgrove, otherwise take a look at the online catalog. Learn more about Suzann at www.suzannbeck.com. Credit to the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association nemaa.org who commissioned the rights to use the digital image in their 2021 Art-A-Whirl event.

Evelyn Fairbanks

Evelyn at age nineteen, standing on the corner of Kent and Rondo
Photo credit: Days of Rondo, Evelyn Fairbanks

Yesterday I dropped off my map drawing of Rondo: Dale to Western at the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition, so I thought this post should be a shout out to a major source of inspiration for the drawing: Evelyn Fairbanks’ novel Days of Rondo, A Warm Remembrance of St. Paul’s Thriving Black Community in the 1930s and 1940s.

Evelyn Fairbanks (1928-2003) wrote about her life growing up in the decades before the Rondo neighborhood was destroyed to make way for Highway 94. Her story is both an intimate retelling of her experience and a snap shot of the thriving community. A must read for any Saint Paul history buff. It includes the photo featured above, that captures Evelyn at the age of 19 with a bright future ahead of her.

Rondo: Western to Dale, 2019

UPDATE: So honored that my drawing of Rondo took first place in the Drawing/Pastel category at the 2020 Minnesota State Fair Fine Art Exhibition! Rondo was a special neighborhood and am glad to help our community remember it.

For information about how to attend the exhibition in-person or virtually: https://www.mnstatefair.org/competitions/fine-arts/fine-arts-exhibition-event/